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Watchmen (Warner Bros. Pictures, R)

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watchmen-header.jpgCrowds looking for the standard origin-story-and-then-let's-fight-a-bad-guy cliché will no doubt be shocked by many things in this movie: the graphic sex, the even more graphic violence, the moral ambiguity in the decidedly unheroic choices the "heroes" make.

 

Superhero movies have come to rule the landscape of the film industry in the nine years since X-Men proved the genre's blockbuster potential. But as each of Marvel and DC major masked avengers made their way onto the big screens, comic book fans couldn't help but clamor for the Holy Grail of superhero stories to make its way to the big screen: Watchmen, a total deconstruction of the genre crafted by British comic book laureate Alan Moore (V For Vendetta, League of Extraordinary Gentlemen) and artist Dave Gibbons in 1986. Unfortunately for those fans, it's been a long wait, because for as long as there has been a Watchmen comic, there's been a Watchmen film languishing in development hell, with even big names like Darren Aronofsky, Paul Greengrass, and, most prominently, Terry Gilliam attached to direct. Gilliam famously concluded a theatrical version of Watchmen's dense story and complex themes was "unmakeable," telling IGN "when you reduce it down to a 2-hour film—you're taking so much textured detail out that it kind of loses what it's about."

Given the project's troubled history, it comes as nothing short of a miracle that not only does the film not "lose what it's about" but that it manages to cram the vast majority of that "textured detail" into its two hour and 43 minute runtime. Little in director Zack Snyder's short resume (commercials, 2004's Dawn of the Dead remake, the 2006 classical Greek splatterfest 300) suggested he was capable of directing with such a fine touch, but his Watchmen succeeds for much the same reason 300 did: by hewing extremely close to the source material. This is less an adaptation of the original than a big, wet, sloppy kiss from its biggest fan, featuring huge swathes of dialogue lifted directly from Moore's original script and shots framed at angles identical to Gibbons' comic layouts. But even if his slavish recreation doesn't necessarily break new ground or expand on the work's themes, it succeeds in bringing Moore's unique vision to a wide audience with its personality still intact.

The world of Watchmen has an awful lot going on, but Snyder works wonders by summarizing reams of information during the opening credits, a skillfully-edited montage that breaks down exactly where this history diverged from the one we know. A quick summary: in the late 1930s, concerned citizens took a note from comic book superheroes and began dressing up in silly costumes and fighting crime. As the world lurched into World War II, seven of these costumed do-gooders formed the superhero fraternity the Minutemen, which gradually splintered apart as its members either died or retired, save the Comedian (Jeffrey Dean Morgan), a sharpshooter turned government spook.

Jackie Earle Haley as Rorschach.The Minutemen may not have lasted, but their influence bled into the ‘60s and a new generation of heroes. Dan Dreiberg (Patrick Wilson), inspired by the retired original Minuteman Nite Owl, takes on that hero's name and fights crime with a variety of technological gadgets. Laurie Juspeczyk (Malin Ackerman), the Silk Spectre, follows in the Minutemen's footsteps for hereditary reasons: her mom, Sally "Jupiter," was the original fashion model-turned-heroine by that name. Adrian Veidt (Matthew Goode), the so-called world's smartest man, took inspiration from Alexander the Great to become the hero Ozymandias. But the game-changer comes when scientist Jon Osterman (Billy Crudup) falls victim to an experiment gone awry and is transformed into Dr. Manhattan, a blue-skinned being with the ability to control matter and slip in and out of time, his godlike abilities shifting the tides of history in America's favor. The result: a twisted version of 1985, where superheroes are outlawed, Richard Nixon is entering his fifth term in the White House, and Soviet nuclear proliferation threatens to obliterate the planet (some things never change). It's a 1985 that's packed with period details and blink-and-you'll-miss-them cameos by actors playing various newspeople, celebrities, and captains of industry.

The shit hits the fan when the Comedian is found dead. Rorschach—a violent vigilante in a trenchcoat, fedora, and a mask of constantly shifting symmetrical patterns played by Jackie Earle Haley—suspects the killer is out to kill "masks." His former partners dismiss his accusations as paranoia until tragedies befall the other heroes, culminating with Dr. Manhattan being exiled to Mars. His absence throws off the global power balance and leaves the entire planet on the brink of total annihilation.

Eschewing big name actors, the casting for Watchmen is almost uniformly excellent. Wilson's paunchy, nervous Nite Owl, in particular, feels like he stepped right off the comic book page, and the scenes he shares with Ackerman bring some of the comic's finest scenes to life with breezy, naturalistic ease. Haley disappears into his role as the uncompromising Rorschach; the scenes where his character is mask-less are creepy and uncomfortable to watch, while his gritty narration anchors the early parts of the film, surviving the transition to film much better than Frank Miller's ham-fisted noir dialogue did in Sin City. Morgan oozes equal parts sleaze and charisma as the Comedian while Crudup defines cool detachment as Dr. Manhattan. The only one of the main cast that fails to impress is Goode, who never quite sells the role Ozymandias plays in the story's back half.

The overall casting is so good that the few ill-suited choices stick out like a sore thumb. No one is more out of their element than Carla Gugino as the original Silk Spectre. Though she does fine in the scenes that flash back to her glory days in the Minutemen, neither the artificially aging make-up job nor Gugino's performance is the least bit convincing when the 37-year-old actress is asked to play mother to the 30-year-old Ackerman. Robert Wisden doesn't fare much better, asked to where an over-glorified Halloween mask to stand in for President Nixon. Given the lengths the filmmakers went to make the world of Watchmen convincing, the artificiality of the bad make-up jobs comes off as equal parts jarring and silly.

Jeffrey Dean Morgan as the Comedian.Watchmen may be filled with heroes in colorful costumes, but it's anything but a superhero movie. Crowds looking for the standard origin-story-and-then-let's-fight-a-bad-guy cliché will no doubt be shocked by many things in this movie: the graphic sex, the even more graphic violence, the moral ambiguity in the decidedly unheroic choices the "heroes" make. It's a deconstructionist exercise, with the movie's visuals deconstructing the superhero archetype as effectively as its story. The Minutemen's costumes have the homemade bulkiness of George Reeves' 1950s Superman costume, while the modern heroes have the sleek, over-armored designs of modern superheroes, right down to the Bat-nipples on Ozymandias' chestplate.

Surprisingly, Snyder's over-the-top directorial style fits the material well. His favorite technique, where the action lurches from normal speed to slow motion to super-fast to normal speed again, is still in use but he uses it to far greater effect than he did in 300. These moments come at just the right moments, creating snapshots that linger like comic book panels in movie form. The action does get over the top at times, particularly when each punch lands with a loud crunch as its recipient goes flying. It'll leave you scratching your head and wondering how these supposedly non-powered people can hit so hard.

Even diehard fans should find very little to quibble with in the compromises taken to pare the movie down to something digestible in one sitting. Even Gibbons himself noted, "If they're going to make a movie, there will be some compromises. I think they are all compromises I can live with." And even though a few of the best lines of dialogue have been excised, a few of the big build-ups are rushed through for convenience, and the ending is re-written almost entirely, the end result is true enough to the vision of the original that it still works. It still feels like Watchmen, and while it's not as good a movie as the original was a good comic, it's a visceral, unique, and highly enjoyable film all the same. | Jason Green

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