Superheroes have become a rather dull lot, in a personality sense. How much vengeance for murdered relatives or, in Iron Man's case, rearranged priorities, can one genre sustain? Absent a fresh face like Tony Stark's, or a magnificent villain like Heath Ledger's Joker, superhero movies are all sound and fury signifying box office.
Which is why Zack Snyder's Watchmen thrills, at least the first half of its epic running time. This is a movie unafraid of catering to a narrow audience that pawed through Alan Moore and Dave Gibbons' graphic novel as if it were a Dead Sea scroll.
Anyone coming along simply for a roller coaster ride is out of luck. Watchmen is the anti-superhero flick, as off-the-hook serious as the equally deconstructing Mystery Men was silly.
I know from flipping through the comics that Snyder's movie is reverent to its dense source, although softening the apocalyptic finale a bit. Theaters will be filled this weekend by much more slavish readers, who will call this a masterpiece or feel content that Snyder did the best anyone could with this material.
I'll defer to admitted Watchmen fan and colleague Eric Deggans about the deep political meanings of an alternate universe set in 1985, in which Richard Nixon is a five-term president and the Vietnam War was won in a week. Like most sci-fi, Watchmen is steeped in social and political allegory. Unlike most sci-fi, Moore's vision is exceedingly nihilistic.
Victory in Vietnam was achieved by two Watchmen — the nuclear mutant Dr. Manhattan (Billy Crudup in gloriously blue motion-capture animation) and the sociopathic Comedian (Jeffrey Dean Morgan), whose cold-blooded nature likely hastened passage of the Keene Act outlawing masked vigilantes.
Crimefighters cast out left the Watchmen dysfunctional. Dr. Manhattan lives a godlike existence as an Army weapon, unable to connect with humans, even his lover Silk Spectre II (Malin Akerman), who turns to Nite Owl II (Patrick Wilson) for companionship. He has gone soft since hanging up his cape, bored by inactivity and sexually impotent.
There's Rorschach (Jackie Earle Haley), a holdout against the Keene Act whose continued vigilantism gets personal when the Comedian is murdered. Least of all, there's Ozymandias (Matthew Goode), who never lives up to his billing as the world's smartest man, except for the fortune made by exploiting his past. Watchmen doesn't have a plot as much as origins lore and super-soap opera, dovetailing into a wan finale.
Wading through personal conflict is rewarded with brilliant set pieces that leap off the screen: opening credits superbly establishing an altered time and place; Rorschach's graphically violent prison stint; Dr. Manhattan's self-exile on Mars; and the Comedian's brutally superhuman murder. Nobody gets shortchanged in the action department.
Haley has the meatiest role, a seething, Taxi Driver-style avenger of morality whose mask shifts with his mood. Morgan's Comedian is the most charismatic Watchman — think of beefy, belligerent Robert Downey Jr. — although his amorality is tough to cheer. Other characters' more humane problems and performances are eclipsed by Rorschach and Comedian's twisted vigor and the impressive destruction around them.
When Watchmen becomes deluded about its social importance, it loses steam. There isn't enough room in one movie for all of Moore's backstories, making Armageddon personal. Yet it marches along, loud, bloody and proud, confident that viewers who matter can fill in gaps. More sound and fury, signifying what only fanboys and fangirls understand.