In April 1954, a Senate subcommittee held hearings on the link between comic books and juvenile delinquency, giving birth to the Comics Code Authority. For decades, the watchdog organization insured that daring superheroes remained semi-squeaky-clean, despite occasional story lines involving social taboos (drugs, campus unrest). Frank Miller’s skewed 1986 reimagining of Batman, The Dark Knight Returns, took a bold stab at examining moral relativism among costumed vigilantes, but his dystopic debunking was just the first step toward cracking the Code. The real Rosetta stone of superhero revisionism would hit shelves the next year.
This backstory is key to understanding why Alan Moore and Dave Gibbons’s Watchmen is so groundbreaking. A dead-serious funny book that permanently turned superhero mythology on its masked head, this 12-issue series deconstructed comics’ good-versus-evil ideology with rigorous psychological realism: Meet the postmodern caped crusader, one who’s sociopathic, sexually dysfunctional, a fascistic government stooge or some combo of all three. Since its publication in 1986 and ’87, Watchmen has become exhibit A for whiz-pow comics as significant literature (it’s included in Time’s list of 100 greatest novels). Meanwhile, film audiences have grown accustomed to seeing pathologically screwed-up berprotagonists strut and fret across screens. If there was ever a time to make a “proper” Watchmen film, it’s now, though Jeffrey Dean Morgan) once known as the Comedian tussles with a badass stranger; the rumble ends with the series’s iconically creepy image of a smiley face splattered with blood and the former hero being tossed out of his penthouse window. What follows is the movie’s single greatest accomplishment: a credits sequence audaciously set to Bob Dylan’s “The Times They Are a-Changin’?” that interweaves the film’s alternate universe into a familiar 20th-century landscape. Alfred Eisenstaedt’s legendary Times Square--smooch photo, President Kennedy’s assassination, Vietnam and Kent State get thrown into history’s mixtape with our masked avengers. Thanks to them, Richard Nixon has become a domestic dictator. These costumed freaks protect a curdled American way, even if that means ixnaying truth or justice in the process.
It’s a virtuoso introduction to Watchmen’s what-if 1985 world on the brink of nuclear armageddon, and along with Snyder’s regrettable fetish for slo-mo action sequences (did 300 not get that out of his system?), one of the few times the self-proclaimed “visionary” (!) director gets creative with the material. Fearful of any reaction from a fan base more rabidly protective than a mama lion, Snyder treats the comic as both script and storyboard. The book’s more cinematic flourishes, such as the pullback from that bloody button to the top of a 20-story building, are re-created with such fidelity that the effect is like being stuck in an echo chamber. As the movie unwinds the various narrative strands—a psycho called Rorschach (Haley) tries to figure out who’s killing “masks,” the all-powerful blue-skinned being Dr. Manhattan (Crudup) gets stuck in an existential funk, retired heroes Nite Owl (Wilson) and Silk Spectre (Akerman) go once more unto the breach—Moore’s dialogue is frequently spoken verbatim, with mixed results: Haley’s gravelly mumbling is a good fit for the seriously damaged vigilante, but given Akerman’s cringeworthy readings, one can assume she was hired because of her uncanny resemblance to a Jack Kirby drawing.
Such asphyxiating scrupulousness should keep the Watch-geeks happy, even if they—along with the rest of us—will balk at the odd tonal switches. But what the film rightfully retains, and often nails, is the book’s commitment to seriously digging deep into the psychic debris of these archetypes; not even last year’s The Dark Knight ventured this far into the abyss, which helps make the film’s myriad flaws far more forgivable. Moore and Gibbons brilliantly used the idiom and vocabulary of Silver Age superheroics to critique the medium itself, dragging those perpetually adolescent men-in-tights stories into an artistic adulthood. No matter how lofty its intelli-blockbuster ambitions, Snyder’s admirable take doesn’t quite do the same for superhero movies. It does, however, move the genre’s metaphorical clock hands several clicks closer to maturity.--David Fear