With such a lofty legacy to live up to, it’s a bit unfair to judge a film like Watchmen against the Alan Moore comic on which it was based. It’s two different takes on the same story – told in such completely different mediums that it’d be like trying to compare a steak dinner to an acid trip.
That said, Watchmen as a film is a mixed bag. There are some great performances, notably Jackie Earle Haley as Rorschach. There’s the occasional great scene, and some of the dialogue resonates pretty well. But these flashes of brilliance are overshadowed by the rough execution of the plot.
The opening of the film ruins the murder mystery that is the central focus of three-quarters of the plot. The murderer is practically revealed from the start, with a silhouette of his unique body frame in view as he commits the act. To beat the point into our heads even further, the character spends the rest of the movie falling into every possible Hollywood villain trope imaginable – yet the revelation that he’s the villain is treated like an unexpected plot twist when it finally arrives.
The fight scenes are standard fare for an action film: over-the-top with excessive use of slow motion. With two exceptions, Watchmen’s characters are all portrayed as humans until it’s time for them to fight, and then they turn into – well, superheroes. This wouldn’t be a problem if the film gave us any prior indication that these characters are imbued with special abilities. As he breaks a man’s bones through his forearm with a flick of the wrist, Dan Drieberg, for instance, goes from a mild-mannered man in the midst of mid-life crisis to Batman on steroids in a single scene.
Ultimately, Watchmen tries to stay too true to a story that was written specifically to highlight the strength of the comic medium. Certain lines that work in comics come off as too expository and unwieldy on film. The second half of the movie feels too compressed as it explores the origins of the main characters, builds toward the climax, and ties up some of the subplots, dampening each of the respective plot elements.
The original 1986-1987 Watchmen series was seen as a revolutionary work of literature that advanced the comic medium and transformed the superhero genre. Expecting the film to do the same for superhero films was a bit too much to ask.
The Dark Knight already proved that you could tell a serious superhero story in the film medium – what makes the movie work so well is that it’s an original story that is designed to highlight the strength of film. Watchmen, on the other hand, tries too hard to translate a comic story onto the silver screen. The result is a passionate but unwieldy product that doesn’t always quite work out.
Maybe Alan Moore was right when he said that some stories are only meant for the medium in which they were originally told. Still, I’ll give director Zack Snyder some credit for bringing one of my favourite stories to life in a workable fashion. I just wish he had employed as much creativity in the plot as he did for the opening credits.