WATCHMEN

1. It’s bizarre how fans of a work of art, in any medium, become so aggressively territorial when it’s transferred to another medium. This is true of famous novels (Tom Wolfe fans are still furious about Bonfire Of The Vanities), music (Limp Bizkit’s “Behind Blue Eyes” is my personal favorite) and, yes, comic books. What’s strange, though, is no one finds it that appalling … unless it’s one of the comic books. If someone makes Brideshead Revisited into a movie that’s as slavishly devoted to the novel as possible, it’s a revered, “faithful” adaptation. If someone tries to keep the general feel of paranoia and quiet, layered storylines of a graphic novel, they’re somehow kowtowing to a geek fanbase. Watchmen director Zack Snyder has been criticized for veering too closely to Alan Moore’s original novel, but not, I think, because he hasn’t given the movie room to breathe, though you see that come up in some reviews. He’s being criticized because people think he was just bowing to the fanboys. I’m not so sure this is true. Watchmen is a serious piece of work, and Snyder clearly adores it as much, if not more than, the fanboys he’s accused of catering to. (When he does add something new, it’s out of genuine affection and respect to the source material.) In other words: There were some people Snyder was just never going to win over.

2. I say all this because, as a movie, Watchmen works. (I am hardly a fanboy; I’ve read the novel once, just a few months ago, and enjoyed it, but, I’m sad to admit: I’m just not a comics guy. Sorry.) The much-beloved opening sequence sets the tone — it has become convenient to praise the opening sequence but then blast the rest of the movie because it plays into this fallacy that somehow Snyder just straight filmed the novel and should have loosened up the narrative — and then gets out of the way. For a movie that’s supposedly all big explosions and nihilist dystopia, what comes across mostly from Watchmen is how sad and impotent everyone is as people. Night Owl sits idly by as his one reason for being is taken away from him. The Comedian is a monster, but a monster who realizes, too late, that his attempts to shape his monstrosity into something useful caused only pain. (Think of him as a Dexter who learns he was working for the bad guys all along.) Dr. Manhattan stands helplessly by as the world and humanity drift slowly away from him. Rorschach is the closest thing the movie has to an actual superhero, and he spends his time hiding from the world, desperate to kill out of an unceasing (and impossible) lust for revenge. These are complicated, confused, angry, flailing characters who, dressed a little different, would be just as home in a tale of buttoned-up Victorian class warfare than they are here. Snyder knows this — it’s why Watchmen is lightyears more respected than 300, and why directors from Paul Greengrass to Darren Aronofsky to Terry Gilliam have tried to bring it to the screen — and, in a way that’s more meticulous than overtly flashy, has done so. I wonder if this would have been a low-budget, angry indie from a director with more Capital-C Cinema cred, people would respect it more. I bet they would.

3. All that said, Snyder isn’t Darren Aronofsky or Paul Greengrass, and he’s made some real head-slappers of decisions. First off: Someone desperately needs to buy Snyder an iTunes gift card. His music decisions seem pulled straight from the Now THAT’S What I Call A Soundtrack! rack at Wal-Mart. Need an ’80s song? “99 Red Balloons!” Need a Vietnam song? “Flight of the Valkryies!” Need a song for a sex scene? Hilariously, Leonard Cohen’s “Hallelujah!” I’m honestly surprised we didn’t hear “Fortunate Son” when Nixon’s on screen and “In Your Eyes” when Night Owl tries to woo Silk Specter. Oh, yes: About Silk Specter. She was already the silliest character — I kind of hope Moore was saying something about men’s arrogant stupidity in thinking they alone can solve problems by making the sole female character profoundly boring — and, as played by Malin Ackerman (who seems to have the range of a two-by-four), she earns groans every time she shows up. (Her story is the one part of the movie, and the book, that feels like a conventional soap opera plotline. Neither Snyder nor Moore understand women all that well, nor do they seem to care to.) And Lord, that sex scene. If Snyder did a remake of 9 1/2 Weeks, it would involve robots, be shot in slow motion and scored by George Michael’s “Faith.” People are blaming Snyder for hewing too close to the book? Seems like every time he strayed from the script, he did something boofonish. His loyalty to Alan Moore is a relief!

4. There are two characters no one could screw up, and Snyder deserves credit for finding the perfect actors to play each of them. Billy Crudup has always been a cold, distant, dead-eyed actor, a step or two removed from whatever predicament he finds himself in. This usually doesn’t work for him — Almost Famous and Jesus’ Son are the only ones that come to mind — but it’s dead-on for Dr. Manhattan, who knows he should care about these humans he once shared qualities with … but just can’t bring himself to. Crudup has a helpless, empty sadness to him that the role absolutely needs. But the heart of the film, and the book, is Rorschach. That the film’s heart rests with a cold-blooded killer with serious misogyny issues and an obsession with a dog’s skull split in half with a hatchet tells you a lot about what we’re working with here, and Jackie Earle Haley was born to play this part. This man is truly, desperately damaged, and that the escape he finds from wearing a mask occasionally leads to the world being a safer place is a total coincidence. Yet we still care about this guy, and his final scene, when the stubborness and single-mindedness of his life reach their logical conclusion, is the most moving in the film. It’s a shame Haley has to wear a mask most of the time.

5. What this is all saying is that I believe Watchmen really does work as a film, by staying loyal to the book while still jettisoning the least cinematic elements. Snyder has flaws as a director — big, serious, massive, obvious flaws — but he’s working with a goldmine of material here, and it is to his credit that he does not screw it up. It’s not a filmed comic book; it’s an actual, real movie, put together with love and adoration, with a fan’s eye for not doing wrong by the characters, the story or the original vision. I don’t think I ever want to watch another movie directed by Zack Snyder, but this one? This one’s probably the best possible Watchmen movie, for diehard fans, for purists and for anyone who ever wondered, “Hey, those people behind the masks have to be seriously screwed up, right? Wouldn’t the world recognize that immediately?” They would be, and it did.

GRADE: B+