Images began to leak, Kerry Washington from LAKEVIEW TERRACE accidentally outed her costar Patrick Wilson as Nite Owl during a set visit. Men began drooling over images of Malin Akerman in her latex Silk Spectre II costume, much tighter than the one in the graphic novel. The ever-kooky writer Alan Moore refused to have anything to do with the film, giving it that much more intrigue. We watched in horror as the studios debated who had the rights before the film started, dreading a pushed back release date. The trailer, complete with one of my favorite Smashing Pumpkins song, The Beginning is the End is the Beginning (which is not in the film, by the way) clogged up the internet and the footage shown to journalists a few months back was glossy and impressive. The day of the screening, the audience was abuzz with the question, Is this going to work?
If you've never read WATCHMEN, I'm recommending you wait until after you've seen the film. Everyone I've spoken to who saw the film as WATCHMEN virgins loved it. And believe me, that was not at all what I was expecting to hear. For all of you first timers, here is a synopsis. Don't read the spoilers below. WATCHMEN is set in an alternate 1980's America. Remember the 80's? Big hair, bad music (no one send me hate mail for that please) and constant fear of nuclear war with the Soviet Union. Well, in the version of the hairspray decade, the tension is still there. But we have a special weapon. Dr. Manhattan (Billy Crudup). In 1959, scientist Jon Osterman accidentally enters an "Intrinsic Field Subtractor" that disintegrates his body. He is able to rebuild himself with his mind, one cell at a time, as a giant blue (and often naked and well-hung) superman who has incredible abilities and keeps the Soviets at bay. But he's becoming more and more alien. Nixon is running for a third term and tensions are growing despite Mr. Blue. The streets are getting violent as people wait for the end. The symbolic Doomsday Clock inches closer to midnight and things start to fall apart. But what about our superheroes?
Back in the 1940's a group of vigilantes donned some fancy costumes and fought crime from behind a mask. The next generation did the same...until the government passed the Keene Act, which outlaws costumed vigilantes. There are no real superheroes with special powers beyond Dr. Manhattan in this universe, just people who like to dress up. As the film begins, we get a montage of salient moments in the history of this universe, so like our own, to songs like The Times are A-Changin by Bob Dylan. We see the original group of heroes, called the Minute Men, Silk Spectre (Carla Gugino) as a covergirl superhero, Silhouette (a lesbian superhero who recreates the famous WWII is over postcard kiss with her nurse girlfriend), he first Nite Owl, and the Comedian (Jeffery Dean Morgan) committing a few very famous murders. We get a new perspective on the murder of John F. Kennedy, the Vietnam War and other historical moments, and get caught up on the Minute Men, their retirement, the new generation (Silk Spectre II, Nite Owl II, the extremely wealthy Ozymandias (Matthew Goode) and the infamously masked Rorschach (Jackie Earle Haley). When one of the retired and now illegal heros (The Comedian) is murdered, Rorschach sets out to uncover a plot to kill all his former colleagues and uncovers a conspiracy with catastrophic consequences for the future.
Snyder has made a pretty, shiny, colorful film. God, this makes me sad to say, but if you've seen the trailer though, you've seen most of the good parts already. Here's what worked. The montage at the beginning is fun to watch, especially if you are at all a history buff. Rorschach's backstory is heartbreaking and as brutal as it was in the graphic novel. Haley is phenomenal in the role and he manages the odd vocalizations the character has in graphic novel without sounding silly. Dr. Manhattan's backstory is also incredibly well done and the moment you realize Jon isn't getting out is tragic, even when you know it's coming. I enjoyed Crudup's monotone voice as Dr. Manhattan and I appreciate Snyder's admission that someone who had that much power would keep some part of himself non-threatening. Every detail of his body (and I do mean EVERY detail) is beautifully rendered in CG and it doesn't pull you out for a second. I loved the Comedian's sneer as he burns through enemies in Vietnam. I admire that they didn't pull punches in the attempted rape scene. I'm thrilled that they didn't try to make this a family film and kept it as raunchy and violent as the original work. I don't even mind that they changed the ending. I think it made everything more clear.
Now here's what didn't. Laurie and Dr. Manhattan's sex scene is funny (It's like licking a battery, she says as she sucks on his finger) and their fight about his lack of interest in humanity is convincing. But when she goes off to meet Dan Dreiberg to pout, their conversation is nothing more than tedious. Dan's story is completely glossed over as well. We get that he can't get it up unless he's in costume and I certainly admire the butt shot, no matter how much weight Wilson gained for the role, but their inevitable coupling should have had more desperation and sweetness to it. When they decide to take Archie (the Owlship) out for a joyride and illegally help people in their costumes, it seems like more of a drunken whim than a desperate need to feel important again. There is little to explain Laurie's backstory with her mother. There was virtually nothing about how she was forced into the life of a costumed vigilante and the subsequent tension between them. It takes away from her character to not have it there. And honestly, Akerman just can't handle the material. She looks hot in latex, I'll give her that. The big scenes are well done, but when we get into the actual story, the dialogue suffers, the tension falters and the film falls flat.
The graphic novel was all about the story, not the action, and Snyder is an action man. Action was certainly there and really overdone. The attack on the Comedian in the beginning went on far too long and the fight at the end did as well. It made the rest of the film suffer. And for all that, I didn't hate it. In fact, I'm pretty sure I liked it. I was just disappointed. I'm absolutely seeing it again, but disappointed nonetheless.