It’s not easy being a comic book hero these days. The poor boys have taken their lumps in “Hancock,” “The Dark Knight” and even “Iron Man.” Self-doubt, angst and inadequacies plague them. And now comes “Watchmen.” Its costumed superheroes, operating in an alternative 1985, are seriously screwed up — and so is their movie. If anyone were able to make a nine-figure movie, something like “Watchmen” would have been the opening-night film at the Sundance Film Festival.
As stimulating as it was to see the superhero movie enter the realm of crime fiction in “The Dark Knight,” “Watchmen” enters into a realm that is both nihilistic and campy. The two make odd companions. The film, directed by Zack Snyder (“300”), will test the limits of superhero movie fans. If you’re not already invested in these characters because of the original graphic novel by Alan Moore and Dave Gibbons, nothing this movie does is likely to change that predicament.
That’s bad news for Warner Bros. and Paramount, which hold domestic and international rights, respectively. Opening weekends everywhere will reflect the huge anticipation of this much-touted, news-making movie. After that, the boxoffice slide could be drastic.
Snyder and writers David Hayter and Alex Tse never find a reason for those unfamiliar with the graphic novel to care about any of this nonsense. And it is nonsense. When one superhero has to take a Zen break, he does so on Mars. Of course he does.
The film opens with a brutal killing, then moves on to a credit-roll newsreel of sorts that takes us though the Cold War years, landing us in 1985 when Nixon is in his third term, tipping us that we’re in an alternate 1985 America, where our superheroes have taken care of Woodward and Bernstein and other forces have evidently taken care of the U.S. Constitution.
The opening murder happens to a character called the Comedian (Jeffrey Dean Morgan), who was once a member of a now-banished team of superheroes called the Watchmen. Fellow ex-Watchmen member Rorschach (Jackie Earle Haley) — his mask one of perpetually shifting inkblots — takes exception to his old colleague’s death. He believes the entire society of ex-crime-fighters is being targeted even as the Doomsday Clock — which charts tensions between the U.S. and the Soviet Union that could lead to nuclear war — nears midnight.
His investigation and renewed contacts with former buddies fills us in on the complicated histories and problematic psychiatric makeups of these colleagues.
It’s all very complicated but not impenetrable. We pick up the relationships quickly enough, but soon realize these back stories owe more to soap operas than to superhero comics.
The thing is, these aren’t so much superheroes as ordinary human beings with, let us say, comic-book martial arts prowess. The one exception is Billy Crudup’s Jon Osterman, aka Dr. Manhattan, who in true comic book fashion was caught in a laboratory accident that turned him into a scientific freak — a naked, glowing giant, looking a little bit like the Oscar statuette only with actual genitals — who has amazing God-like powers.
These powers are being harnessed by an ex-Mask, Matthew Goode’s menacing though slightly effeminate industrialist Adrian Veidt.
When Dr. Manhattan’s frustrated girlfriend, yet another former Mask, Malin Akerman’s Laurie Jupiter, can’t get any satisfaction from Dr. M, she turns to the former Nite Owl II, Dan Dreiberg, who seems too much of a good guy to be an actual superhero, but he does miss those midnight prowls.
The point is that these superheroes, before Nixon banned them, were more vigilantes than real heroes, so the question the movie poses is, ah-hah, who is watching these Watchmen? They don’t seem too much different from the villains.
Which also means we don’t empathize with any of these creatures. And what’s with the silly Halloween getups? Did anyone ever buy those Hollywood Boulevard costumes?
The violence is not as bad as early rumors would have one believe. It’s still comic book stuff, only with lots of bloody effects and makeup. The real disappointment is that the film does not transport an audience to another world, as “300” did. Nor does the third-rate Chandler-esque narration by Rorschach help.
There is something a little lackadaisical here. The set pieces are surprisingly flat and the characters have little resonance. Fight scenes don’t hold a candle to Asian action. Even the digital effects are ho-hum. Armageddon never looked so cheesy.
The film seems to take pride in its darkness, but this is just another failed special effect. Cinematographer Larry Fong and production designer Alex McDowell blend real and digital sets with earthen tones and secondary colors that give a sense of the past. But the stories are too absurd and acting too uneven to convince anyone. The appearances of a waxworks Nixon, Kissinger and other 1980s personalities will only bring hoots from less charitable audiences.
Looks like we have the first real flop of 2009.