This week's big movie — Watchmen, a 12-part DC Comics series turned graphic novel, and now turned film — opens with a nervous but hopeful fan base preparing to turn out in droves.
Rumors have swirled about story changes for more than a year; then, just before the movie's scheduled release, a rights dispute threatened to land Watchmen in court rather than in theaters.
Now it's out, though, and it's ... well, it's quite a picture. The title sequence in Watchmen, arguably the film's smartest four minutes, welcomes us to an alternate 1985. Richard Nixon has begun his fifth term as president, and partly because he's outlawed costumed superheroes, the world is a messy place on the verge of nuclear war.
As the titles end, one thoroughly unpleasant guy who once wore the spandex — he called himself The Comedian, and he still sports a signature smiley-face button — gets a late-night knock at the door.
Well, not a knock really. His door gets kicked in, and a sort of aerial fisticuffs ballet ensues — a battle that sends him crashing around his high-rise apartment, through walls and cabinets and finally out the window in a fatal 40-story back-dive. Tuck position, I think. I'd give him about a 3 for execution, but it's flashy in that digitally unreal way you expect in superhero epics.
The Comedian's death prompts a reunion of five vigilant vigilantes who were his buds back when costumes were legal. There's a fellow named Rorschach (Jackie Earle Haley), whose mask has constantly moving blotches; Nite Owl II (Patrick Wilson), a nebbishy gadget nut; Ozymandias (Matthew Goode), allegedly the smartest guy in the world; Silk Spectre II (Malin Akerman), a raven-haired beauty who looks like a walking shampoo ad; and Dr. Manhattan (Billy Crudup), a onetime physicist who's been demolecularized in a lab accident, which both gave him superpowers and turned him blue.
As he lacks a spandex suit — or for the most part a suit of any sort — full-frontal shots of him also qualify as blue, come to think of it.
Collectively, Dr. Manhattan and his less "super" super-buddies — their powers otherwise seem to start and end with martial arts prowess — were once known as Watchmen. And in Alan Moore's graphic novel, they're intriguing as a sort of collective deconstruction of the very notion of superherodom.
The moviemakers, though, are too busy digitizing ice castles on Mars to bother with much in the way of meta. Or personalities. So the characters make do with the kind of complicated backstories that are just riveting in graphic novels.
Alas, backstories tend to clutter up a movie, especially when there are six of them to get through. So director Zack Snyder is still doling out origin flashbacks two hours and seven minutes into his little epic.
Mind you, the movie has almost 40 minutes to go at that point. Most of them will take place in what looks to be a cross between The Mummy's tomb and Superman's frozen Fortress of Solitude, where catastrophic scenarios will be debated at length. I'll leave you to discover how all that works out.
For the record, the director recycles some of the better effects from his gladiator epic 300 — that 40-story back dive, for instance. And when he's not splattering blood a good deal more liberally than he needs to, he's being so faithful to the work of comics artist Dave Gibbons that he might as well have used the graphic novel's illustrations as a storyboard.
This will no doubt seem a good thing to really rabid Watchmen fans, but it's going to leave everyone else wondering if the director knows much about movie pacing or movie narratives. Or movie audiences.