They say that you never get a second chance to make a first impression, and that goes for having one, too: I’m thus forever on the record as saying that I more or less enjoyed Zack Snyder’s Watchmen (now experiencing a precipitous box-office decline at a cinema near you). It’s not that hindsight has led me to hate the film: I still think that as a feat of big-budget engineering it’s fairly impressive, and that its vivid color palette and broadly variegated mise-en-scène elevate it, at least as a visual experience, above the studied gloom of The Dark Knight (which still looks, to my eyes, like a dull, reactionary non-event). But I am already second-guessing my statement that Watchmen “remains faithful to the spirit of Alan Moore and Dave Gibbons’s seminal, Reagan-baiting graphic novel.”
Yes, the film retains its source material’s setting (an alternate-universe version of the 1980s where Richard Nixon is still the President and the superheroes who helped him to forge his authoritarian grip have been legislated out of circulation) and its basic narrative thrust (the murder of one retired crime fighter leads his former colleagues towards the revelation of an apocalyptic conspiracy perpetrated by one of their own) has been more or less unmolested. The characters have been designed to look as exactly as they appeared on the page—best in show is the glowing blue lab-accident-victim/atomic-age demigod Dr. Manhattan (played, avec CGI enhancement, by Billy Crudup)—and so have most of the key images, including the numerous acts of savage, lethal violence.
And there’s the rub. It would be overstating the case to say that Moore and Gibbons were “interrogating” violence, but they sure as heck weren’t endorsing it. The relentless brutality of Watchmen’s world wasn’t meant to be persuasive. And in those instances where the tone seemed to be wavering, it was possible to adjust your interior voice accordingly (for instance, when I read Frank Miller, I imagine his ersatz tough-guy prose as read by Comic Book Guy from The Simpsons, which greatly improves the process). No such luck onscreen, though, where you’re at the mercy of the director’s sensibility—in this case Snyder’s kicky, rabble-stoking bloodlust. (If the Klingons eventually open a cinematheque, I suspect he’ll be the first candidate for a retrospective).
Click here to read the rest of Adam Nayman’s review of Watchmen.