In the mid-1980s, revered comic-book writer Alan Moore and artist Dave Gibbons collaborated on a graphic novel called Watchmen that became an instant phenomenon; selling in the millions, inspiring countless imitators and establishing the graphic novel as a legitimate literary form. Almost as soon as it was published, movie studios lined up with their chequebooks out, only to shuffle quietly away once they had actually read the thing. A vast, meta-textual post-modern story about a group of damaged people pretending to be superheroes, set in an alternative 1984 where Nixon is still president and nuclear war looms on the horizon, the book was deemed ‘unfilmable’ for the last twenty years. Until, that is, Zack Snyder proved he could handle this sort of material with his frame-by-frame adaptation of Frank Miller’s 300 and the long-awaited Watchmen movie was resurrected.

Following a beautifully photographed credit sequence that sets out the breathtaking visual scheme and establishes an alternate historical context, Watchmen opens with the brutal murder of The Comedian (Jeffrey Dean Morgan), a retired super hero. After a cursory police investigation, it falls on Rorschach (Jackie Earle Haley), a masked vigilante and our gravel-voiced narrator, to find out who killed his former colleague. Having reconnected with his now-outlawed crime-fighting group, Nite Owl (Patrick Wilson), Ozymandias (Matthew Goode), Silk Spectre (Malin Ackerman) and the only true superman, the atomically-mutated Dr Manhattan (Billy Crudup), Rorschach uncovers a vast conspiracy to kill off all the remaining superheroes in an effort to provoke a nuclear war.

That’s the heavily abridged version. Snyder’s take on the book runs two hours and forty minutes, following the complicated contours of the source novel but without the same graceful mechanism that builds to a multi-layered philosophical enquiry. Watchmen the movie is frequently visually dazzling but the story is choppily told and lags badly before the end. Perhaps the problem is that Snyder uses Gibbons’ original panels as a storyboard but cannot find a straight line through the narrative. Following a series of disastrous adaptations of his work, the nadir being the gruesome League of Extraordinary Gentlemen, Moore now refuses to take a screen credit and he had no involvement in the script. Gibbons is a supremely talented artist but Moore is a storytelling genius and Watchmen is probably his masterpiece.

Where Christopher Nolan’s staggeringly successful Dark Knight offered a simple binary relationship between order and chaos, good and evil, Watchmen presents a vast spectrum of moral positions and character perspectives. It asks why people want to be heroes in the first place, what drives ordinary men and women to fight crime and whether or not they are suited to the task of delivering justice. It explores their good and bad sides, their altered-egos, their private and public lives. We see their memories and dreams. Most of the third act takes places on Mars.

The novel is constructed like a Swiss watch, a recurring symbol, delicately establishing a cauldron of four or five disparate ways of seeing the world and explicitly asking the reader to figure it out for themselves. This isn’t really possible in cinema, which unfolds at a set rate, twenty four frames a second, and abhors eternally parallel narratives. You cannot flick back through the pages of a movie if you miss something or fail to make a connection. You have to get it the first time.

Snyder’s version grinds through the gears of the story but the director prefers slow-motion fight scenes to intellectual tussles. He stages the major incidents of the book with a fastidious eye for detail, guided by his own fanboy reverence and a team of special-effects imagineers, but his series of scenes, inventive and attractive, never come together in a dramatically satisfying way. If you haven’t read the book, I don’t see how you can follow the story as it is told here.

First and foremost a noir-influenced crime drama, Watchmen is also a fascinating alternative history of America (the home of the superhero), a meditation on the nature and value of heroism and a blood-soaked giallo horror. It is as close an adaptation of the original novel as it could possibly be, but it still misses something bigger lying just beneath the surface of its source, a sense of existential malaise and a fear of the future. Having made minor adjustments to the ending, in order to maintain some sense of realism, Snyder makes the bigger mistake of allowing his anti-heroes take on some of the characteristics of the supermen the original story is attempting to subvert. Regardless, Watchmen is - for fans at least - an essential film, brave and bold, beautiful but flawed.

No comments: