Finally unleashed from a much-publicized rights dispute between Fox and Warner Bros., “Watchmen” is less a fully realized comicbook epic than a sturdy feat of dramatic compression. Fans of Alan Moore’s landmark graphic novel, concerning a ring of Gotham superheroes brought out of retirement by an impending nuclear threat, will thrill to every pulpy line of dialogue and bloody act of retribution retained in director Zack Snyder’s slavishly faithful adaptation. But auds unfamiliar with Moore’s brilliantly bleak, psychologically subversive fiction may get lost amid all the sinewy exposition and multiple flashbacks. After a victorious opening weekend, the pic’s B.O. future looks promising but less certain beyond its core fanbase.
Only illustrator Dave Gibbons is credited onscreen with authorship of the 12-part novel, first published in single issues by DC Comics from 1986-87. As with previous adaptations of his work (“From Hell,” “The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen” and “V for Vendetta”), Moore, no friend to Hollywood, has distanced himself from this much-anticipated take on his notoriously unfilmable magnum opus.
Set in an alternate 1985, with Richard Nixon still in office and nuclear war with the Soviet Union imminent, it’s a densely plotted, sociopolitically charged tale of costumed crime-fighters driven to existential despair by a world that seems both hard to save and hardly worth saving. Though it cries out for equally audacious cinematic treatment, the novel instead has been timidly and efficiently streamlined by David Hayter (“X-Men,” “X2: X-Men United”) and Alex Tse, who struggle to cram as many visual and narrative details as possible into the film’s 161 minutes.
Before it becomes a meditation on the nature and value of heroism in uncertain times, “Watchmen” is, first and foremost, a whodunit. The victim is Edward Blake (Jeffrey Dean Morgan), formerly a vigilante known as the Comedian, who’s attacked by a masked intruder in his upper-story New York apartment and hurled to his death in suspended slow-motion. The murder triggers a reunion of sorts for several of the Comedian’s associates, who, before Nixon outlawed “masks” — costumed superheroes — were collectively known as the Watchmen.
These include Dan Dreiberg (Patrick Wilson), a nebbishy gadget expert who longs for the days when he fought crime as the birdlike Nite Owl; his ex-partner, Rorschach (Jackie Earle Haley, face concealed by a mask bearing an inkblot pattern), a raspy-voiced sociopath with a knack for breaking tough guys’ fingers; smug golden boy Adrian Veidt (Matthew Goode), who has successfully licensed and merchandised his identity as Ozymandias, “the smartest man in the world”; and sexy Laurie Jupiter (Malin Akerman), who had a superhero’s legacy forced on her by her mother and predecessor, Sally (Carla Gugino).
And then there’s Laurie’s lover, Jon Osterman, better known as Dr. Manhattan. The product of a government accident that destroyed him yet also gifted him with regenerative superpowers, this blue-hued, godlike being has been deployed as a tactical weapon by the U.S. military. Inhabited with eloquent gravity and hyper-intelligent detachment (via motion-capture techniques) by Billy Crudup, and endowed with a ripped physique — and, true to the source material, an often visible set of cerulean genitalia — he’s easily the film’s most imposing creation.
Of the group, only Rorschach suspects a link between the Comedian’s death and the encroaching threat of global annihilation, and fears a conspiracy to eliminate the Watchmen entirely. Subsequent twists — an attempt on Veidt’s life, a media disaster that sends Dr. Manhattan into self-imposed exile on Mars, Rorschach’s framing for murder — only seem to justify the gathering paranoia.
These threads are played out in a tight chronological continuum with a series of flashbacks that delve into each hero’s origins and unique worldview. As in the novel, they provide some of the most gripping moments; Dr. Manhattan’s backstory, in particular, achieves a near-mystical awe thanks to the superb musical choices of Philip Glass’ “Pruit Igoe” and “Prophecies” (from “Koyaanisqatsi”).
From the clues and in-jokes embedded in Larry Fong’s widescreen compositions and Alex McDowell’s vaguely retro Gotham-noir production design to the meticulous narrative framework and whole chunks of dialogue lifted from the novel, there’s no question “Watchmen” reps some sort of ultimate fanboy’s delight. Whether it’s Dreiberg’s flying owl ship or the staggering glass palace Dr. Manhattan conjures up on Mars, the filmmakers have spared no expense in their mission to visualize every frame.
Yet the movie is ultimately undone by its own reverence; there’s simply no room for these characters and stories to breathe of their own accord, and even the most fastidiously replicated scenes can feel glib and truncated. As “Watchmen” lurches toward its apocalyptic (and slightly altered) finale, something happens that didn’t happen in the novel: Wavering between seriousness and camp, and absent the cerebral tone that gave weight to some of the book’s headier ideas, the film seems to yield to the very superhero cliches it purports to subvert.
While Snyder still exults in gratuitous splatter (sawed-off limbs, dangling human entrails, a very random display of adolescent vampirism), he demonstrates a less oppressive directorial hand than he did in “300,” avoiding that film’s ultra-processed digital look, and shooting almost entirely on carefully mounted sets (the pic was lensed in Vancouver). William Hoy’s editing is fluent and measured, even when it crosscuts rapidly in an attempt to echo the jumpiness of Gibbons’ comicbook panels.
While none of the actors leaves an indelible impression, Haley’s feral, ferrety Rorschach (narrating most of the film in gravelly voiceover) makes the most of his few unmasked appearances; Wilson is touching as a man emerging from physical and psychological impotence; and Goode is appropriately fey as the self-styled Veidt. Robert Wisden appears in a few scenes as Tricky Dick himself, complete with comically elongated nose, but doesn’t quite give Frank Langella a run for his money.
Slightly schizoid soundtrack is packed with hits from artists including Bob Dylan, Simon & Garfunkel, Leonard Cohen and Billie Holiday, some of which are used in too distractingly obvious or ironic a fashion; the most period-appropriate tune of the bunch may be Nena’s Cold War protest song, “99 Luftballons.”