One can imagine two hardcore fans of the "Watchmen" graphic novel seeing the movie together, sitting side by side, barely breathing as they drink in every moment of Zach Snyder's adaptation of the Alan Moore/Dave Gibbons classic.
They exit the darkness of the theater, blinking against the candy-colored bright lights and clanging sounds of the multiplex, and they break their silence, their instant reviews nearly overlapping:
"That was f------ great!" "What? That was SUCH a piece of s---!"
As the fanboys argue, a moviegoer who is utterly unfamiliar with the graphic novel is just behind them. She turns to her boyfriend and says, "I don't know WHAT that was all about. I told you we should have seen the Shopaholic movie."
Expect the reactions from fans to mirror the critical take on "Watchmen." Some love it, some are calling it the first big flop of 2009----and some, like me, are torn. There are moments of brilliance, but at least as many scenes that dive perilously close to camp. For weeks now I've been hearing from fans who want to know what I thought of the movie. I hate to say I'm on the fence, because that seems like I'm waffling, but my honest reaction is that "Watchmen" is neither masterpiece nor disaster. It's a splashy mediocrity.
(It doesn't help that one of the main characters is played by one of the worst actresses in the world. More on that in a moment.)
Director Zach Snyder, who transported us to a whole new world with his bloody great adaptation of "300," is for the most part faithful to the graphic novel. (Maybe sometimes too faithful. What works on the page doesn't necessarily translate to the big screen.) The best sequence in the entire movie may be the extended opening credits, set (unfortunately and far too obviously) to Bob Dylan's "The Times They Are a Changin'." We see how the mask-fighting, crime-fighting citizens known as the Minutemen (who eventually become the Watchmen) were formed in 1940s. Their Gumpian adventures include encounters with John F. Kennedy and Andy Warhol, among many others. Wearing costumes that look to have been purchased at a Halloween shop, they nab the bad guys and pose for publicity shots. It's a great life, for the most part.
By 1985, however, it's all gone sour. This is a parallel world in which the United States won the Vietnam War, Nixon is apparently president for life and superheroes exist----but the masked avengers have been outlawed. The streets are ugly and dark and rain-splattered. The world is on the brink of nuclear war. Most of the Watchmen have retired, gone mad or have faded into irrelevance. (Like former athletes, they keep their uniforms on display at home, their news clippings framed on the wall.) The only ones known to the public are the nearly omniscient and super-powerful Dr. Manhattan (Billy Crudup), a glowing blue entity who is usually naked and has become increasingly estranged from his pre-accident human self; and Veidt, aka Ozymandias (Matthew Goode), who is the smartest and one of the richest men in the world. Veidt is a good guy who has a plan to save the world. Or is he and does he???
The rest of the Watchmen skulk in the shadows. Rorschach (Jackie Earle Haley in one of the film's best performances), who sounds like Clint Eastwood in "Gran Torino," narrates the story from behind his face-blotter mask. The Comedian (Jeffrey Dean Morgan), a cigar-chomping psychopath, is murdered by a mysterious figure early in the film but returns for several flashbacks that illustrate his horrific nature. Then there's the Nite Owl (Patrick Wilson), who pines for Silk Spectre (Malin Akerman), who is in love with Dr. Manhattan but finds it hard to connect with a giant blue glowing creature who has the ability to transport himself to Mars and to halt nuclear warheads, but isn't quite up to committing to a relationship. Men.
Rorshach is convinced the Comedian's murder was no random bit of violence but was only the first act in a plot to kill all the surviving Watchmen. Dr. Manhattan is publicly accused of giving cancer to anyone who gets close to him. Shunned and perplexed, he goes off to Mars, builds himself some crazy-looking flying machine, and pouts while pondering a photo of his human self with the woman he once loved. Meanwhile, Nite Owl and Silk Spectre fire up the old flying machine, don the superhero costumes, rescue citizens from a burning building and then have some hot sex.
We also get flashbacks involving the original Silk Spectre (Carla Gugino, who also shows up in the 1980s with some not-convincing old-age makeup), Rorshach's Dickensian childhood, the accident that turned a nice scientist into Dr. Manhattan (these scientists really need to be more careful in their labs), and more. About 90 minutes into it, with Dr. Manhattan arguing with Silk Spectre on Mars, a dwarf in prison threatening to kill Rorshach, and actors made up to look like Nixon and Kissinger debating whether we should go to war with Russia, you're wondering: where are we going, and when are we going to get there?
The violence in "Watchmen" isn't as wall-to-wall as it was in "300," but there a couple of particularly brutal scenes, one involving an attempted rape and the other showing a child-killer getting his just due. Snyder's visuals are rarely boring, but some of the CGI stuff is surprisingly cheesy----most notably the sequences on Mars.
Like the film itself, the casting is uneven. Haley's growling pit bull act works well, but Wilson is bland and slightly reminiscent of Adam West's Batman as the Nite Owl. And Crudup, a fine actor, is buried beneath the special effects and reduced to monotone line readings as Dr. Manhattan.
In a film I loved called "The Lookout," Matthew Goode gave one of the most underrated performances in recent years. Please rent it. Here, as Ozymandias, who is supposed to be so smart and so fast and so dangerous, Goode comes across like the backup singer in a boy band. He's all foppish fopphishness, and he seems about as lethal as a fashion designer bitching out a model backstage.
And then there's Malin Akerman as Silk Spectre. I'm sure Ms. Akerman is a nice young lady, but having seen her in "27 Dresses," "The Heartbreak Kid" and here, I'm not so sure acting is the career for her. Her delivery is so flat that it would compel an acting teacher at a community college to say, "Have you thought about becoming a nurse?" Whether she's learning a shocking secret, fighting with Dr. Manhattan or doing it with the Nite Owl, she sounds as if she's reciting lines she just memorized. It's painful to watch.
The graphic novel "Watchmen" is such a dark, densely layered and yes, cinematic work of art that it feels like you're immersed in a movie as you experience it. But the advantage of the book is you can pause and go back a few pages, or take a moment to consider the ramifications of the flashbacks (and the flashbacks within the flashbacks). You can take your time perusing the frames for small touches.
With a movie, it just washes over you. If you don't know these characters from the novel, you're going to have a hell of time keeping up with their multi-decade soap opera.
There's also the matter of timing. After "Iron Man" and "The Hulk" and of course "The Dark Knight," not to mention "Hancock" and even "Wanted," we have seen some good and even great movies about men and women who have been cursed with great gifts. They're conflicted to their very cores. Even as they try to save humanity, they're feeling less and less human, and they're unable to have anything resembling a normal life.
So it goes with "Watchmen." Nobody ever smiles, unless it's in flashbacks when they were all human. It's been a long time since the first "Spider-Man," when Peter Parker was at least initially giddy when he realized the things he could do.
Someone needs to start a Superhero Support Group. These people/gods on Earth need some serious cheering up.