Format: Cinema

Release date: 6 March 2009

Venues: BFI IMAX, Odeon Leicester Square (London) and nationwide

Distributor Paramount

Director: Zack Snyder

Writers: David Hayter and Alex Tse

Based on the graphic novel by: Dave Gibbons and Alan Moore (uncredited)

Cast: Malin Akerman, Billy Crudup, Matthew Goode, Jackie Earle Haley, Jeffrey Dean Morgan, Patrick Wilson, Carla Gugino, Matt Frewer

USA 2009

163 minutes

While Watchmen hasn’t received the same amount of publicity as last year’s The Dark Knight, it has generated a level of anticipation unprecedented for comic book adaptations in recent years. After all, we’re talking about the ‘Citizen Kane of graphic novels’. Even the sober journalists of The Guardian Film Blog don’t seem to be immune and a recent roundup of early reviews of the film flirts with applying the Orson Welles comparison to the movie adaptation too.

I don’t intend to harp on about the fidelity of the film to the book as it has to stand on its own merits and based on these, Watchmen the movie is fairly average. Zack Snyder is an accomplished visual director, which was demonstrated to an even greater extent in his earlier 300 (2006), but is not the best director of actors. Paradoxically, the strongest aspect of the film is the plot, but its original author, Alan Moore, has had his name removed from the credits. As presented on screen, the story, set in 1985, is relatively simple. After an ageing vigilante is murdered, members of the superhero community worry that there might be a ‘cape killer’ loose on the streets while the world around them faces nuclear Armageddon. Recent attempts to bring Watchmen to the screen included revisionist takes that intended to relocate it to the post 9/11 world. Snyder sticks to the original period, and the 80s seem a particularly appropriate decade for the film, as it was an era that was book-ended by the first great superhero films Superman II (1980) and Batman (1989). The influence of those two films are writ large in the characterisation here, with Patrick Wilson’s Dan Dreiberg / Nite Owl played emphatically as a cross between Christopher Reeve’s nebbish Clark Kent and Michael Keaton’s introspective Bruce Wayne.

The 80s were a kitsch decade, in which gaudy outfits, neon lights and synthesised jazz didn’t seem too incongruous. This is something that Snyder recreates well, helped by comic book artist Dave Gibbons’s original drawings. Snyder also captures the violent 80s aesthetic of urban decay and riots, although not as well as Terry Gilliam did in Brazil at the time the original comic was published (in the history of great unmade superhero films, Gilliam’s Watchmen is neck and neck with Orson Welles’s Batman…). But the 80s aesthetic doesn’t always work well. One of the film’s most important emotional moments – the sex scene between Nite Owl and Silk Spectre – is shot and directed like something out of 9 킽 Weeks (1986) and is the weakest, cheesiest scene in the movie. The use of music makes things worse, the soundtrack mixing Philip Glass with Nena Kerner and Simon and Garfunkel. In the hands of a director with a better understanding of the possibilities of music as a counterpoint to action, this scattershot approach could have worked well – after all Quentin Tarantino has based his career on it – but in Watchmen the juxtaposition of ‘The Sound of Silence’ with a funeral scene and ‘Hallelujah’ with the Nite Owl/Silk Spectre coupling ranges from mawkish to downright embarrassing.

Snyder is a director who excels at stylised ultra-violence and his accomplishments in this field in both 300 and his remake of Dawn of the Dead (2004) led to his being hired for the Watchmen project. The high body count in 300 was tempered by painterly visuals that gave the film an almost abstract and otherworldly quality. Here the breaking of bones, spurting blood and entrails hanging from a ceiling seem excessive for a superhero movie. Alan Moore’s Watchmen may be known as a superhero comic for adults, but that reputation is based on its writing and structure, not on gratuitous violence. With much of the ironies and subtleties of the original graphic novel removed from the film, Snyder’s Watchmen is not much more than yet another superhero movie, and as such, its potential audience is largely adolescents. Yet, by upping the violence on screen, the director has excluded that audience from cinemas (unless they live in Ireland, the Baltic States or New Zealand, where it has a lower rating).

At the risk of damning the film with faint praise, it’s as good as the third films in the Batman and Superman franchises – mixing hysterical visuals with faux gravitas and absurd situations. The character that most resembles an early 80s reject, Jackie Earle Haley’s Walter Kovacs / Rorschach, is surprisingly the most engaging and likeable character. He may be an amoral and violent psychopath but he has the no-nonsense charm and gravely voice of mid-career Clint Eastwood. For all the debate about fidelity to the original graphic novel, it is Alan Moore’s unwilling input that rescues the film and stops it from being as bad as it could have been and often threatens to be. Watchmen the film is loud, kitsch, violent and flashy, like the decade it’s set in. For those reasons, it’s an enjoyable 1980s superhero film. But no way is it the Citizen Kane of superhero movies.

Alex Fitch

Watchmen can be seen on the BFI IMAX’s 20-metre high screen from March 7 to April 2. More details on the BFI IMAX website.

Read our comic strip on the Watchmen film adaptation in the new print issue of Electric Sheep. The spring issue focuses on Tainted Love to celebrate the release of the sweet and bloody pre-teen vampire romance Let the Right One In, with articles on incestuous cinematic siblings, Franí§ois Ozon‘s tales of tortuous relationships, destructive passion in Nic Roeg‘s Bad Timing, Julio Medem‘s ambiguous lovers and nihilistic tenderness from Kôji Wakamatsu. Also in this issue: Interview with Pascal Laugier (Martyrs), Berlin squat cinema, screen vamps, the Polish New Wave that never existed and much more!