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Wednesday, March 11, 2009 10:03 pm

Watchmen : A dynamic visual tableau in search of a narrative

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Jeffrey Dean Morgan as Comedian

After all of the hoopla surrounding Zack Snyder’s adaptation of Alan Moore’s seminal graphic novel Watchmen, it’s rather ironic that the film peaks during it’s opening credits sequence. The rest fails to recreate the sense of wonder and emotion contained in these five minutes. Set to Bob Dylan’s “The Times they are a Changin,’ ” viewers are shown a series of living dioramas, dramatically rendered scenes that show us the rise and fall of the superheroes at the film’s core. We see them compromise their principles as the world around them goes to hell. It’s a bracing representation of failed heroism, and brilliantly encapsulates one of the book’s great themes. With this sequence, Snyder achieves a sense of urgency, wonder and fun that the ensuing two hours and 35 minutes never achieves again.

Hardly a traditional Superman tale, Watchmen not only subverts the superhero genre, but questions society’s need for heroes. It’s a grand, sweeping saga that takes place in an alternate history in which Richard Nixon is still president in the mid-1980s, thanks to his success in Vietnam, and the world stands on the brink of annihilation, as the Cold War between the U.S. and Russia has reached a fever pitch. This sprawling story, filled with pop culture allusions, lengthy flashbacks and extensive back stories for each character, was long thought to be unfilmable. This version may be proof of that.

Faithful to the comic to a fault, the film quickly establishes the story’s grim tone as we witness the brutal murder of the Comedian (Jeffery Dean Morgan), a former member of the superhero group, the Watchmen, and an ex government assassin. His teammate, Rorschach (Jackie Earle Haley), a vicious vigilante with a mask decorated with an ever-shifting inkblot that mirrors his mood, sets out to solve this crime and tries to recruit other ex-heroes to help. However, now that caped do-gooders have been outlawed, he finds the Silk Spectre (Malin Ackerman) and Nite Owl (Patrick Wilson) reluctant to help, as they’re both dealing with emotional hangups stemming from their superhero days. Meanwhile, Ozymandias (Matthew Goode), the brains of the group, has gone into hiding, having made billions from merchandising his own persona, while Dr. Manhattan (Billy Crudup), a walking atomic bomb and the only one with any true powers, has exiled himself on Mars, having grown weary of those on earth and their troubles.

As Rorschach unravels the mystery behind the Comedian’s death, the film tries to build a head of steam but proves only to be sporadically engaging. Snyder is crippled by his own insistence on duplicating the look and feel of the book and winds up sacrificing a sense of urgency in the bargain. While it would be unfair to say that the film plods along, it never really catches fire with the sense of joyous momentum found in Iron Man or the degree of urgency in The Dark Knight. The story’s episodic nature prevents this, and while the individual plot threads devoted to the origins of Dr. Manhattan and Rorschach are arresting, so much of the rest of the film’s plot seems to be simply filling time.

Without question, Snyder’s film is a success visually as it presents an incredibly dense tableau replete with allusions to a wide variety of pop culture icons and happenings while creating a world that fanboys will have great fun deconstructing. This is required big screen viewing and will elicit more than a few “wows” from the audience. I only wish the story itself would generate the same response.