‘Watchmen’ reveres comic book origins

  • By Robert Horton Herald Movie Critic
  • Thursday, March 5, 2009 6:11pm
  • LifeGo-See-Do

You say most big Hollywood movies are all action, no character buildup? Check out “Watchmen,” which — despite frequent bursts of extreme ultraviolence — is almost all character buildup, and very little real action.

First published as a comic book in 1986-87, “Watchmen” quickly became not only a classic but a kind of definitive commentary on comic books themselves. As a touchstone work for a generation, “Watchmen” was long rumored as a movie project — even while its most devoted audience believed a film adaptation impossible.

Still, here’s the movie. At 163 minutes, Zack Snyder’s measured, bloody adaptation is a curious hybrid: It’s handsomely mounted, but somewhat inert; it’s nicely cast, but poorly acted; and although a lot of things happen, I found myself at the halfway point wondering when the movie was going to get on with it.

The idea is almost irresistible, and survives intact from the graphic novel. The world is the one we know, except it has superheroes in it. Or once had: The caped crusaders who protected America in the 1940s and ’50s are retired or dead, and the new generation has been outlawed by the government of Richard Nixon, currently serving his fifth term as president.

The U.S.-Soviet arms race has brought the world to the brink of mutually assured destruction. And now, someone is killing the former superheroes, as we learn in a dandy opening scene involving the Comedian (Jeffrey Dean Morgan, Seattle native and sometime star of “Grey’s Anatomy,” in the film’s strongest performance), a brutal masked avenger from the old school.

Time to rally the survivors: Rorschach (Jackie Earle Haley), Nite Owl II (Patrick Wilson) and Ozymandias (Matthew Goode) among them. The most powerful superhero, Doctor Manhattan (Billy Crudup), a blue-skinned nudist of near-godly powers, takes a break from his government work and his perpetual indifference to girlfriend Silk Spectre II (Malin Akerman).

The comic book, by writer Alan Moore and illustrator Dave Gibbons (Moore is uncredited on the film, by his choice), rolled out histories for these characters as it progressed, a structure that worked perfectly in a comic.

Movies have a different rhythm, which is one reason that “Watchmen,” while intriguing to watch, is glaringly episodic. This is not a sin; a lot of these episodes are entertaining: Rorschach’s idyll in jail, Nite Owl and Silk Spectre deciding to get back in the mask-wearing business, and Doctor Manhattan on the surface of Mars.

Cool though some of this is, it rarely feels like a movie, somehow — it’s faithful in the damaging way the “Harry Potter” movies are faithful to their source. Maybe this would’ve been good as a 10-hour made-for-HBO series.

Snyder, who did the silly “300,” is so earnest he tends to overstate things (his choice of pop songs, for instance — not “Sounds of Silence” again!). Much worse, Snyder has no viewpoint on difficult elements of the graphic novel. Issues such as vigilante justice and rape are included here, and although the movie pays lip service to their complex place in the story, it doesn’t know how to talk about them.

Technically, “Watchmen” successfully catches the look of the comic without being slavish. But like “300,” it’s a little too careful about its computer-enhanced wizardry.

If Snyder &Co. had spent more time on story and less time on the realism of Doctor Manhattan’s anatomical correctness, it might have been a really fine movie.

“Watchmen”

A long-awaited film of the graphic novel about outlawed superheroes returning to their jobs, as the world awaits a U.S.-Soviet nuclear war. The movie’s handsomely mounted, unevenly acted and so faithful to the rhythm of the original comic book that it doesn’t quite take on its own movie life, despite the enjoyable (if ultraviolent) moments. With Jeffrey Dean Morgan, Billy Crudup, Patrick Wilson.

Rated: R for violence, nudity, language.

Showing: Alderwood, Everett, Galaxy Monroe, Marysville, Mountlake, Stanwood, Cinerama, Neptune, Oak Tree, Pacific Place, Uptown, Woodinville, Cascade Mall, Oak Harbor

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