Like The Sex Pistols, who wickedly declared themselves “the last rock ‘n’ roll band,” “Watchmen” should have been the superhero comic to end all comics. When Alan Moore wrote the “Watchmen” series in the mid-1980s (illustrated by Dave Gibbons), his canny deconstruction of the superhero genre seemed total, like both some grand summation and final destruction.
Moore took a new batch of superheroes, albeit clearly modeled on existing ones, and crafted a story that was rooted in the mythic heyday of archetypal superheroes, the can-do ’40s. From there, Moore plunged us into the tawdry reality of being a hero in the ’80s: enmeshed in political conspiracy or banned by the paranoid government of President Richard Nixon (serving his fifth term), and riven by neuroses and past trauma. Dangling over it all was the threat of cold war nuclear Armageddon that no hero, not even a super one, could prevent.
Moore’s dazzlingly layered story played with the idea of superheroes in the “real world,” and The Watchmen were a morally complex bunch. There was The Comedian, a violent gun-toting vigilante who worked for the shadier arms of the U.S. government; Rorschach, a psychotic, Travis Bickle-like antihero who, appropriately enough, saw the world in terms of black and white; Dr. Manhattan, an irradiated physicist with powers sufficient to save the Earth but little interest in doing so; Silk Specter, a foxy superbabe looking for a daddy figure due to childhood trauma; Ozymandias, a vain and superintelligent hero-turned corporate honcho with grandiose plans to save the world; and Nite Owl, a geeky nebbish who was nothing without his superhero identity.
“Watchmen” questioned the very core of the superhero myth of indestructible good guys who could be counted on to do the right thing. Moore showed them to be fallible, dangerous, unstable and continuously working in moral gray zones, even, or especially, when trying to do the right thing. He started with one of his heroes being thrown out of a window to his death, and he ended on a similarly disquieting note.
But, like The Sex Pistols, “Watchmen” failed in its mission. Instead of destroying its genre, it inspired 1,000 imitators, who thought that the edge of “Watchmen” lay in its style — a bleak outlook, amped up violence and a complex narrative structure (see “Sin City”) — rather than what it was actually saying about the superhero fantasy.
Thus, “Watchmen” arrives in our cinemas as just another superhero spectacle. Like “The Dark Knight,” it will be embraced by legions of lockstep fanboys, who see its lofty themes and grim nihilism as a kind of defense against the inherent juvenility and ridiculousness of the genre. (This is, after all, a movie where the lead character is a naked Blue Man on steroids who uses his superpowers to duplicate himself and have a me and myself threesome with his superbabe.)
In the hands of Zac Snyder (director of the fascist “300″) — who wound up with this project after more adventurous types like Terry Gilliam, Darren Aronofsky and Paul Greengrass all threw up their hands — one gets the feeling that all the moral complexity and nihilism is less interesting as philosophy than as an excuse to show a 6-year-old girl’s leg chewed on by dogs, a guy’s arms being cut off with a buzzsaw, or a pregnant woman shot in the stomach. Oh, and did I mention that New York City gets destroyed, again? (So much fun to watch, unless it’s being directed by an Islamic terrorist.)
Snyder does try to remain faithful to the comic, re-creating entire panel compositions on screen and incorporating lots of dialogue verbatim, as well as the tricky flashback structure. Early on, the film drops into a lengthy montage set entirely to Dylan’s “The Times they are a changin’,” which artfully tracks us through a huge swath of back story. Cinematically, Snyder kicks out all the jams, and the headrush of impossible tracking shots and Impressionistic Slo-Mo seems authoritative.
Yet with the exception of Jackie Earl Haley’s Rorschach, the acting is abysmal, particularly Marin Ackerman’s Silk Specter, who after being teleported to another planet, exclaims “OHMYGAWD, we’re on Mars!” She also gets the fakest looking sex scene this side of “Showgirls” with Patrick Wilson’s Nite Owl. (And fans of Leonard Cohen will wince at the cheap use of his song “Hallelujah” here.)
Although, even here the subversiveness of Moore’s ideas seeps through: When Nite Owl first tries to get it on with Silk Specter, both retired from superheroics and in their civvies, he can’t get it up. But once he gets his skin-tight latex costume on, he sure doesn’t need any Viagra. No comic — book or movie — has ever so clearly confronted its viewers with the way in which superhero comics are fantasies of power and virility for the impotent. One wonders if Snyder is in on the joke.