MovieMantz Review: 'Watchmen'

“Who Will Watch the Watchmen?”

“Watchmen”
Jeffrey Dean Morgan, Jackie Earle Haley, Patrick Wilson, Malin Akerman
Directed by Zack Snyder

If “The Dark Knight” and “Iron Man” taught us anything, it’s that comic book movies aren’t just for comic book fans anymore. Granted, they haven’t been for many years, ever since 1978’s “Superman.” After that, movies like “Batman,” “X-Men” and “Spider-Man” proved that as along as these big budgeted blockbusters had smart stories and engaging characters, moviegoers would have no problem taking these costumed heroes just as seriously as they took themselves.

Then again, no comic book ever took its subject matter quite so seriously as “Watchmen.” When it first appeared as a 12-issue mini-series from DC Comics back in 1986, it was a stark contrast to the more idealistic heroes that graced newsstands at the time. Dark, violent and intensely cerebral, “Watchmen” — written by Alan Moore and drawn by Dave Gibbons — brazenly deconstructed the “superhero” myth by depicting these costumed “masks” as delusional sociopaths who were cut from the very same cloth as the villains they pursued.

When the mini-series was later reissued as a graphic novel, it landed on Time Magazine’s list of “the 100 greatest English-language novels,” and, to this day, it remains the only graphic novel to win the prestigious Hugo Award. And like any great book, it required multiple readings to truly grasp the brilliance of its dense structure, the complexity of its characters and the scope of its epic story.

But what worked so brilliantly on the page doesn’t work nearly as well on the big screen — at least, not all of it. There’s no doubt that longtime fans will be thrilled to see their cherished graphic novel come to life with the best special effects that a $100 million budget can buy, but more mainstream moviegoers — even those who embraced “Iron Man” and “The Dark Knight” — will likely be bored to tears by an existential superhero story that’s 2 hours and 41 minutes long.

“Watchmen” takes place in 1985, but in an alternate reality where Richard Nixon is still the President, the Doomsday Clock ticks closer to nuclear Armageddon, and the U.S. government has outlawed costumed superheroes. That doesn’t stop the masked vigilante Rorschach (Jackie Earle Haley) from hitting the grimy streets of New York City to investigate the brutal murder of his corrupt former colleague, the Comedian (Jeffrey Dean Morgan).

But fearing that others “masks” are in danger, Rorschach seek help from the rest of his former comrades, which include the timid Night Owl (Patrick Wilson), the sexy Silk Spectre (Malin Akerman), the brilliant Ozymandias (Matthew Goode) and the powerful Dr. Manhattan (Billy Crudup). In their quest to reveal the truth, they uncover a horrific conspiracy that will mean death to millions of innocent people. Will they foil the plot in time? Or better yet, should they?

Despite its long running time, one can’t help but wonder if “Watchmen” would have been better served as a multi-part mini-series on HBO (like “From the Earth to the Moon” or “Band of Brothers”). That would have given director Zack Snyder — the visionary helmer behind 2007’s groundbreaking surprise hit “300” — and screenwriters David Hayter and Alex Tse more time to effectively mine the provocative issues and emotionally complex characters depicted in the book.

As it is, the movie just skims the surface. The basic story is there, but some of the subplots are missing, and the ending has been slightly altered (though it still works). The filmmakers obviously loved the book enough to stay as faithful to it as they possibly could, since the dialogue is often lifted right from the source. But the overall story feels too condensed to be effective, the R-rated violence seems gratuitous at times, and there’s hardly any action.

Eschewing A-list stars in favor of lesser-known actors has also yielded mixed results. On the strong end of the scale are Jeffrey Dean Morgan as the cynical Comedian and Jackie Earle Haley as the judgmental Rorschach. Just fine are Patrick Wilson as the disenchanted Night Owl and Billy Crudup as the emotionally distant Dr. Manhattan (the only hero with true super powers). But Malin Akerman is out of her league here as the Silk Spectre, while Matthew Goode is woefully miscast as the brilliant Ozymandias.

For years, it has often been said (usually by co-creator Alan Moore) that “Watchmen” was unfilmable. Given how long it took to get to the big screen — directors like Terry Gilliam, Darren Aronofsky and Paul Greengrass have come and gone — it looked like it was going to stay that way. So chalk it up to a minor miracle that Zack Snyder’s just-okay version exists at all. This one’s for diehard fans only. As for everyone else, you’re better off watching “Iron Man” or “The Dark Knight” again on DVD.

Fanboys:  SEE IT!
Everyone else:  SKIP IT!

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