The fun of graphic novels, or a crucial part of the fun, is that they’re like movies that have been frozen onto the page. They’re kinetic stories that you can almost see move. That fun, of course, is more or less eliminated the moment that you transform a graphic novel into a movie. In the mid-1980s, Alan Moore and Dave Gibbons’ Watchmen was a brain-jangingly dense ”visionary” dystopian nightmare, but part of what made it a generational touchstone is that it was the first graphic novel to do such a virtuoso job of treating its comic-book panels as fully fledged shots, with rapid-fire crosscutting and a rhythmic verve that remains thrillingly cinematic.
For years, fanboys of every age have demanded that the big-screen adaptation of Watchmen be an act of artistic fidelity on par with the restoration of the Sistine Chapel. In a literal sense, they may feel rewarded by Zack Snyder’s teemingly ambitious, jam-packed movie version. A tall tale of fallen superheroes, set against a Doomsday Clock countdown to impending nuclear war, Watchmen, as a movie, serves up all (or most) of the graphic novel’s themes, layers, images, backstories, obfuscations, and self-conscious tough-guy pulp-noir mystique. Leaping from the alleys of Manhattan to the pink wilderness of Mars, it also has a feverish and deranged intricacy (which, to be honest, is the nice way to put it), and its key figures are not heroes in any conventional way. A few of them even act like the violently alienated sociopaths they are. Feel free to nitpick what Snyder has left out of Watchmen. It’s hard not to be impressed by what he has wedged in.
Yet even Watchmen fanatics may be doomed to a disappointment that results from trying to stay this faithful to a comic book. The opening-credit sequence has a marvelous audacity, as it packs in the story of how the Minutemen — masked crime fighters of the 1940s — gave rise to their more nihilistic counterparts in the ’50s. (The sequence is punctuated with historical events like the JFK assassination and set to the thrillingly recontextualized sounds of Bob Dylan’s ”The Times They Are A-Changin’.”) But once the film proper begins, Snyder, who did such a terrific job of adapting the solemn Olympian war porn of 300, treats each image with the same stuffy hermetic reverence. He doesn’t move the camera or let the scenes breathe. He crams the film with bits and pieces, trapping his actors like bugs wriggling in the frame.
There are some angry bugs. We meet the Comedian (Jeffrey Dean Morgan), a laughing brute of a superhero, when he is murdered at home, in the first of many bone-breakingly vicious fight scenes. The film then picks up on Rorschach (Jackie Earle Haley), a seething outcast hidden behind a mask of Invisible Man bandages with roving inkblot features, as he seeks to uncover who’s bumping off his fellow crime fighters. Rorschach, speaking directly to the audience, sounds like Clint Eastwood reading the purpler sections of Travis Bickle’s diary, and when he’s unmasked, Haley, full of spitting fury and loathing, makes him a gripping hellion. He’s a far more vivid figure, in fact, than the Nite Owl (Patrick Wilson) or the sexy-wholesome Silk Spectre (Malin Akerman), who are like high school ingenues playing Clark Kent and Lois Lane. The most effective thing in the movie is Billy Crudup’s soft-voiced portrayal of Dr. Manhattan, the towering blue radiation mutant who’s a lonely ironic humanoid, like 2001’s HAL with nuked blood.
On the page, Watchmen was a paranoid, mind-tripping pastiche of everything from The Incredible Hulk to Naked Lunch. But when characters who are knowing throwbacks are literally brought to life on screen, they can seem more like half-hearted ripoffs. What gave the graphic novel its hint of metaphysical cachet is the way that it collapsed chronology. The ’40s blurred into the ’80s, the present spilled into a desolate abyss — and that telescoping of time became a metaphor for the inevitability of nuclear war. A no-future nihilism bled from the very grain of Moore and Gibbons’ pop vision of the 20th century. But that’s a real problem for the movie, since the Cold War nuclear fears of the ’80s never did come to pass. Watchmen isn’t boring, but as a fragmented sci-fi doomsday noir, it remains as detached from the viewer as it is from the zeitgeist. B-