The "Watchmen" Movie and the Trouble With Loyalty

Somebody had better appreciate the guts it takes to admit this: the first time I saw "The Phantom Menace," I thought it was great. I remember heading straight to a bar after the movie with two pals, sifting through what we'd seen and grumbling that so many people were so oblivious to its towering awesomeness. Give them time, we said. Maybe it's hard to believe now, but this wasn't such a rare and ridiculous view in the days just after "The Phantom Menace" came out. Just as with the war in Iraq, a lot more people now applaud themselves for recognizing the disaster right away than actually did at the time. For those of us who grew up on "Star Wars," there was a similar ache to believe, almost trancelike in its power. You just blocked out the bits that challenged your reality. That's how I watched Jar Jar Binks, or that brat who played Anakin Skywalker, and said to myself, I am totally fine with this. For weeks after, a friend at NEWSWEEK taunted me with morsels of George Lucas's brutal dialogue ("Patience, my blue friend") and kept calling the kid Mannequin Skywalker. It was months before I could say aloud what most people instantly knew: the movie was a stinker. Oh, the things we do for love. (Article continued below...)

Fans of "Watchmen," Alan Moore and Dave Gibbons's seminal graphic novel, have waited longer for a movie version than I had to wait for a new "Star Wars," and this week their moment has finally come. Zack Snyder, the director of "300" and now the "Watchmen" movie, told Entertainment Weekly last year that he was in college when he first read the graphic novel, which was initially published in 12 comic-book installments between 1986 and 1987. The experience, he said, was like discovering "the music you feel is written just for you."

Comic-book fans are used to condescension from the literati, but no one who's actually read "Watchmen" would debate its artistic merits. The story is an alternate history of Cold War America, set in 1985, as Richard Nixon enters his third term as president, buoyed by victory in Vietnam and mass anxiety over imminent nuclear holocaust. It's a parable about power, a deconstruction of superhero mythology and a multigenerational murder mystery with more than a dozen principal characters. It alludes effortlessly to Bertolt Brecht, William S. Burroughs, "Dr. Strangelove," Greek mythology, ancient Egyptian history, Reaganism and Thatcherism. It's funny, gory, sexy, sleazy and heartbreaking. And for years it was considered unfilmable. Which is exactly how Moore, the novel's reclusive wordsmith, intended it.

No one who watches Snyder's 160-minute blockbuster could doubt that he is deeply, sincerely in love with the source material. From its opening moments, his movie is meticulous, even slavish, in its re-creation of Gibbons's imagery, from colors to costumes to composition. Entire sequences are preserved, frame by frame. "Watchmen" loyalists are already rejoicing. But is that a good thing? Speaking as an admirer, but not an apostle, of the graphic novel, I thought the "Watchmen" movie was confusing, maddeningly inconsistent and fighting a long, losing battle to establish an identity of its own. Writing for about "Revolutionary Road"—another faulty page-to-screen adaptation—author Willing Davidson argues that Sam Mendes's film is so faithful to the book that it "feels less directed than curated." Ditto for "Watchmen." Onscreen, the original tale's Soviet-era dread feels dated, and it shouldn't—not with religious terrorism offering such an able proxy for anticommunist paranoia. Snyder has appropriated Moore's doomsday themes without any sense of how to animate them. That's the trouble with loyalty. Too little, and you alienate your core fans. Too much, and you lose everyone—and everything—else.

Only a few filmmakers have struck a balance. "The Godfather" was a bestseller, but for the screen version, director Francis Ford Coppola bravely rearranged nearly all of its furniture, building a bit character's wedding into a massive set piece at the start of his film and, for the climax, intercutting a solemn baptism with a string of brutal Mafia hits. More recently, the "Harry Potter" movies didn't get it right until the third try, when Alfonso Cuarón turned Hogwarts into a magically grungy, bluish dungeon populated with disaffected adolescents in blue jeans. Comic-book and fantasy adaptations are now a dime a dozen, but they tend to work best—see Christopher Nolan and Batman—when they are spiritual, rather than literal, transfusions. The apotheosis, surely, is Peter Jackson's "Lord of the Rings" trilogy, which stands shoulder to shoulder with Tolkien's books. What separates Jackson and Snyder isn't the depth of their love for the material. It's that Jackson was merciless about it when he had to be.

If it seems churlish to weigh "Watchmen" against heavyweight champions like "The Lord of the Rings," blame Warner Brothers, which invited such lofty comparisons when it foolishly began calling Snyder a "visionary" in its marketing campaign. Snyder, 43, has made only two previous films, and one of them was a remake of "Dawn of the Dead." Calling him a visionary based on "300"—with its numbingly repetitive, CGI arterial sprays—and a zombie flick paints a big fat target on his forehead for people like me. And "Watchmen's" failure hinges precisely on the fault line between a wildly proficient director—which Snyder is—and a visionary. Which he's not. At least not yet.

The opening credit sequence is the one spot where "Watchmen" has a real grandeur, plus a witty, lurid tone that nails the graphic novel. Set to Bob Dylan's "The Times They Are A-Changin'," the credits set up the story's alternate history, with moving snapshots of iconic 20th-century moments, all turned slightly askew by the subtle intervention of superheroes. In one glimpse, a first-generation "mask" named Silhouette, a lanky femme fatale type, snatches away the sailor's girl from Alfred Eisenstaedt's famed Times Square V-J Day photograph and plants a hot kiss on her lips. Later we see another mask—the Comedian, whose murder sets the story in motion—behind the grassy knoll in Dallas, taking out JFK. It's a testimony to Snyder's potential that the best part of his "Watchmen"—those marvelous credits—is the only place where he was forced to fend for himself, with no blueprint to guide him. Or paralyze him.

Snyder's attention wanders when it comes to meat-and-potatoes storytelling, perhaps because he's never really had to tell one before. He draws performances that range from sublime (Jackie Earle Haley as a bitter antihero named Rorschach) to ridiculous (Malin Akerman, who has a sweet onscreen disposition but is nonetheless the Jar Jar Binks of "Watchmen"). Billy Crudup, a great actor, does the best he can with the comic's most celebrated character, Dr. Manhattan, a physicist who gets transformed by a lab accident into an enormous, walking, talking, glowing A-bomb and who teleports to Mars whenever he needs to go to his quiet place. His romance with Akerman's character is on the rocks, and he learns the hard way that being a giant blue demigod is great for world peace but it's hell on a relationship.

Snyder also makes gross errors in tone, giving his flimsy villain a rinky-dink costume with nipples on its chest plate. He has said in interviews that he did it on purpose to preserve Moore's sendup of superhero self-seriousness, but that kind of subtlety isn't Snyder's strong suit, which is obvious the first time we see Dr. Manhattan wander across the screen in the nude, with his giant blue junk flapping in the apocalyptic breeze—another misguided sop to the novel and its R-rated sensibility. Apparently, loyalty means never having to say, "For God's sake, put on a codpiece."