Poor Zack Snyder. He strikes me as an amiable sort of fellow, maybe a bit of a hack, but a hard-working guy with a great fondness for detail. But he could never win over the fans of Alan Moore and Dave Gibbons's landmark graphic novel Watchmen. They're up in arms over the film's handful of story changes. Conversely, they're also up in arms over Snyder's surprisingly faithful adaptation. "He lacks vision!" they cry.
Indeed, perhaps Snyder does lack vision. But with a vision as unique as the one Moore and Gibbons gave the world back in 1986-87, you kind of need a director who isn't cramming in his own idiosyncrasies on top of everything else. (Terry Gilliam tried, and failed, to make this film twice.) In the end, especially for the millions of moviegoers who haven't read the graphic novel, it's for the best that Snyder delivers a fairly intact version of the story without mucking it up too much. And Alan Moore, who as per tradition has refused to take a screen credit or even accept any money(!) for the rights to his property (Gibbons received all the dough), may have the last laugh: the success of this film will surely increase sales of his book.
I myself have a weird relationship to this film, as I was hired to work on the Blu-ray release. My first introduction to the material, after avoiding the graphic novel for two decades, was the screenplay. Then I read the graphic novel. Then, in January 2009, I saw Snyder's three-hour director's cut, in mostly black and white and without final sound effects or music. So seeing Watchmen in the theater yesterday wasn't so much an exercise in comparing the comic to the movie, but in comparing the 3 hour cut to the 2 hour, 30 minute cut.
What went missing? Well, hopefully you'll find out on the Blu-ray. But while watching the film in the theater, my feelings about it changed somewhat.
Malin Akerman, who plays superheroine Silk Spectre II, has been blasted for her flat, valley girlish performance, but her work improves upon a second viewing. (She's still outclassed by the rest of the cast, especially Jackie Earle Haley as right-wing vigilante Rorschach.) And there are one or two moments that remain genuinely moving. But the dialogue – taken mostly word-for-word from Moore's text – is often pretentious, the song cues too obvious, the sudden bursts of gore (whereas the graphic novel merely employed buckets of blood) comically gratuitous, as if Snyder just couldn't help himself.
That said, while I can now claim to be familiar with the graphic novel after being paid to dig deeply into it, I can't praise it as a flawless work. I mean, it's incredibly original, and it was certainly revolutionary at the time. But its last chapter is clumsy, Gibbons can't draw women well, and many of its references and inside jokes are more heavy-handed than fans would admit. In short, it's not unimprovable. I actually prefer the altered ending in the film. And I liked seeing human actors breathe real life into the sometimes stiff characters. (Jeffrey Dean Morgan as The Comedian is especially effective.)
In the end, I'm sure this film will be a weird and possibly entertaining experience for Watchmen newbies, and a slightly satisfying experience for the Watchmen faithful. But it's not revelatory, it's not groundbreaking, and although it's pretty flashy on the big screen – I even saw it in IMAX – it will be more rewarding to wait for the longer cut on the Blu-ray.