Depending on what day you ask me, the 1986 comic book miniseries Watchmen is either the greatest comic ever or the greatest single piece of literature of its era. This is not an opinion unique to me: Watchmen — a serious, multi-philosophical, subtextually layered, virtuosic artwork with considerable entertainment value — is widely considered the masterpiece of the comic-book form.
A big-budget movie adaptation of it, long in gestation, is now opening to much fanfare and apprehensive expectation. Could a high-profile mainstream-movie success validate fanboys everywhere? Conversely, could a failure doom the sequential-art medium to an eternity on the fringes of acceptable pop culture?
And the answer? Extrapolating from my own reaction, Watchmen will probably leave a lot of fans disappointed at how close and how often it comes to being all right without going all the way, angry about the new, movie-only inventions in the story, and a little worried that the non-initiated will get the wrong idea.
The plot in one inadequate sentence: Set in 1985, Watchmen examines what the world would be like if a godlike being existed and he was an American. Some other stuff happens too.
Watchmen is directed by Zack Snyder, the guy who ruined the comic adaptation 300 a couple years ago. Snyder frustrates in Watchmen in that for sustained drives he is able to produce borderline brilliant work, then follows it up with prolonged bouts of languorous filmmaking.
As for its fidelity, whole chapters of the book are reproduced lovingly, and then action-movie interludes boringly crash the gates. Snyder opts not to turn his film into a fetish frenzy of Watchmen micronalia; his predilection is for gore, instead, and there's plenty to go around. Snyder has an eye and a stomach for the physically brutal.
Since Watchmen casting has been a cottage industry for two decades, it bears saying: Jeffrey Dean Morgan is awesome as the Comedian. Jackie Earle Haley is perfect as Rorschach. Everyone else is serviceable, except Mathew Goode, who is execrable as Ozymandias. Win some, lose some.
To my fanboy and -girl friends I say, Watchmen the movie is just that: a movie. For better and worse. It's not going to convince anyone that comics can rise above the superhero shtick. But if it gets just one kid to pick up the book, it's probably worth it.
Opens Friday, March 6th