DAVID BIANCULLI, host:
DC comics first published "Watchmen" - a grim, violent superhero comic book by Alan Moore and Dave Gibbons, in 12 issues, in 1986 and 1987. It's the story of a band of aging superheroes who come together to thwart nuclear war. And it was an immediate sensation whose influence has yet to wane. The new movie is among the year's most anticipated. It's directed by Zack Snyder, who also adapted the graphic novel "300" for the screen. Film critic David Edelstein has this review.
Mr. DAVID EDELSTEIN (Film Critic): "Watchmen" is the most faithful film adaptation of a comic book ever. And many of its fans will be thrilled by every frame. They'll say, wow, this is so much like the original. I think they'll be more thrilled by the fact of its fidelity than by the movie itself. On the other hand, non-fans might wonder what the hullabaloo is about.
Now, I'm a fan — of the comic, anyway, which is splashy and blood-drenched, and induces a kind of delirium: the reader's eyes race forward, circle back, and dart around the panels while the brain labors to synthesize the data. Writer Alan Moore and illustrator Dave Gibbons give us every kind of superhero crusader, from Nite Owl, the old-fashioned idealist in a cape; to the Comedian, a paramilitary sociopath; to Silk Spectre, a curvy femme.
They try to solve a murder mystery and forestall nuclear Armageddon, but the narrative is always jumping ahead and doubling back. There are several narrators, among them Rorschach, the unkempt right-wing nihilist in a stocking-cap mask; and Dr. Manhattan, an iridescent blue giant in a cosmic funk who flees Earth for Mars, where he stews and sifts through old memories. There are flashbacks and flashbacks-within-flashbacks. There are fat chunks of prose. There are back-stories that are literally that — they play out at the rear of the frame.
Moore and Gibbons used every tool they could invent to push the comics medium to its limit to make their storytelling leap from the page. So when I read that Zack Snyder, the director of the $125 million movie, had vowed to stay true to the original's spirit by moving the camera as little as possible on the premise that comics are laid out a frame at a time, I had a premonition of doom. Capturing the headlong spirit of "Watchmen" would call for a director to push the film medium to its limit, not cast off many of the medium's best tools.
"Watchmen" is dead on the screen, but I got to admit, it's some corpse: huge, loud and gaseously distended by its own dystopia. The novel's narrative jumble has been meticulously preserved. In the movie's overture, a dark figure heaves aging superhero the Comedian, played by Jeffrey Dean Morgan, out a skyscraper window, and members of the vigilante collective the Watchmen — which had disbanded — dust off their costumes and get back in touch.
One of the first flashbacks is of how they joined forces. The Comedian was a cynic, but billionaire Adrian Veidt, whose superhero persona is called Ozymandias and is played by Matthew Goode, thought they could make a difference.
(Soundbite of movie, "Watchmen")
Mr. MATTHEW GOODE (Actor): (as Adrian Veidt/Ozymandias) Watchmen. That's the real joke.
Mr. JEFFREY DEAN MORGAN (Actor): (as Edward Blake) Rorschach and I had made real headway on the gang problem by working together.
Mr. GOODE: (as Adrian Veidt/Ozymandias) We can do so much more. We can save this world - with the right leadership.
Mr. MORGAN: (as Edward Blake) That would be you, right, Ozy? You're the smartest man on the planet.
Mr. GOODE: (as Adrian Veidt/Ozymandias) It doesn't take a genius to see the world has problems.
Mr. MORGAN: (as Edward Blake) Yeah, but it takes a room full of morons to think they're small enough for you to handle. You know, mankind has been trying to kill each other off since the beginning of time. Now we finally have the power to finish the job. Ain't nothing going to matter once those nukes start flying. We'll all be dust.
Mr. EDELSTEIN: The prospect of annihilation looms large in "Watchmen." This is still the Cold War, the '80s, and Richard Nixon has somehow managed to be re-elected. He watches the Soviets amass on the Afghan border and orders his bombers armed. The comic book was conceived at the height of the '80s disarmament movement, after Reagan's election inspired waves of fresh doomsday scenarios, and its resolution — which the film reproduces — has dated badly. It was outlandish then; now on film it seems both insanely pessimistic and insanely naïve, an anti-climactic bummer.
Almost every character is weighed down by hopelessness, but some of the actors come through amid the special effects. Jackie Earle Haley gives Rorschach a great soulful rasp. And while Dr. Manhattan is a special effect laid over actor Billy Crudup's face, Crudup's melancholy registers; his scenes on Mars have a chill beauty. But numbness settles over the movie. Director Snyder's reverence isn't the kind that gives life. It's an embalmer's reverence. It preserves, but it drains out all the blood.
BIANCULLI: David Edelstein is film critic for New York magazine.
NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by a contractor for NPR, and accuracy and availability may vary. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Please be aware that the authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio.