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What is truly amazing about Watchmen, the highly anticipated film version of Alan Moore and Dave Gibbons' much-adored graphic novel, is how forcefully the movie negates the book's two most basic intentions. Instead of subverting comic-book superhero tropes and satirizing Cold War endgames, it blandly and reflexively endorses them.
No wonder Moore wanted his name off this thing; it renders his most interesting themes the vainness of heroism, the absoluteness of power corrupting, the historically possible doomsday only glibly, with cartoonish brutality. Ah, but perhaps, like the annihilation foreshadowed by the meeting of human nature and atomic understanding, such a fate was grimly inevitable.
It's too easy to accuse writers David Hayter and Alex Tse and director Zack Snyder of illiteracy. But it's too hard not to blame their anemia of imagination on media-reinforced malnutrition. There has been the notion, since Watchmen's first publication by DC Comics as a dozen issues beginning in 1986, that the movies just didn't have it in them to get this story right. Now Hayter and Tse and Snyder's film validates the notion.
Unfortunately, it doesn't support the idea that all we had to do was wait for technology to "catch up." Calling Watchmen "unfilmable" wasn't just about whether it was technically possible.
This is still very recognizably the odd, bleak, expansive, heady, campy, sometimes sleazy tale of costumed crusaders investigating the murder of one of their own against an alt-history backdrop of late-'80s U.S.-Soviet nuclear brinksmanship. And the casting, of Jackie Earle Haley, Billy Crudup, Patrick Wilson, Matthew Goode, Jeffrey Dean Morgan and Malin Akerman, among others, at least doesn't seem entirely wrong.
Crudup, appearing mostly in the computer-enhanced blue buff, tries to work with the inherent detachment of being a special effect. Haley, as a masked, hard-boiled noir pulp anti-hero, does his Dirty Harriest with lines like: "Beneath me, this awful city, it screams like an abattoir full of retarded children." (That's straight from the Watchmen book, of course, where it should have remained.) Akerman just lets herself look super-hot in latex. And so on. Everybody's game, but the director appears to have them all on lockdown.
Snyder makes such a point of re-creating panels from the book that he won't even let the camera move. But leering so intently within his borrowed compositions does them no favors.
There's no shortage of compelling story, but the movie is long mostly because so much of it is in slo-mo. And even its most dynamic moment, an inventive opening title sequence, soon bogs down in clich.
Snyder's right; control is important. It takes great willpower to protect movies from their own oppressive literalness. Ultimately, screenwriters' skills get lost in battles with structure and rhythm, and Snyder's skills seem less to do with cinema than taxidermy and ventriloquism.
For all its meticulous stylization, the aura given off by Watchmen is one of falsity. Practically everything in it movements, moods, effects, blood, science, satire, the World Trade Center, boobs, character motivations, our interest just feels fake.