Watchmen

Watchmen has taken a long time to arrive on screen. Written in the 80s and immediately recognised as something exceptional (it was the only graphic novel to make it on to Time magazine’s list of the greatest books of the 20th Century) it has been in production at one studio or another for over twenty years. But now Warner Brothers have finally done the impossible and Watchmen is at a screen near you.

{{ quote Watchmen weighs in at a heavy two hours and forty-three minutes, and the time doesn’t pass easily }}

Set in an alternate 1985 in which the threat of nuclear war is real and a Pinocchio-nosed Richard Nixon is President, a group of vigilantes have set themselves up as costumed superheroes to fight the injustice they see in the world around them. The Justice League of America they are not. They have no intrinsic superpowers, nor are they following some kind of destiny. They’re just slightly deluded wannabes with excellent high-kicks. Nite Owl, for all that he’s spent millions on his gear, is distinctly paunchy and sad-sack, Rorschach is heavily psychotic and the Comedian is a grinning rapist. If you’re looking for glamour, you won’t find it here. Normal comic book definitions of right and wrong don’t apply, and it’s often difficult to know who to sympathise with.

In the main, the casting is visually perfect. Jackie Earle Haley is scene-stealing as the quietly insane Rorschach, and Patrick Wilson manages to be both boyish and gone-to-seed as Dan Dreiberg, the second Nite Owl. There’s been a lot of argument over the choice of the attenuated Matthew Goode for Adrian Veidt, a genius who, in the novel, sells bodybuilding manuals. While his accent is a law unto itself, freely flitting between English, American and faint tinges of German, his pale, oily manner is reminiscent of an unpleasant prefect from a pre-World War Two film. It works oddly well to remind the audience just how futile and childish the masked heroes really are. These aren’t people we’d ever want to have to save the world.

Zack Snyder was a genius pick for director. The exaggerated comic-book style, told through a series of gorgeous frame moments, is in fashion since the success of Sin City, and increasingly graphic novel adaptations aim to look like their source material. Watchmen proves that Snyder really is a master of atmosphere – its gritty, disturbing, minute world is perfectly brought to life under his guidance. Apart from Laurie’s pipe, a victim of 21st Century sensibilities, fans of the book will have to look hard to find details missing. Even the Gunga Diner balloon floats past in the background of a scene, hinting at the Black Freighter plotline that didn’t make it into the cinema release.

It’s not hard to see why the producers might have made that decision. Watchmen weighs in at a heavy two hours and forty-three minutes, and the time doesn’t pass easily. With the exception of some changes to the ending, the film is slavishly faithful not only to the look of the novel but to the precise plot content of each individual panel that makes it up. While that’s delightful at first, it begins to wear thin after a while. Having read the book, there was an enormous sense of déjà-vu: I could predict almost every cut between scenes and the exact motions and dialogue of each character. Unlike many graphic novels, Watchmen bears up to a big-screen read-out, but something still seems off about such a close transference between mediums. The film was at its best when it took liberties within the spirit of the book. The opening credits sequence, in which the history of masked crime is shown in a series of slow-motion images, is far more successful than some of the film’s technically truer renderings, and the new ending manages to avoid the intrinsic foolishness of the book’s original tie up.

Just like the book, Watchmen is a film that is often difficult to look at. The effect of its violence is all the more pronounced because, unlike most comic book adaptations, there is nothing stylised about it. It’s genuinely upsetting – bullets rip through someone’s leg, glass is crushed into a hand, a dog’s head is split open. It fully earns its 18 certificate, not only for the violence but for a sex scene that has Snyder’s prints all over it. It’s a 300 rip-off down to the last moonlit money shot, and it’s one of the only parts of the film that really doesn’t work.

The only other exception to the perfectly pitched machine that is Watchmen is its soundtrack, which can only be described as truly odd. Laurie and Dreiberg meet to a rousing chorus of ’99 Red Balloons’ in the original German, and the ending credits cover of Desolation Row by My Chemical Romance is like being repeatedly punched in the face by Bob Dylan.

No doubt about it, Watchmen is about as perfect as any adaptation is ever going to get. It looks right, it sounds right and it ticks all the boxes available. And yet there’s a fundamental lack of heart at the centre of it. It’s a parrot of the book, and while that makes for a beautiful film it doesn’t necessarily make for a good one.

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