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Tuesday, March 10, 2009

Watching the Watchmen

Twilight of the superheroes

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Is it arrogant or ignorant to film a book deemed unfilmable by its author, who spits on your movie sight unseen, refuses to allow his name in the credits and famously refuses to accept money for your efforts? Director Zach Snyder (300) knew what he was getting into. Alan Moore, the comic book visionary behind League of Extraordinary Gentlemen and V for Vendetta, has never looked kindly on Hollywood adaptations. Rightly, he regards most directors as hacks. And more to the point: the medium of illustrating his stories to the scale of the page is inseparable from his message.

Although by all accounts Snyder is a fan of Watchmen, the 1980s serial by Moore and artist Dave Gibbons, he lacks a compelling cinematic vision for transliterating printed pages into motion pictures. Moore's ideas looked a lot cooler in pen and ink than in computer generated animation. Reading Watchmen, with its dense illusions and mosaic-like intricacy, is a richer experience than watching it. The movie looks careless by contrast.

At two hours 40 minutes, the fascinating story might also be a hard slog for anyone unfamiliar with the serial (eventually published as a graphic novel, a term Moore dislikes). In an alternative reality version of 1985, Nixon remains in the White House after winning the Vietnam War with the help of a pair of superheroes, the irradiated ubermensch Dr. Manhattan (Billy Crudup) and a smirking killer called the Comedian (Jeffrey Dean Morgan). The U.S. is verging on nuclear war with the U.S.S.R., a prospect Nixon relishes once he's calculated that the bombs would fall mainly on the east coast, incinerating the traditional American ruling elite he always despised. And then someone starts hunting down the superheroes, starting with the Comedian, who isn't laughing as he tumbles 40 stories to his death.

Watchmen is, among other things, a critique of superheroes. The men and women who roam its storyboards in tights and masks are violent, morally ambiguous and at least a little nuts. Some are sociopaths if not psychotics; some just get a kick out of kicking ass; some are deeply cynical; worst of all are the visionaries. Dr. Manhattan, a nuclear physicist turned superman after a laboratory accident, is losing his empathy with humankind. Ozymandias (Matthew Goode), a genius whose intelligence is off the scale, has fallen in love with his own assumptions. The rest, including sexy Silk Spectre II (Malin Akerman) and shy Nite Owl II (Patrick Wilson), practice martial arts with blinding fast precision.

The most intriguing and best-acted member of the league, Rorschach (Jackie Earle Haley), is a paranoid film noir detective who sounds like Clint Eastwood mouthing Mickey Spillane. Heaping scorn on liberals, his moral absolutism steels him against the grosser inhumanity of caped colleagues with grand schemes for human improvement.

Moore's dark, questioning mood of dread carries over into the grim tone of the movie, even if the formal rigor of his vision is lost in translation. Watchmen is a meditation on good and evil and the gray zone where those concepts often live, and a ripping adventure story that distrusts the conventional heroics of adventure stories. That much at least comes across in Snyder's adaptation, dampened as it is with seen-it-many-times-before visuals, terrible deployment of pop music on the soundtrack and the impossibility of fully bringing Moore's concept to life anywhere but in another comic book.

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