Clunky football metaphors are never out of season, so even though the NFL turned off its scoreboards earlier this winter, along comes Watchmen to inspire a gridiron grasp -- namely, that director Zack Snyder is the cinematic equivalent of the quarterback who's clearly no MVP but is just good enough to get his team to the Super Bowl.
In bringing (along with co-scripters David Hayter and Alex Tse) the sacred graphic novel by writer Alan Moore and illustrator Dave Gibbons to the big screen, Snyder makes almost all the right plays -- the movie is visually resplendent and remarkably faithful to the source material -- but too often fails to find the heart buried deep within the darkness. With the surprisingly adept Dawn of the Dead remake, the bloated fanboy fave 300 and now Watchmen, Snyder demonstrates that he knows his way around expensive movie equipment, but he hasn't shown much affinity for his fellow humans. It's no coincidence that the worst scene in Watchmen is the one in which superheroes Nite Owl (Patrick Wilson) and Silk Spectre (Malin Akerman) engage in hot and heavy sex. As staged, the sequence is completely risible; I've seen '80s teen sex comedies less awkward than Snyder's attempt at conveying intimacy through intercourse.
But we're getting ahead of ourselves. Worshipped by comic fans and tagged by TIME magazine as one of the 100 best novels of the past several decades, Watchmen debuted in 1986 as a 12-part series for DC Comics before being compressed into graphic novel form. Remarkable in its storytelling prowess -- both narratively and visually -- the comic has been lifted almost wholesale from the printed page, with many screen shots serving as mirror reflections of illustrated panels. The story begins in 1985 with the murder of Edward Blake (Jeffrey Dean Morgan), a fascistic superhero known as The Comedian. Blake could hardly ever be confused with the likes of Peter Parker or Bruce Wayne -- a favorite operative of President Richard Nixon (who, in this alternate universe, is in his fifth term as U.S. prez), he's just as likely to rape women and slaughter innocent civilians as take down supervillains (he was also behind the assassinations of John F. Kennedy and, to avert Watergate, Woodward and Bernstein).
The Comedian originally belonged to a 1940s superhero outfit known as the Minutemen. Decades later, he joined a new outfit called the Watchmen, but this group didn't exist for long since the government passed an act outlawing all superheroics. But now that The Comedian's been murdered, the remaining Watchmen must figure out if it was a random act of violence or if someone is specifically targeting "masks." The sensitive Nite Owl, having grown timid over time, and Silk Spectre, who had carried on the legacy of her crime-fighting mother, also called Silk Spectre (Carla Gugino), aren't sure; on the other hand, Rorschach (Jackie Earle Haley), a psychopath who nevertheless possesses a keen sense of morality, is convinced that a conspiracy's afoot. Ozymandias (Matthew Goode), known as the smartest man on Earth, has no opinion until an attempt is made on his life. As for the godlike Dr. Manhattan (Billy Crudup), the only member with real superpowers (there's very little he can't do), his detached demeanor dictates a wait-and-see approach.
Walking a fine tightrope between crafting a faithful adaptation that will please the purists and constructing a mainstream spectacle that will satisfy the masses, Hayter and Tse perform their assignment about as well as can be expected. The comic-within-a-comic (a pirate's tale) obviously had to go, and paring down the details of the Comedian-Silk Spectre-Silk Spectre II saga unfortunately accentuates some misogynistic subtext. But for the most part, the trims are judicious ones, and even the major tinkering in the final act ultimately leads to the same conclusion as in the page-bound predecessor.
Technically, the movie is a marvel, with its biggest feat being the creation of the blue-skinned Dr. Manhattan. And he's blue-balled, as well: Doubtless, the dangling CGI penis contributed to the film's R rating. Mostly, though, that letter grade from the MPAA reveals that the film reflects the hard-edged style of the graphic novel, which was rough'n'tumble from first panel to last. Yet there was also an emotional pull in the comic that's largely missing from this screen version. With its overlapping story lines of a world on the brink of annihilation, the deleterious effects of life as a superhero celebrity, and the vagarious manner in which time itself might operate, the graphic novel possessed no small measure of gravitas yet also found room in the margins for wit and warmth. The movie retains the seriousness but loses the sympathy. Nothing in the film comes close to matching the poignancy of the written line, "The air grows too warm, too quickly. I want very much for a beautiful woman to hand me a glass of very cold beer," uttered by the very human scientist Jon Osterman just moments before he's blasted into a new existence as the distant demigod Dr. Manhattan. Instead, Snyder prefers to spend time amplifying the material's already generous amount of bloodletting, which he films in that trendy but increasingly dated slo-mo style that's been a favorite of hipster directors in this new century.
Only one performance fully captures the gamut of expressions running throughout Moore's masterwork, and that's Haley's turn as Rorschach. Even though his face is usually hidden behind his mask -- a constantly shifting inkblot expression -- Haley expertly conveys his character's righteous rage at a world that he feels obligated to save, even if he doesn't care for its occupants. He's the black heart at the center of this ambitious effort, and he also provides most of the fleeting moments of humor. Still, nothing's as funny as the generous proboscis the makeup artists planted on the guy hired to play Richard Nixon -- I haven't seen a ski-slope nose of that magnitude since Mad magazine regularly drew Tricky Dick back in the 1970s. It provides the film with an additional chuckle, although, forced to choose, I'd exchange it in a heartbeat for a Frank Langella cameo.