Watchmen review

The "unfilmable" superhero film has landed...

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Would it ever arrive? Or miss us completely?

Travelling towards us with the agonising speed of an incoming meteor we’ve stared at for fully 23 years, Watchmen finally hits the screen as something fanboys could only have dreamed of: a labour-of-love epic, stylish, violent and very, very faithful.

From the opening strum of Bob Dylan’s ‘The Times They Are A-Changin’, director Zack Snyder’s adaptation of Alan Moore’s graphic novel is a comic-book movie like no other.

His brilliant opening montage effortlessly introduces a very different version of the 20th Century: masked men in Halloween outfits arrest criminals before being outlawed, sectioned and murdered; a stark-naked blue demi-god helps America win the Vietnam War; Nixon remains US president and the world teeters on the brink of nuclear war.

It’s deft, startling and maybe the finest sequence in the film.

Weirdly, Watchmen handed Snyder the polar-opposite problem to the one he solved in adapting Frank Miller’s throwaway Spartan battle-royale 300: too much story instead of not enough.

Cross-cutting between flashbacks that zing from the ’40s to the ’80s, multiple characters and story-strands that phase from Earth to Mars, Snyder unravels an unwieldy on-screen narrative that’s actually nothing like a superhero flick.

It’s a PT Anderson drama in a mask; an ensemble of Hollywood’s finest character actors playing soul-sick men and women locked in mortal combat with their traumatic pasts.

Stan Lee was wrong: with great power comes great loneliness. Even under a luminous layer of CG muscle, Billy Crudup’s beautifully subtle performance hides electric flickers of pain in the impassive face of quantum superman Dr Manhattan.

Grey’s Anatomy star Jeffrey Dean Morgan finds sympathy for the devil in his amoral sociopath The Comedian, seen raping and murdering his way through three decades.

Brit fop Matthew Goode initially looks too weak to play the megalomaniacal Adrian Veidt, but he grows with arrogant assurance inside his role as “the smartest man in the world”.

Little Children’s Patrick Wilson is nervy and bruised as Dan Dreiberg, who used to fight crime as Batman-a-like Nite Owl, but now battles impotence instead.

Admittedly, Malin Akerman’s reluctant Silk Spectre - caught in an insane love triangle between Manhattan and Dreiberg - makes less impact than her queen-bee latex fetish costume.

But it’s Wilson’s Little Children co-star Jackie Earle Haley who’s the real stunner, emerging from an ink-blot mask to nail the sadistic self-hatred of misanthropic detective Rorschach.

That’s one reason Watchmen is so impressive - you can feel the level of love and the lack of compromise. Alan Moore’s graphic novel ripped up the rule-book for superheroes: sex, murder, no happy endings.

Snyder’s Watchmen almost does the same for superhero movies. The director follows Alan Moore’s novel at a safe distance, matching the original framings and shots while animating them with cinematic verve.

It’s dark but not realistic, serious but hyper-stylised. From Nixon’s prosthetic nose to the rain-soaked artificial backdrops, Watchmen always feels like a comic-book movie.

Which is probably the only way Snyder could get away with this kind of violence. Watchmen is unquestionably the most brutal comic-book movie ever made: bullets puncture skulls, faces crunch, a man is burned to death with cooking fat, splatty eviscerations leave blood and bones dripping off the walls and ceilings... Fantastic Four this ain’t.

Snyder unwinds every bone-splintering blow with copious slo-mo combined with concussive shifts in frame rate. Truth is, he leans too hard on that slo-mo button - not least in Watchmen’s worst scene: cringy porny sex bafflingly scored to ‘Hallelujah’.

But it’s a minor dent. Driven forward by an amazing time-capsule soundtrack - Nat King Cole, Simon & Garfunkel, Hendrix - Watchmen never loses its propulsion.

In fact, for anyone who hasn’t read the graphic novel, there’s too much here to take in one sitting. Then again, Moore’s novel is dense, detailed and designed to be chewed rather than swallowed whole.

Maybe that’s why Snyder’s adaptation never soaks up the book's full weight of grim humour and human tragedy. Only a near-perfect sequence revealing the life, death and rebirth of Dr Manhattan captures a genuinely emotional throb.

But a masterpiece has already found its perfect medium. And like the book, Snyder’s Watchmen still demands to be revisited - and on DVD with yet more footage.

So do yourself a favour. Before you watch Snyder film the unfilmable, go read the greatest graphic novel ever written. Then you can decide whether you miss ‘The Squid’.

Jonathan Crocker

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The Total Film team are made up of the finest minds in all of film journalism. They are: Editor Jane Crowther, Deputy Editor Matt Maytum, Reviews Ed Matthew Leyland, News Editor Jordan Farley, and Online Editor Emily Murray. Expect exclusive news, reviews, features, and more from the team behind the smarter movie magazine.