In writer Alan Moore's and illustrator Dave Gibbons' graphic novel Watchmen, there's a sequence in which two of its costumed heroes, Silk Spectre II and Nite Owl II, break a third - the masked paranoid Rorschach - out of prison. And near the end of the intensely violent rescue, Rorschach delays their escape with a quick trip to the men's room.
We readers know why he's making this pit stop; one of Rorschach's nemeses has hidden himself in the latrine, and the crime-fighter, before taking flight, is about to bid the creep a properly vicious adieu. Rorschach's pals, however, are unaware of their colleague's plan, and while waiting for him to finish his restroom business, briefly reminisce on the frustration of fighting crime when Mother Nature calls. ("I was closing in on this dope dealer," says Nite Owl II, "and I needed to take a leak. By the time I'd got in and out of my costume, he'd vanished.") Eventually, the toilet flushes, Rorschach returns, and the trio makes its getaway; the novel's readers, meanwhile, are the only witnesses to the blood spilling out from behind the men's room door.
Director Zack Snyder's film version of Watchmen is, for the most part, an uncommonly faithful adaptation, and it duly replicates Moore's and Gibbons' jailbreak sequence almost panel for panel. Yet there's one subtle but crucial difference between the novel's restroom encounter and the movie's: Nite Owl II no longer shares his tale of the drug bust gone embarrassingly awry. In the grand scene of things, this isn't very important, and Snyder's handling of Rorchach's bloody revenge is (in this scene, at least) nearly as tactful as the novel's. For audiences, though, who like/love/worship Watchmen's literary inspiration - and those appear to be the audiences for whom the film is primarily directed - the moment might seem fairly representative of the movie as a whole. Barring a few changes and excisions, we're given a spot-on cinematic re-telling, but the work's flaky, eccentric bubbles of personality, those elements that lent the work its texture, are missing, and wind up being much missed.
While Moore (who refused a credit on the movie) has publicly called Watchmen "inherently unfilmable," Snyder and screenwriters David Hayter and Alex Tse have actually done a rather remarkable job of not sullying their source material, first published in serialized form in 1986 and 1987. In its imagined universe of the mid-1980s, Richard Nixon is serving his fifth term as president while a cadre of costumed vigilantes lies in hiding vis-à-vis a Congressional mandate; the plot - a full synopsis for which is too labyrinthine to get into - involves a mysterious evildoer intent on killing America's avengers, a call to arms for the "retired" heroes, and an impending nuclear war between the USA and the Soviets. It's a beauty of a graphic novel, a complex, grungy, and unexpectedly character-driven superhero adventure that I enjoyed a great deal, and I enjoyed Snyder's movie, too. But a day after seeing it, I'm hard-pressed to actually remember much about it - or rather, to remember much that wasn't already made memorable by Moore and Gibbons.
To be sure, the blame for this lies partly with me, since I finished reading the novel less than a week before seeing the film, and Watchmen's original dialogue and images were still vividly fresh. Snyder's adaptation, however, seems feverishly deferential to its source material in a wrongheaded way. The graphic novel is notoriously grim but not merely notoriously grim, yet in the Watchmen movie, grimness is about all there is; Snyder solemnizes the film's fidelity through self-conscious tableaux and slow-motion effects and mournful wailing on the soundtrack, and the stylized seriousness sucks most of the playful fun out of the work. (Even with a 160-minute running length, there's no room left for a quick meditation on when and how spandex-clad avengers might relieve themselves.) Snyder's achievement is beautiful-looking and engaging, but there's too little variety on display - the dour presentation begins to feel repetitive and oppressive - and it vanishes from your brain far sooner than it should.
This is especially disappointing considering just how impressive so much of Watchmen actually is, even if the movie never really improves on its opening credits (which provide a witty and visually arresting montage of the four decades preceding its storyline). Director of photography Larry Fong delivers spectacular comic-book noir, and the visual effects are oftentimes richly evocative; the handling of the naked, blue energy source known as Dr. Manhattan, and the constantly shifting ink blots on Rorschach's mask, even improve on their graphic-novel equivalents.
The casting, too, is almost unilaterally inspired. There are earnest, committed portrayals by Malin Akerman, Jeffrey Dean Morgan, Carla Gugino, and a nicely (and unexpectedly) schlumpy Patrick Wilson; a first-rate, feral performance by Jackie Earle Haley; and an oddly sweet turn by Billy Crudup, who is only briefly seen in the flesh, and whose lightly serene vocals are divinely incongruous with Dr. Manhattan's imperious, otherworldly figure. (Among the performers, only Watchmen's Matthew Goode is a disappointment; his Ozymandias, "the smartest man alive," starts out as a blandly effete, European megalomaniac and morphs into a slightly more decadent, blandly effete, European megalomaniac.)
Yet for all of its technical marvels, acting pleasures, and scenes of bone-crunching violence - the only times, really, that I heard anyone at Friday's matinée react to the on-screen goings-on, as no one even laughed at the movie's intentional jokes - I watched the movie with dutiful attention but barely a whiff of excitement, and even the song selections, I thought, were humdrum, and almost parodistically obvious. (I was fine with Dylan's "The Times They Are A-Changin'" over that introductory the-times-they-are-a-changin' montage, but then there was Simon & Garfunkel's "The Sounds of Silence" during a funeral, and Wagner's "Ride of the Valkyries" during a Vietnam sequence, and Tears for Fears' "Everybody Wants to Rule the World" during an Ozymandias monologue, and Mozart's "Requiem" during the finale, and ... .) Watchmen is still a good time, but its problem isn't that it feels too much (or not enough) like the novel - it's that this determinedly accurate and unsurprising work doesn't feel enough like a movie.