When an ex-superhero is murdered, a vigilante named Rorshach begins an investigation into the murder, which begins to lead to a much more terrifying conclusion.
From the pseudo-Vargas girl on the wall in the Comedian's apartment to the stylized 40s tableau over the opening credits, Zack Snyder has accomplished what so many said was an impossible task. He has brought The Watchmen to the screen, and yes, it was worth the wait.
Unlike other comic book adaptations like Sin City and The Spirit, Snyder starts with what was on the page but moves it into the next dimension, allowing the iconic graphic novel to inspire but not to limit his vision.
The design of the film is pretty much flawless. The alternate timeline imagined by writer Alan Moore of a world in which superheros have been outlawed as a danger to common humanity is fully realized. Here is a world where Nixon is president into the 80s after term limits are repealed, where the Cold War never ended, and where America won the Vietnam war with the almost supernatural assistance of a creature called Dr. Manhattan.
Manhattan is the most obviously unusual of the characters on the poster with his blue skin and vacant, Little Orphan Annie eyes. His enormous powers are what keeps the balance of nuclear detente in a world where humanity otherwise seems out of control. The police are on strike, and chaos reigns in the streets.
Even knowing the book as I did, I was breathlessly hooked throughout, discovering the whole story over again.
I've never seen an adaptation of anything that was as faithful to the original source material. Snyder's innovations were not major, and sometimes a little distracting. The soundtrack was peppered with super-loaded music cues for example, and I was undecided about whether or not I liked the effect. It was strange, and disconcerting in possibly a good way, to hear so much music that we associate almost religiously with various Vietnam war films in a context where that war had a totally different outcome and meaning for America.
It's an ensemble cast in more truth than in many films. There are so many stories and so much complexity that Watchmen has been considered an impossible to make film. But the script and the actors handle it well, from the shabby, slightly flabby ex-hero Dan to the grinning, amoral Comedian -- who, also a little distractingly, bears a striking resemblance to Robert Downey Jr and appears in some Tropic Thunder-like poses during the Vietnam sections.
Malin Akerman, the only one of the actors without a significant resume to her credit, does well although not spectacularly as Laurie Jupiter, following her mother's footsteps as the crime-fighting Silk Spectre. A little more maturity and strength would have aided her arcs, which are the most central to the plot.
Others of the actors are gentler, or perhaps just quieter, than I might have pictured. A degree of more confident strength shown generally may have heightened the contrasts between idealism and competence and the growing feelings of helplessness each experience.
If there's a false note at all, it's in the violence in the Laurie/Dan relationship. While it's clear in both the film and the source that they bond over their need to be needed, Snyder makes this an addiction for the thrill-kill essentially on the level of the criminals society has deemed them to be.
The first time they are attacked and fight back it works; the second time when they suit up and rescue people in danger it works too.
But Moore walked a fine line with these two, and always made their desire for justice, and to help humanity, their driving force. Here, we see Laurie pummel a cop as indescriminently as she took on a con. It doesn't sit right, because then, really, where is the hope in humanity?
Akerman ultimately just seems too young for Laurie, too frail to be the lush and complex woman of Moore's imagining. She doesn't seem a lot different from her teenage self that joined a vigilante hero group mostly under pressure from her mother, probably because the woman she is in reality is closer in age to the teen than the grown-up.
At its heart, The Watchmen was always a story of man's obscenity to man, and Snyder doesn't shy away from letting the inhumanity take centre stage. There is a cringing amount of violence and brutality, and it all makes far too much sense. It leads inevitably to the conclusion arrived at by the characters themselves -- Man, left to his own devices, will not necessarily behave in a civilized manner.
The conclusion is as troubling as I found it in the original book, if slightly undermined by a comic-booky sense of "Big Climax" that's largely absent from the rest of the film. What it lacks in subtlety it makes up for in adherence to the book's visuals at least. I'd only worry that some of Moore's profound notions about the underlying potential of mankind is undone by a fight scene that has more to do with fighting than fighting for what's right.
This is the true adult superhero movie we've been waiting for, the one that Batman Begins nearly was, and that The Dark Knight pretended to be. There are big themes here, carried through with the sense that because we are only human, no amount of trying can possibly make sense of everything. All we can do is make our choices, and try our best.
And it's a gorgeous, if long, ride. Clocking in at 2.45 hours, with a promise of a director's cut that's even longer, this is not a film for someone unwilling to take a time-consuming trip to an alternate Earth.
But the visuals are stunning, and very true to the feel of Moore's graphic novel. The character arcs are all there, if slightly simplified for the sake of a film that doesn't require an intermission or bathroom breaks.
It does not disappoint, and for someone who's been waiting nearly 20 years since the first rumors of an adaptation started to fly, that's no small thing to say.
In all, The Watchmen is one of the most purely cinematic films I've seen in years, on the level of a 2001 for intellectual and emotional impact and sheer visual pleasure.