When I was a child, I really wasn't into comic books. My exposure to superheroes came from TV and the movies, and I was a Batman fan. I was Batman three years in a row for Halloween and could often be found with a blue towel tied around my neck, yelling "Ka-Pow!" and "Ker-runch!" as I beat up imaginary bad guys. I also watched "The Super Friends" and "The Amazing Spider-Man" animated shows on Saturday mornings. When I was in High School, Richard Donner directed an amazing film: Superman: The Movie, and I fell in love with a superhero all over again. In college, I met some serious comics fans, who introduced me to the finer points of the print versions of the characters I'd loved for so long. And then along came Alan Moore's and Dave Gibbons' amazing graphic novel Watchmen and I never looked at comic book superheroes in the same way. It's been more than 20 years since I read Watchmen and I debated whether or not to re-read the book in anticipation of the movie. I'm glad I didn't, because it may have influenced my opinion too much.
All that having been said, director Zach Snyder and his team have created one hell of a terrific movie. Set in an alternative 1985 where Nixon is still president and superheroes have been outlawed, Watchmen is really an anti-superhero film. Rorschach (Jackie Earle Haley) hides his face in mask of constantly changing inkblots; Night Owl II (Patrick Wilson) wears vision enhancing goggles and flies around in a owl-shaped ship; Ozymandias (Matthew Goode) is the "smartest man in the world;" Silk Spectre II (Malin Ackerman) is a sexy ass-kicker in a super-tight spandex get-up and The Comedian (Jeffrey Dean Morgan) is just a dick. The only member of the Watchmen who actually has super powers is Dr. Manhattan, a physicist who was accidentally exposed to an experiment in 1959 and became a whole new kind of quantum being. When Comedian is murdered, the team must track down his killer before they are next, all while Ozymandias and Dr. Manhattan are trying to avert a nuclear war between the U.S. and the U.S.S.R. The plot is really far more complicated than those few sentences can cover, but for those unfamiliar with the graphic novel, it's a good starting point.
Snyder (Dawn of the Dead; 300) employs his trademark stop/slow-mo/start style here most effectively. It's perfect for comic book adaptation and his eye for detail is amazing. Snyder faithfully re-creates Gibbons' panels to a tee (you can see some comparisons here) The screenplay by David Hayter and Alex Tse is fairly reverential to the source, making some minor (and one major) changes necessary when adapting material for the screen, but the changes serve the story well and remove a rather silly element from the original ending altogether (only the true fanboys will notice). There are plenty of real people represented (Richard Nixon, Lee Iacocca, David Bowie, Fidel Castro and Andy Warhol among them) and while the cold-war theme that was so relevant when the book was written is no longer an issue, the threat of global destruction at the hands of madmen is still on many folks' minds today.
Most of the performances are right on the money. The gorgeous Patrick Wilson (Angels in America; Little Children) brings just the right amount of uncertainty and angst to the role of Night Owl, while Morgan's Comedian is probably the least likable but most fully-developed character he's ever played. Billy Crudup (so amazing in Stage Beauty) is all but swallowed up in CGI, but still does a terrific job as Dr. Manhattan, a character who exists in multiple dimensions and times at once. Ackerman (27 Dresses) is rather stiff as Silk Spectre II, but I suspect she was cast for her physical attributes, more than her acting skills. The biggest surprise comes from Jackie Earle Haley as Rorschach. Probably best-remembered for the 1976 Little League comedy The Bad News Bears, Haley has made a comeback of late. Nominated for an Oscar in 2006 for his role as a child molester in Little Children, he practically steals the movie as the gravel-voiced Rorschach, a man so tortured by the murder of a child that he becomes a remorseless vigilante, killing bad guys at the drop of a hat. It was also nice to see Matt "Max Headroom" Frewer in a minor role as the aging super-villain, Moloch.
Violent, gory, sexy and set in a grimy New York City which no longer exists, Watchmen is most definitely not for children (or even many adults, for that matter), but it sets a new standard for film visuals and touches on the duality of of the superhero psyche in a way in which even Christopher Nolan's brilliant Batman movies didn't. Watchmen may not be the best superhero movie ever made, but it certainly ranks in the top five. Maybe now I'll go back and read the original again. Mr. Moore may hate Hollywood and all it stands for (he had his name removed from the film), but Watchmen just reminds me of just how much I love movies. **** (Four out of Four Stars)
P.S. - You most definitely do NOT have to read the graphic novel or be a comics fanboy (or even male, for that matter) to enjoy this film. My friend Kathy, who accompanied me and had no prior knowledge of the source material, loved it, too.