Reading Alan Moore and Dave Gibbons’s splashy, blood-drenched superhero graphic novel Watchmen is a delirious experience—the eye races forward, circles back, and darts around the panels while the brain labors to synthesize the data. Every breed of crusader is here, working in tandem or at cross-purposes, from the old-fashioned idealist in the cape and cowl to the paramilitary sociopath to the curvy femme in dominatrix garb. Now the narrator is Rorschach, a grotty right-wing nihilist in a stocking-cap mask; now it’s Dr. Manhattan, an iridescent blue giant in a cosmic funk who sits on Mars and sifts through lost time. While our heroes try to solve a murder mystery and forestall a nuclear Armageddon, there are flashbacks and flashbacks-within-flashbacks; chunks of prose memoir; a parallel comic-book saga (a character is reading a pirate comic); glimpses of apocalyptic news events on TV screens; and backstories that are literally that—they play out at the rear of the frame. When I read that Zack Snyder (300), the director of the movie, had vowed to stay true to the original’s spirit by moving the camera as little as possible (because, you see, comics are laid out a frame at a time), I had a Dr. Manhattan–size premonition of doom. Moore and Gibbons used every tool they could invent to push their medium to its limit—and their work is in the hands of people who’ve decided to cast off many of their own medium’s tools in a misguided attempt at fidelity. How could Watchmen not be dead on the screen?
It is, at least, an awe-inspiring corpse: huge, noisy, gaseously distended by its own dystopia. The martial-arts action scenes are full of CGI slooooow motion capped with hyperfast smash-and-splatter. Fanboys will be pleased that the characters appear to have leaped from the page, while the novel’s (dis)order of events has been meticulously preserved. In the overture, a wiry dark figure heaves aging superhero the Comedian (Jeffrey Dean Morgan) and his smiley-face button out a skyscraper window. The outlawed-vigilante collective the Watchmen dust off their costumes and gear and get back in touch—albeit tentatively, since they’re all weighed down by hopelessness, and since no one but the paranoiac Rorschach (Jackie Earle Haley) thinks there’s a conspiracy afoot. Dr. Manhattan (a special effect modeled on Billy Crudup) is the gloomiest: Estranged from humanity, convinced he’s carcinogenic, he does his Proust-on-Mars thing while his bodacious girlfriend Laurie, a.k.a. Silk Spectre II (Malin Akerman), moves in with bespectacled sweetie Dan, a.k.a. Nite Owl (Patrick Wilson). Without the big blue Doc to protect the U.S., the still-in-office Richard Nixon (Robert Wisden with a putty nose) watches the Soviets mass on the Afghan border and orders the bombers armed. Watchmen was conceived at the height of the eighties disarmament movement, after Reagan’s election inspired waves of fresh doomsday scenarios, and its resolution has dated badly: Outlandish even then, it now seems both insanely pessimistic and naïve. As you watch the surviving characters slink away after a long two-and-three-quarters hours, you might long for the relative giddiness of The Dark Knight.
There are actors amid the effects, all of them diligent. Under his excellent mask (the black splotches ever rearranging themselves), Haley would win a hammy-rasp contest against Christian Bale, and as the preening, demented billionaire Veidt, a.k.a. Ozymandias, Matthew Goode speaks with a lack of inflection that’s very amusing. Crudup (or some dimension of him) underplays soulfully. Wilson cleans his oversize glasses with Clark Kentish earnestness. Bodacious Akerman is va-va-voooom in vinyl, although she sounds like she was dubbed by Natalie Portman’s Princess Amidala (a lust-killer). Elements come to fleeting life, but numbness overtakes all. Alan Moore refused (in advance) to put his name on the movie, which must have hurt Snyder and company terribly; they’ve made the most reverent adaptation of a graphic novel ever. But this kind of reverence kills what it seeks to preserve. The movie is embalmed.