The 12 part comic book series Watchmen initially ran from 1986-1987 before being collected in trade paperback format to become one of the first books marketed as a graphic novel. Written by Alan Moore with art by Dave Gibbons, Watchmen is not only acclaimed by comic fans but it is also one of the rare comics to achieve mainstream recognition and become regarded as an important piece of 20th century literature. Its complex structure, strong symbolism, political satire and deconstruction of the role of superheros in contemporary mythology meant that it Watchmen took full advantage of the comic medium. Adapting such a text into another format was therefore going to be very tricky and fans were naturally anxious about what the results may be. Previous films based on Moore’s comics tended to gloss over his complex and challenging thematic concerns to merely focus on the action. The film version of V for Vendetta (James McTeigue, 2005) worked this well but From Hell (Albert Hughes and Allen Hughes, 2001) and The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen (Stephen Norrington, 2003) were very disappointing. While the film adaptation of Watchmen is not the masterpiece that some may have hoped for, the good news is that it is nevertheless an excellent film.
The terrific opening credits sequence of Watchmen establishes that its 1985 setting is an alternate universe where costumed, masked avengers have been a reality for several decades. Society is now aggressively rightwing, America won the Vietnam War, Richard Nixon is now in his third term as President and the USA is dangerously close to nuclear war with the USSR. Having previously been popular, public opinion has turned against the costumed crime fighters and Nixon has passed a bill outlawing them. The masked avengers who have not been murdered or committed to asylums have either retired, now work for the government, become entrepreneurs or are illegally working as vigilantes. When Edward Blake (a.k.a. The Comedian) is murdered Walter Kovacs (a.k.a. Rorschach) becomes convinced that costumes heroes are being killed off so makes contacts with his former companions to investigate. They are a diverse collection of people all with their own motivations for becoming costumed heroes including a lust for power, psychotic desire for vengeance, superiority complex or, in the case of Doctor Jonathan Osterman (a.k.a. Doctor Manhattan), having actual ‘superpowers’ as a result of a nuclear experiment gone wrong.
The multi-layered story of Watchmen was never going to be fully contained in a single film but this is an excellent adaptation and fans shouldn’t be too upset about what has been left out or changed. Even the tweaked ending retains the impact of the original. However, Watchmen does have the problem that some of its dialogue is lifted straight from the comic, which does not always work on screen. Jackie Earle Haley (Little Children) does a good job as Rorschach in the scenes where he is unmasked but otherwise the performances are merely adequate. Curiously the strongest actor in the cast, Billy Crudup, is given the almost emotionless and featureless role of Doctor Manhattan. The use of music in Watchmen is also frequently poor and some of the song choices are very questionable.
Director Zack Snyder is increasingly proving himself to be a gifted visual craftsman. His 2004 Dawn of the Dead remake was great and despite the massive flaws in 300, it at least accurately replicated the look of the comic it was adapted from. Likewise, the film version of Watchmen looks like it was storyboarded directly from the original comic. Visually Watchmen cannot be faulted for its faithfulness to the original comic and its cinematic spectacle. Although some of the nuances of the comic are toned down while the action is played up, Watchmen is still a satisfying cinematic experience. Despite its flaws Watchmen is a stunning film that contains far more substance and intrigue than most comic book screen adaptations. It may not have the same impact upon audiences that The Dark Knight did last year but it will keep the fans happy and create several new ones.
[7 October 2010 – I originally rated this film 4 stars but after viewing it a second time I’ve concluded that it’s closer to a 3½ star film. I’ve explained my reasoning in the comments.]