One of my neighbours and friends from primary school was that child your mother made you hang out with because she was friends with his mother, who was worried that he didn't have any friends. I wanted to tell my mum that the boy seemed perfectly happy squirreled away in his room inventing secret languages and building radios from paper clips and bits of gauze. But that was one of those pick your battle things. Besides, he turned out to be alright: he introduced me to chess and to Watchmen comics. Chess never really was my bag, but Watchmen was comic book genius: the perfect deconstruction of your average, pretty-boy superhero and the good/bad dichotomy in which he operated. And Zack Snyder's 2009 film adaptation does a decent, albeit flawed job of replicating that idea.
If I were to write a real review, it would end up being an analysis of all the things the Watchmen novel got right, and how they are or are not mirrored in the screen adaptation. I would still be here typing tomorrow, and you would all wonder if I've gone completely off my gourd thinking that anyone wants to read such a giant pile of blah. Instead, I'm going to talk about the things that struck me about the film, so they'll probably seem like random thoughts, but that's what you people get for not wanting to indulge in the true range of my brilliance.
All the elements that make the Watchmen comics/graphic novel the best of the genre - the disturbed superheroes with no obvious super powers (except Dr. Manhattan); the alternate historical reality; the politically astute and satirical narrative - are more or less present on the screen. But there can be no doubt that they are infinitely better represented in the novel. I am a firm believer that the comic form, particularly one as pioneering as Watchmen, is not meant for film adaptation, especially without careful attention to the nuances of the structure, art and composition of the source. This is why Sin City was, in my mind, such a colossal failure. So taking for granted that there are certain given limitations, there were some things that the film did not do well, but there were also a few elements that I quite admired.
The role of the soundtrack in this film is crucial: each track is not only well-chosen to portend the scene that is to come, but it acts as a bit of a stamp to signal a new "frame" or "page". I'm pretty sure I wasn't imagining that, and it worked brilliantly. The music was used to help replicate the kind of pacing of the drama that the nine-panel grid would have achieved on the page, and was also a satire in itself, like the ridiculous, hippie Sounds of Silence at the hippie-shooting Comedian's funeral. The slow-motion opening sequences that served to establish the background for the original characters were also well executed. The limited screen time devoted to them mirrored the lack of public attention and outrage for the ways in which the characters were disposed of, especially striking in the case of the hate-crime murder of Silhouette.
I quite enjoyed too the use of light and angles, casting and costuming to try and replicate those heavy pencil strokes that we would have seen in the novel. I don't know that it worked, but the effort was noted. I always thought (not as a child, but later) that the hard lines were meant to lend to the hard edge of the characters as compared with other superheroes. The characters have considerably less edge on screen, except perhaps for Jeffrey Dean Morgan's The Comedian and Carla Gugino's Silk Spectre, which - along with Patrick Wilson as the second Nite Owl and Jackie Earle Haley as Rorshach- were my favourite performances.
I wasn't that crazy, however, about Malin Akerman as Silk Spectre II. Aesthetically, I suppose I see why they cast her, although she wasn't who I imagined. Akerman's body has some interesting, strong lines that help convey the sexy but not outrageously voluptuous Silk Spectre form to the screen. But as such an important character to the on-screen story, Akerman's acting should have been at a higher level. On the page, the story itself is less important than the links among its different parts, but on screen, it's a whole different ball game. And we need the characters' performances to help us enjoy and make sense of the plot. We can't go back a page or read it again: they only have one shot to bring it home, and bring 'it' home Akerman did not. Between the awkward sex scenes and the vapid stare, 'it' is still out there somewhere, lost and gathering change for a taxi.
I also really did not care for the prison riot scene, which I didn't recognize as fitting in anywhere with the original Watchmen. In the original, the prisoners are not your one-dimensional bad guys: they are also victims of a degenerative society, borne out by the fact that they are the innocents wiped out in Ozymandias's last stand. In the film, however, what with all the sawing off of arms and silly blockbuster mayhem, that subtlety is lost. The point at which Silk Spectre and Nite Owl join Rorshach's dark side is painted as simply a rescue mission of one of the Superfriends, when it is really meant to be the point at which the two characters come face-to-face with the type of violence begotten by their own violence. And from here, well, it all comes undone, and the film starts to feel exceptionally long and improperly edited because they start to tell the story in a different way. The Comedian's awful confession to his nemesis - which is meant to represent a convergence of the methods of 'good' and 'evil' to prove that the two do not that simply exist, and is meant to anchor his own shooting of demonstrators with his violence against the two women, the killing of prisoners in the riot and the final annihilation in New York into a common thread - instead seems weird and out of character, and all the potential irony is lost. By the end, all of the tragic, moral agonizing has been stuffed into Ozymandias's final blaze of glory, so that you're not so much steadily fed the ironic message as you are whacked over the head with it and kicked out of the theater. Of course, by this time, you're glad to leave because you're sure the sun has started to rise and it's time for breakfast.
There's a lot more that can be said about this film, but overall, after the drawn-out, sensationalized gigantic bore that was 300, Zack Snyder did a whole lot better with Watchmen. Sure it wasn't meant for the screen, and all its political and philosophical anarchy are difficult to 'get' off the page, but Snyder did justice to most of the film. And if he had only stayed the course, instead of being just a good film, it could have been brilliant.