Watchmen just might be the most anticipated movie of all time. Fans have been salivating over - and lining up to skewer - the inevitable film adaptation ever since the comic-book series wrapped its year-long run in 1987. Can you blame them? When writer Alan Moore and illustrator Dave Gibbons published the first issue of Watchmen in September 1986, it looked like no other comic book before it. And there haven't been a whole lot of comics that look like it since.
Set in 1985 in an alternate United States, where costume-clad heroes used to be as common as the threat of nuclear war that hangs over the world, Watchmen tells the story of a group of banned and retired crimefighters who reluctantly reunite after one of their colleagues - the Comedian, whose blood-stained smiley-face button serves as the story's iconic linchpin - is killed.
By the time the 12-issue series - and Zack Snyder's two-and-a-half-hour-plus movie - comes to end, a conspiracy has been uncovered, a hero dies and the planet is nearly demolished. Watchmen easily earns its title of the Best Comic Book of All Time. Everything you know about superheroes - from their sense of honor to their superpowers - is deconstructed in Moore's story (the temperamental writer, by the way, has distanced himself from the movie).
Now that the film is finally here, after more than two decades of delays, false starts and lawsuits, fans are in for a dizzying thrill. Snyder - whose other movies, 2004's Dawn of the Dead and 2006's 300, are stylized visual feasts - treats the work with all the reverence of a stammering geek. Last year, The Dark Knight forever changed the comic-book movie. Watchmen isn't that good, but Snyder's faithful adaptation captures the essence of Moore's existential masterpiece.
But there lies part of the movie's problem. Panels from the book are flawlessly replicated - to the point where extras walking down the street mirror frames taken directly from the comic. Snyder didn't need to storyboard his movie, since the graphic novel pretty much serves that purpose. And there's a reason Dawn of the Dead's zombies sprinted and 300 was stuffed with crimson-colored action sequences: Snyder can't stage static scenes. A huge chunk of Watchmen is character-driven, and Snyder simply doesn't connect with Moore's creations. The movie often comes off cold and stilted - and it's not very much fun at times.
Then again, the book took more than 20 years to get to the big screen because it just isn't a very filmable piece. The story is narrated by one of the outlawed heroes, Rorschach (Jackie Earle Haley, in the film's best performance), in a clipped, hard-bitten noir style that leaps off the page. Onscreen, however, it comes off as a heavy-handed device that keeps the plot moving (there are crisscrossing stories, backstories and a love story here) and fills the holes (Snyder trimmed the comic to keep the massive tale under three hours).
But Snyder knows action. The opening set piece - where the Comedian is tossed to his death from his high-rise apartment - brings one of the book's most memorable scenes to vivid life. Told with quick cuts, slow-motion 3D pans and tons of other camera and CGI tricks, it's a stunning visual delight. Likewise, Doctor Manhattan - the only Watchmen superhero with actual superpowers - looks like a towering and glowing blue god (Big Fish's Billy Crudup is buried somewhere beneath all the LED lights).
Just like he did in 300, Snyder turns Watchmen's biggest moments into intricately stylized and choreographed blood ballets. Even the title sequence - which manages to wrap up a huge chunk of the 20th century (including V-J Day, Kennedy's assassination and the Vietnam War) in the time it takes Bob Dylan's "The Times They Are A-Changin'" to play out - is dazzling. And just like in 300, actors don't matter much here (thankfully, there are no big stars to get in the way to the tale). The focus is on the storytelling.
Watchmen's heroes don't look much like Batman or Spider-Man. Some of them may sport capes and masks, but just as many of them are balding, paunchy and pissed off at the way things turned out for them (the Comedian and Doctor Manhattan were both used as government weapons during Vietnam). At one point, one retired hero asks another, "Why did we do it?" There's no definite answer to the question. But Snyder, in his reverential treatment of the material, finds a little bit of hope in all the hopelessness.