It’s weird. To me as a comic geek, the release of the Watchmen film felt more of cultural landmark than just two and a half hours of entertainment. Supposedly unfilmable, it had knocked around various film studios for over 20 years, its legendary status ensuring any news of it ever seeing the light of day as a movie would always cause gentle moistening of undercrackers.
Where other film-makers tried failed to make it, 300 director Zack Snyder succeeded – in theory. Clearly a fan of the comic, Snyder steered the project closer to the original material, guaranteeing that at least that fanboys wouldn’t hunt him down in disgust.
Set in an alternate America where the Vietnam war was won and Nixon remained in power, the country is in the grip of the Cold War, with the Russians threatening nuclear attack in response to America’s cocksure exploitation of the godlike Dr Manhattan (Billy Cudrup), a former scientist blessed with super-powers following an experiment that went wrong.
Manhattan was a former member of the Watchmen, a group of masked vigilantes forced into retirement by legislation passed by Nixon. When the team’s amoral mercenary the Comedian is murdered, Rorschach, the one member of the team who refuses to give up the mask, starts digging, convinced there’s a plot to wipe them all out.
Enlisting Nite Owl and Silk Spectre II, Rorschach and his peers rediscover their crime-fighting ways, only to discover they’ve taken on a foe greater than they could imagine.
If ever there was a logical time to release Watchmen, it’s now. Intended by creator Alan Moore to be a deconstruction of the superhero genre, it should be a punctuation mark after films like The Dark Knight, X-Men, Iron Man had established the conventions.
Bleak and dystopian in outlook, closer to Taxi Driver than Fantastic Four, the anti-heroes were meant as psychoanalytical interpretations of superhero clichés, but sadly Snyder’s effort feels weirdly hollow. He treats the material with far too much reverence, his direction seems to want events to resonate, when actually it creates a ponderous and bloated atmosphere.
The dialogue comes across as hackneyed, the acting skews into the hammy far too easily - but perhaps the action-to-drama ratio is the biggest issue. Even when fists start flying, the adrenaline rarely gets pumping – crucially, it’s a drama with action moments bolted on, rather than an action film with emotional depth.
Snyder has delivered a bold, stylish and intriguing film, but ultimately a deeply flawed one. Alan Moore’s comic was a vast sprawling, technically astonishing affair that explored the medium’s capabilities. By opting to faithfully recreate as much of it as he could, Snyder has lost touch with his responsibilities as a film-maker to entertain and entrance the viewer. Overlong and overblown, the greatest ever comic has become the greatest disappointment.
Starring: Billy Crudup, Jackie Earle Haley, Jeffrey Dean Morgan, Malin Akerman.
Directed by: Zack Snyder
Extras: featurette (single disc reviewed).