Watchmen is one of the seminal comics of the 1980s, arguably one of the greatest comic book series ever, and described as "unfilmable" as a movie. So, how did the movie Watchmen turn out? Fairly mediocre, even granting that the almost three-hour running length couldn't contain much of this very dense 12-issue series.

The world of Watchmen is an alternate-history universe where it's 1986, Nixon is still president, costumes heroes were a fad in the 1940s and are now outlawed, and nuclear tension between the United States and Russia has led to fears of an imminent nuclear war. The murder of Edward Blake (Jeffrey Dean Morgan) is investigated by sociopathic hero Rorschach (Jeffrey Dean Morgan), a short, brutal vigilante whose mask is an ever-changing series of ink blot shapes. Rorschach learns that Blake was the Comedian, a former ally and horrible human being. Fearing that someone is "killing masks," Rorschach seeks out his old companions to warn them.

The other heroes are all retired. Dan Dreiberg/Night Owl (Patrick Wilson), is a high-tech inventor who's become pudgy and nostalgic for the old days. Adrian Veidt/Ozymandias (Matthew Goode) had revealed his identity to further his success as a businessman and billionaire. John Osterman/Dr. Manhattan (Billy Crudup) is a glowing blue man (the only one with actual superpowers) who is almost omnipotent, won Vietnam single-handedly, and working with Veidt on creating clean energy. And Laurie Jupiter/the Silk Spectre (Malin Akerman) is living on a military base with Dr. Manhattan.

The story of Watchmen is told as much in the characters' flashbacks as in Rorschach's investigation. We see how despicable the Comedian was, whether killing Viet Cong (and a woman he got pregnant) in Vietnam, almost raping Laurie's mother, Sally Jupiter/the original Silk Spectre (Carla Gugino), or breaking up rioters by shooting them in the chest with tear gas.
I tried to distance the movie Watchmen from the comic book; unfortunately, this was difficult to do as director Zack Snyder and production designer Alex McDowell seem determined to re-create the comic not just word for work, but also panel by panel. (The exception is the ending, which changes it a bit from the comic but stays in spirit with the comic's finale.) Alas, none of the characters really come alive, staying one-dimensional even when given the chance to react to some horrifying developments. (Ironically, Jeffrey Dean Morgan's character may be the most despicable, yet he seems to be the only one approaching their character with enthusiasm.) And the fight scenes are not only brutal, but also all done with slow motion and exaggeration that was intended as stylish but comes off as artificial. (Considering everyone but Dr. Manhattan is a "normal" hero, all the characters consistently punch through walls, kick characters quite far, and can get up from brutal beatings almost immediately.)
Watchmen isn't unfilmable, but it's too large to contain in a movie, even with this one's running time, that does it justice. Alas, few in the cast stand out, and the dark visual world created is undercut by the unrealistic action. This isn't an awful movie, but Watchmen left me wishing it was a better movie.
Overall grade: C
Reviewed by James Lynch

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