"Nothing ever changes," opines the leggy superheroine Silk Spectre II (Malin Akerman) toward the end of Watchmen, just after a huge chunk of New York City is reduced to a smoldering crater, the intentional fallout from one good superhero gone bad. She's right, of course. New York/Gotham/Metropolis is forever taking its lumps from the bastard offspring of Jerry Siegel and Joe Shuster.
Watchmen is the most eagerly anticipated superhero film of all time - by its culty legion of fans, at least - and so it pains me to say that, while scrupulously faithful in nearly every regard to writer Alan Moore and artist Dave Gibbons' landmark DC comics series (which ran from 1986 to 1987 before being collected into a single-volume graphic novel), the film itself is bizarrely cold and uninvolving.
It has ideas galore, all of which are, if anything, more relevant than they were when the comics were first published. As Moore wrote it, the events in Watchmen unfold in 1985, in an alternate Earth where superheroes are real (but out of favor). America has won the Vietnam War, Nixon is in his fourth term, and the U.S. and the Soviet Union are on the brink of mutually assured nuclear annihilation. When an aging, misogynistic ex-hero dubbed the Comedian (well played here by the burly Jeffrey Dean Morgan) is murdered by forces unknown, another ex-hero, the paranoid vigilante Rorschach (Jackie Earle Haley) goes overboard trying to figure out who killed his friend, and why.
Moore's intent with the comic series was to upend the heroic mythos by rendering his characters as less than super and more simply human. The original Watchmen was a revelation and remains unchallenged as the finest postmodern graphic novel ever made, dense with philosophizing, pitch-black gallows humor and a nihilistic streak a mile wide.
Zack Snyder's film is as meaty an adaptation as we're likely to see, but it never quite clicks, and I think that has everything to do with both the medium and the contemporary world we live in. Simply put, Watchmen the comic is, as it turns out, unfilmable, and so what we're left with are the comic panels made mobile, the dialogue spoken aloud, but none of the visceral punch that comes from discovering the comic firsthand.
Just as important is the fact that, while downright transgressive in their day, the themes and meta-ironic motivations of these anti-superheroes have been utterly upstaged by events in the real world. The alarms sounding the potential of a seriously dystopian future have become daily headlines, hourly blogs and moment-by-moment tweets.
The result is that Snyder's film is, at two hours and 40 minutes, a bit of a snooze. It's awash in arresting imagery, but it never manages to make the exquisite emotional connection the comic so handily does.
Watchmen is worth seeing, fan or no, for Haley's squirmy presence alone, and the other characters are also well served. But at the end of the day, Watchmen the movie hasn't nearly the impact of Watchmen the comic. The latter is apocalyptically challenging in its literary and graphic ambition, breadth and scope. The former, despite its desperate attempts to stay true to its source, is bland and ultimately unnecessary.