Don't be a hero
For better or worse, director Zack Snyder has made a pitch-perfect Watchmen movie. The film could hardly be more faithful to the dark graphic novel that spawned it, down to minute details lifted almost panel-for-frame. Fanboys, rejoice.
The rest, be warned: This is way more of an angst-ridden superhero drama than a pre-summer popcorn flick. It has a labyrinth of a plot, runs more than two-and-a-half hours and lacks the crowd-pleasing flair of most big-screen spectacles.
An opening credit montage provides a rapid-fire recounting of the Watchmen's predecessors, a group of costumed crime-fighters called the Minutemen who clean up the streets of post-WWII New York and shift the balance in a few key moments in history.
Flash-forward to an alternate reality version of 1985 America where Nixon is still president, the Cold War is still at its coldest and the costumed heroes have been outlawed. When a retired superhero is thrown from his apartment window, masked vigilante Rorschach (an excellent Jackie Earle Haley) suspects someone might be knocking off former crime fighters.
He warns his old comrades, the bookish Nite Owl (Patrick Wilson), sexy Silk Spectre (Malin Akerman), brilliant Ozymandias (Matthew Goode) and powerful Dr. Manhattan (Billy Crudup under a lot of CGI). The mystery unravels before a backdrop of looming nuclear war with the Soviets.
The uninitiated may suffer from Snyder's slavish devotion to the comic. Though the story is whittled down a bit, it's nearly incomprehensible at times. And these moody superheroes may leave some cold. There is more existential dread at work than in any comic book movie to date, particularly in the melancholy God complex of Dr. Manhattan. Top that, Dark Knight.
The film certainly isn't lacking in audacity, as evidenced by the graphic recreation of the JFK assassination in the opening credits. There are splashes of the bone-splitting violence that Snyder so lovingly shot in 300 and some sexual politics in play as well. Rarely is the concept of a hero wrestling with his own impotence taken so literally.
Visually, Watchmen blends some top-notch effects with a gritty style that's self-aware without being overly showy. It lifts cues from the comic but incorporates that Matrix-y slow motion effect - the signature of 300 - to surprisingly good effect.
Fans of the comic will lap it up. Others may proceed with caution.