Heroes & villains

A brilliant, brutal, visceral and exhausting night out at the flicks

Mar 11, 2009 at 12:00 am

The landmark 1986 comic book series by writer Alan Moore and artist Dave Gibbons has become the alpha and omega of superhero fiction, a dense and hyperliterate exercise in genre deconstruction that many critics and fans said couldn't and shouldn't be made into a film. Well filmmaker Zach Snyder went ahead and did it anyway, translating the "unfilmable" novel into a stunning, brutal, often brilliant and ultimately exhausting night out at the movies. With its sex, gore, violence and exquisite moral shadows, Watchmen makes The Dark Knight look like an ice-cream social.

Clocking in at nearly three hours, Snyder's ambitious, brave, visually thrilling but airless take on a modern classic may be one of the most faithful literary adaptations of all time, which is something of a mixed blessing.

Comic books often excel at literary subtext, and Watchmen, set in an alternate 1985, where Nixon's still in power, the Cold War's ablaze and masked vigilantes are a daily fact of life, is stuffed with heady symbolism. Snyder manages to capture most of the book's iconic imagery, the blood-stained smiley face, the ink blots, the timepieces, and mushroom clouds, setting it all to a semi-ironic score of vintage rock 'n' roll.

In a dazzling opening montage backed by Dylan's "The Times They Are A-Changing," we catch up on 50 years of costumed crime-fighter influenced history, right in the midst of the Red Scare, the Kennedy assassination, Vietnam and the peace movement. However, by the '80s, an act of Congress has forced most of them into retirement, until the mysterious death of one of their own sparks fear of a "mask killer," and slowly there's an investigation into a much larger world-threatening conspiracy.

Unable to use established characters, Moore crafted archetypes from bits and pieces of many characters, creating a meta-awareness about other comic books, though laymen will get the idea.

The avatar of modern blandness, Patrick Wilson is perfectly cast as Dan Dreiberg, an impotent mush of a man who only comes alive when he's armored up and dashing about as Nite-Owl. He's like the Blue Beetle, or the Adam West Batman, a brainy rich guy fighting crime because it's the right thing to do, and for the simple fun of it. Malin Akerman's Laurie Jupiter/Silk Spectre is a second-generation super sexpot, living up to her mother's expectations, and to the latex fantasies of fanboys, as a tough girl "Used to going out at 3 a.m. and doing something stupid." For these two, crime fighting is a real turn-on, and after a vigorous brawl they have steamy sex in Dan's high-tech floating airship.

The others are real nut jobs. The savage right-wing avenger Rorschach (Jackie Earle Haley — remember him as the badass kid in Bad News Bears?) is a stand-in for Steve Ditko's objectivist detective the Question, but his merciless tactics and grim demeanor reflect the style of modern anti-heroes. He's a sweetheart next to the Comedian (Jeffrey Dean Morgan), a viscous amoral thug wrapped in the flag, who views most of humanity as a cruel joke. Matthew Goode's Ozymandias is the perfect human, the ultimate golden boy, an adventurer turned corporate titan. Billy Crudup's Dr. Manhattan is a blue-glowing, atomic-powered demigod, able to manipulate matter and energy, but no longer able to understand the regular people around him.

Haley and Morgan steal the show, the others are solid, but Goode's stiffness drags down the curve.

While many view Watchmen as the Rosetta Stone of superheroes, legitimizing the form. I think Moore meant it to be the last word on the subject, a eulogy not a celebration.

Understanding the conventions, or getting the allusions buried in nearly every frame helps, but Watchmen can be enjoyed for the visceral thrills, an audacious piece of art, masquerading as a mainstream entertainment. Geeks can rejoice; this is the Watchmen movie they've been waiting for so long; whether the uninitiated moviegoer will embrace its endless dark riddles is a greater mystery.

Corey Hall writes about film for Metro Times. Send comments to [email protected].