04/13/2009 05:12 am ET | Updated May 25, 2011

Watchmen , Love and Misunderstanding

So Hollywood finally pulled the trigger on Watchmen, the landmark graphic novel, after twenty years in the making as a film. They got a lot of smart people to make the movie, but it doesn't seem like they thought about it the whole time we were waiting.

Watchmen lasts three hours partly for its liberal use of slow motion. Contrasted with the dominant action-movie style (Transformers or The Bourne Supremacy), which overwhelms with a violence of rapidity, Watchmen instead shows the result of each act, the picture of a broken bone or pool of blood: a violence of shock and distance. The action sequences hang on the screen like a slideshow.

In this respect, there is a great fidelity to the form, at least, of the graphic novel. At once dingy, gaudy and cinematic, Watchmen is far more successful at evoking the look and feel of its source material than most contemporary comic adaptations. Bryan Singer's X-Men films shoot every fight in close-up, playing out the battles on their players' faces like a TV soap; Ang Lee's Hulk with its proscenium of panels never lets the audience forget that the green Kong is comped into every shot. Iron Man and The Dark Knight succeed as action-movies by letting that genre supplant the comics' style. None of these undertook to render the symbolic power of individual pictures on the imagination in the way that Zack Snyder does here.

But Watchmen isn't important because it's the most beautiful or most violent book, it's important because it's smart, experimental, and very successful. The heroes that comprise the Watchmen (with the exception of Dr. Manhattan) don't have superpowers; they fight crime because their personal ethics incline them to it. So besides being gluttons for glory and punishment, each is an amateur philosopher. The Comedian's a nihilist and imperialist; Rorschach a moralist; Silk Spectre believes in love (naturally, she's the woman); Dr. Manhattan in science; Ozymandias in ideas. The story plays out a pre-Apocalyptic moment, humanizing the archetypes, pushing them to fight and to work together.

In telling that story, the movie breaks with its source. The adventures are so much more effective than the exposition, the characters are all but lost. The philosophical component of the filmed Watchmen mostly takes place in long soliloquies on Mars, and the characters back on earth are less as agents of their philosophy than agents of the continuity.

Jackie Earle Haley comes off best, since Rorschach's brand of justice most closely joins philosophy with violence, but Patrick Wilson's Nite Owl is so pathetic, it's hard to tell what drives him at all. We learn more about his goggles than his life. The style, which adapts the visual aspects of the comic so well, actually fights our involvement with the actors. (This was less important in 300.) Jeffrey Dean Morgan is caked in age makeup and costume design, but we never hear his Comedian deliver a joke. Billy Crudup is not actually in most of the film; he's just the voice-actor of a goofy-looking atomic avatar.

Although the movie delivers a tight if weirdly-paced narrative, the omissions of character amount to genuine flaws in the story. Silk Spectre, the only active female hero, goes perkily from Dr. Manhattan's bed to Nite Owl's within the space of fifteen screen minutes. We know little of the challenges she faces, as a hero/sex object and the heroes' sex object, and her reasons for adopting her mother's costume. Her kisses punctuate many important moments in the film, but leave the audience in a vacuum: is it even a problem for her that she's loving two men?

There has been a lot of press about audiences seeing the movie more than once, but that would really only reward aesthetes and those who found the basic plot incomprehensible the first time. Watchmen is complex but not rich: a spectacle of blue penises, slo-mo kickboxing and a really ugly giant clock on Mars. To a fault, it's consistently imagined--too simply to deliver on its ambitions.

In the end, Watchmen's superheroes are just symbols of other superheroes, and the whole enterprise has the effect of a world-destroying Commedia dell'Arte, whose nuclear MacGuffin becomes a metaphor for the entire film: an epic yet unserious misdirect. It's ironic that a director so ambitious with symbolic imagery--the nuts and bolts of all storytelling--doesn't appreciate that the heroes are constructs, and Watchmen's stories are the mechanism that deconstructs them (according to co-author Alan Moore, amongst others). This movie version just doesn't promote deep reading. Maybe they thought three hours was too little time to do the postmodern thing.