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Watchmen movie image Malin Akerman as Silk Spectre II and Patrick Wilson as Nite OwlThe advertising tagline for Watchman is: Who watches the Watchmen? It’s me. I watched the Watchmen. All 163 minutes of it.

For the uninitiated Watchmen is one of the most highly acclaimed superhero stories of all time, and the only graphic novel to be included on Time magazine’s list of “the 100 best English-language novels from 1923 to the present.” Written by comic book legend Alan Moore it resembles a traditional superhero story only in the way a housecat resembles a puma. They both have four legs and a tail but are distinctly different creatures. Ditto Watchmen and its caped brethren. The graphic novel has masked crusaders and characters with super powers but the first ten pages of the book has more existential angst and deep meaning than any ten issues of The Fantastic Four.

Like the book the film, directed by 300 helmer Zach Snyder, is a layered and complicated story set in an alternative reality 1985. Nixon is still president, the Cold War is chillier than ever and the United States won the Vietnam War with the help of a group of masked avengers, led by the powerful Dr. Manhattan, called the Watchmen. The Watchmen, however, have outlived their usefulness and following a ban on superheroes have either retired or become government-sanctioned secret agents. When the Comedian, a former member of the masked crime fighting unit, is brutally
murdered, the enigmatic vigilante Rorschach tries to discover who would want to knock off former masked superheroes.

Watchman is a slavish adaptation of Moore’s work. Perhaps too slavish. At two hours and forty-five minutes it’s considerably shorter than the five hours Terry Gilliam said he would need to do the book justice but Snyder’s take on the story is too literal, too unquestioning.

In an attempt to please the fanboys who regard the graphic novel as a holy text he’s taken pains to be as true to the book as possible. Many of the shots look like panels from the novel and the movie is packed with enough character and story details to keep the geeks happy but it may be too densely packed for the casual viewer. In fact, I think the first hour—call it the secret lives of superheroes part—is unwelcoming to anyone unfamiliar with the source material. It’s cool looking—many reviews are calling Snyder a “visionary” but I to wonder if after only three films he can be labeled as such—but an excess of style doesn’t translate into good storytelling.

When Snyder does finally get to the climax it’s an exposition fest with the bad guy detailing his wicked plot step-by-step, just like an episode of Murder She Wrote. In a movie filled with fractured timelines and splintered storytelling it seems like a letdown, an overly traditional way of wrapping up all the loose ends.

Snyder may have rushed the ending but he doesn’t skimp on the action, filling many sequences with disturbing images and brutal violence. Imagine dogs chewing on a child’s dismembered leg, a man graphically bludgeoned to death with a cleaver and gallons of squirting plasma and you get the idea. Equally dark are the tormented characters. All superheroes are conflicted but this bunch with their parental issues, insecurities, narcissism and unhinged love of violence would give Freud nightmares.

While some judicious editing would have been in order Snyder should be commended for hanging on to the graphic novel’s political edge. Although written over two decades ago the story has many timely elements. When Adrian Veidt / Ozymandias (Matthew Goode) says to Lee Iacocca, “The world… deserves better than you have given it,” he could be talking today to any of the heads of the Big Three.

Rated a hard “R” this is not a superhero movie for kids. Its way too dark and violent for the Iron Man set but should be right up the (dark) alley for older comic book fans. If you aren’t familiar with the book or the novel’s trademarked image of a yellow smiley-face button splattered with blood, you will likely be in for a bit of a baffling experience.

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