"I'm 65," a wrinkled, retired superhero says in Watchmen, as she gazes at an old photograph. "Every day, the future looks a little bit darker. But the past, even the grimy parts of it... well, it just keeps on getting brighter all the time."
Nostalgia is, often, a lie—an emotion that can fool us, manipulate us, and slowly grind us into nothing. But regardless, the past inevitably pulls at us—and often, the only way to tolerate it is to bend it, to change it, to make it better.
That's one of any number of things one can take away from Watchmen, Alan Moore and Dave Gibbons' 12-issue comic book series from 1986. Since the last thing the world needs is one more comic book geek raving about how fucking astounding Moore and Gibbons' Watchmen is, I'll keep it to a minimum: Is Watchmen the best comic ever made? Probably. Is it one of the best books, period? Yes. Was it madness to try and adapt it to film? Oh, for sure.
But it was also inevitable. So: 23 years after the first issue of Watchmen came out, here's the movie, directed by 300's Zack Snyder and written by David Hayter and Alex Tse. And you know what? Good for those guys. Long considered "unfilmable," Watchmen is fundamentally married to the comics medium—it's a postmodern comic that's about comics. And once you add in Moore's labyrinthine, epic plot, Gibbons' infinitely nuanced artwork, a generation-jumping timeline, and hefty doses of psychology, romance, and horror, it's clear why all previous attempts to bring this book to the screen have failed. The fact that Snyder's film even exists is no small feat; that it won't be immediately offensive to the book's fans might be something of a miracle.
Watchmen imagines New York City in an alternate 1985—one in which the United States won in Vietnam, in which Nixon is still president, and in which superheroes, once heralded as curiosities and saviors, have been outlawed. In this familiar, alien world, a retired superhero is murdered: Edward Blake, better known as the Comedian (Jeffrey Dean Morgan), splatters against a Manhattan sidewalk after being thrown out of his high-rise apartment's plate glass window.
Once an insane vigilante named Rorschach (Jackie Earle Haley) starts snooping around, he warns his now-retired cohorts that they, too, could be in danger. There's the world-weary Dan Dreiberg, AKA Nite Owl (Patrick Wilson); the lonely Laurie Jupiter, AKA Silk Spectre (Malin Akerman); billionaire CEO Adrian Veidt, AKA Ozymandias (Matthew Goode); and the one truly "superpowered" being on Earth, Dr. Manhattan (Billy Crudup), a glowing blue dude who's so far evolved that he can control matter on an atomic level, see his future, teleport, and doesn't even have to bother wearing pants.
In the most basic terms, Watchmen is a murder mystery: Rorschach investigates the Comedian's murder and gets his pals to help. In the book, this plot forms the barest skeleton, giving shape to a stunningly dense and layered world full of sad, strange, and beautiful characters. In this 160-minute-long film, though, it's all Snyder can do just to cram in the basics of the mystery—meaning just about everything that made Watchmen such a landmark comic is either left untold or hastily alluded to. Watchmen's is a vast world, and Snyder does his best to capture it, but he can't: There is simply too much. Feeling at once too brief and waaaaay too long, Snyder's film is a gorgeous, bizarre, and impressively detailed experience that's only half-complete.
Maybe that's why Snyder's film is neither emotionally affecting nor intellectually engaging: No matter how many stunning slow-mo images Snyder shows us (and he shows us a lot), they feel hollow. As Watchmen's characters traverse the wastes of the Antarctic and the airless deserts of Mars, one can't help but marvel at the ballsy audacity and technical wizardry required to create these images—but ultimately, this is a film made up of sights that are usually striking and occasionally chilling, but also fleeting and ephemeral.
Which isn't to say that for its lack of impact, the film isn't still impressive: Across the board, the performances are great, especially when it comes to Haley, Wilson, and Crudup. And on a surface level alone, Snyder's slick imagery—which often, beat by beat, mimics Gibbons' panels—is worth the price of admission. And the dude's soundtracking skills border on genius: The surreal, melancholy opening credits play over Bob Dylan's "The Times They Are A-Changin'," the Comedian's funeral is introduced with Simon and Garfunkel's "The Sounds of Silence," and there's a particularly inspired use of Jimi Hendrix's "All Along the Watchtower." (That said, when Leonard Cohen's soundtrack staple "Hallelujah" plays over a scene in which an impotent superhero finally gets it up, you'll likely feel an intense desire to flee the theater as soon as possible.)
It's those moments, and the performances, and the goofy-but-fun action sequences that make Snyder's Watchmen stand out from Moore and Gibbons': In the too-rare instances when Snyder treats his film as its own entity rather than a moving storyboard, he hints at the potential of a stronger film that might have been.
One senses that it's a too-deep reverence that guides Snyder's hand—or even nostalgia for the genre-changing, literature-shaking book that Watchmen was back in the '80s. Which is fine, because god knows if he'd strayed any further from Moore's holy writ, Snyder would be murdered by hordes of incensed fanboys. But in an ill-advised attempt to translate rather than adapt Watchmen, Snyder has boiled down the story to its cheesiest, most melodramatic moments: The images have been made glossy, the violence has been amped up, the storyline has been simplified. This is, technically, Watchmen, but only a shadow of it, one drawn with too much reverence and too much nostalgia. In what might be the film's one truly self-reflective moment, Dr. Manhattan narrates as we watch him being groomed by the government into a potent propaganda device. "They are shaping me," he says, "into something gaudy."