A superhero comic suspicious of both superheroes and comics, Alan Moore’s consensus best-of-genre graphic novel Watchmen rues the shrouded means and self-serving ends of the übermensch, and his thrall over a populace infantilized by spectacle. Ironic, then, that such a skeptical work should inspire such a slavish adaptation: Zack Snyder, the “visionary director” of the mouth-breathing Frank Miller transcription 300, delivers a painfully literal tribute devoid of any guiding ethos save an ain’t-it-cool obsession with its source. It’s like releasing a note-for-note cover of “Kill Yr Idols.”
Watchmen’s alternate 1985 reads like “The Second Coming,” all chaos and portended apocalyptic deliverance. President-for-life Nixon faces down Soviet missiles, while retired masked superheroes, nostalgic to varying degrees, unravel conspiracy in a dropped-dead New York. The encyclopedic Watchmen-verse interweaves our own culture and history (here, deployed with hindsight, pop and politics are equal fodder for chuckle-of-recognition cameos) with formidable backstory — this get-it-all-in Watchmen runs 161 minutes, larded with subplots, flashbacks and inside references. (Just imagine the DVD.) Further stroking the base, screenwriters David Hayer and Alex Tse play up Watchmen’s capital-I Importance by throwing topical parallels at the plot to see what sticks. Their one narrative condensation comes when, seizing on the link between atomic power and religious awe, blasé blue giant Dr. Manhattan (as in “project”; a glowing perfect specimen with Billy Crudup’s voice) is used for a Christ-sacrifice metaphor that garbles Moore’s metaphysical musings on indifferent gods and unique universes.
Many of which musings, it must be said, sound pretty dorm-roomy spoken aloud. This is, literally, comic-book dialogue: speech bubbles transplanted to the mouths of real people with no regard for how much campier they sound there. Adam West’s tongue must be rolling over in his cheek: in a Saigon bar, killing jokester turned black-operative Comedian (Jeffrey Dean Morgan) ponders how losing the Vietnam War, “might have driven us a little crazy, you know? As a country.” Compounding the stiltedness, Snyder is woeful with actors: during one of his blankly aloof monologues as entrepreneur-king Ozymandias, I swear I caught Matthew Goode’s eyes darting offscreen in abject panic. And, as in 300, sex is (porn-fed, unintentional) comedy. True, it’s supposed to be a fetish gag — the second-generation Nite Owl (Patrick Wilson) and Silk Spectre (Malin Akerman) can only get it up in cape and mask — but the joke’s still on Snyder (and his actors) when Akerman leans back and thrashes her black tresses around like she’s riding a mechanical bull.
Snyder’s more comfortable with comic-book violence, each bent-back bone and exposed sinew rendered in ultrahypersuperslo-mo, enraptured over every droplet of blood. To the extent that he deviates from Watchmen’s panels, it’s for choice embellishments like the wingnut vigilante Rorschach’s (Jackie Earle Haley) method of killing a child molester: several strokes to the head with a meat cleaver. During the very controlled run-up to Watchmen’s release, loyalists granted access to the film have trumpeted it as exhibit A in the case for Comic Books as Serious Art — which is tough to square with such bloodlusting adolescent notions of “uncompromising” content. (To say nothing of the rank misogyny of, just for instance, Snyder’s leering imagining of an attempted rape.)
True, Watchmen’s a cinematic comic, with copious cross-cutting and opening panels that read as a voice-over over a zoom-out — but that doesn’t mean it can simply be treated as a storyboard. Though, looking over those early returns, one wonders. Last winter, Richard Yates admirers were mostly embarrassed by the sloggy-faithful Revolutionary Road; it says something rather disheartening about the state of comic book culture that Watchmen fanboys seem more likely to be flattered.