(Note: Review is spoiler-free up to the marked point.)
No, Zack Snyder's Watchmen isn't perfect, nor is it one iota as significant a work to the medium of film as its source material was to the medium of comics (only Citizen Kane, Star Wars, and The Godfather are), but it's a pleasingly ambitious, intermittently fascinating, and visually gorgeous enough movie that I give it a solid thumbs up. Snyder has more or less done well by the graphic novel.
The film's pacing may feel slow for some uninitiated precisely because it's so wholly adapted from the book, complete with all the elaborate character development and flashbacks, gradual unfolding of the mystery, and exposition on its alternate 1985's politics, nuclear tension, and superhero history. For the first couple acts there's no clear antagonist (save the ever-present specter of Russia and nuclear war, of course, but that's intangible) and for lack of a better term a very literary pacing. And I say fantastic; it declines to feed quick and easy answers and insists that you carefully watch, listen, and absorb, making for a rich experience that warrants rewatching and analysis. I eagerly await the three-and-a-half hour director's cut.
A majority of the characters leap off the page onto the screen startlingly whole, intact, and immediately recognizable (although a few superheroes have insignificant costume alterations). One unanimous opinion I can't disagree with for a second is that Jackie Earle Haley absolutely owns the movie as Rorschach; he's palpably dangerous, has an awesome voice, and is utterly compelling, impossible to take your eyes off of for a second. He's the most memorable character in the comic but he rules the movie to an even greater degree. It's still early in the year for awards talk, but Rorschach's final scene would make a pretty damn good clip if Jackie Earle Haley got a Best Supporting Actor nomination.
Beyond Haley, Patrick Wilson plays the thankless straight man role of Nite Owl well, Jeffrey Dean Morgan's Comedian is frighteningly sociopathic while remaining eminently human, and Dr. Manhattan is pretty much exactly off the page, big blue dick and all. Even minor characters like Janey Slater, Hollis Mason, Big Figure, and the prison psychologist are cast and performed with striking fidelity to the source material.
The two Silk Spectres are a little on the bland side, however. The role of Laurie just asks for a bit more fire and nuance than Malin Akerman can deliver. But Zack Snyder's real miscast (and for me the movie's biggest flaw) is Matthew Goode as Ozymandias. Adrian Veidt is supposed to be a chiseled, all-American, square-jawed, powerful, golden god Apollo-looking motherfucker radiating strength, confidence, and intellect, and Goode's lanky, bizarrely German-accented Veidt is so far removed from the novel's version he's basically a different character. It wasn't a big problem in the first two acts but it was mildly toxic to the film's climax. I'm not sure who else they should have cast (perhaps a blond-dyed Jon Hamm?), but Goode really wasn't goode (PUN MASTERSTROKE).
But Snyder's real strength lies not in directing actors but in painting gorgeous cinematic images (I wasn't crazy about 300, but even I can't deny for a second it had a true visual signature unique from any other movie in history). Watchmen is if nothing else a spectacular-looking movie, doing total justice to Dave Gibbons' original illustrations. The character and costume design, the richness of the alternate New York City, the moody lightning, the Dr. Strangelove visual homage in Nixon's war room, it's all great. His filmmaking is most powerful in the Dr. Manhattan origin story sequence, a truly sublime combination of elegant visuals, careful editing, haunting music, and solid narration from Billy Crudup that I found 100% as resonant as the novel's version.
And while Watchmen isn't really an action story - definitely nowhere close to the scale of The Dark Knight; I doubt there's more than fifteen to twenty minutes of Hollywood-style "action" in the entire two and a half hours - Snyder mostly did a great job with what there is. Yes, he occasionally goes a little overboard with the slow motion (shades of 300), but he clearly gives no fuck about the shakeycam and fast-cutting fads that shit over so many action movies these days, and I'll take his silky smooth cameras and traditional editing with a hair too much slow-mo over a Bourne Supremacy / Transporter 3 jittering mess any day. I especially loved the opening Comedian fight, and I liked how brutally gory so much of the violence was, not because I lust for gore but because thematically a movie about vigilantism should have ugly and uncomfortable violence.
The only place where Snyder dropped the ball a little bit was in the final act, although I can't go into details sans spoilers. Throughout the rest of the film I understood why things were trimmed for time (and there are certain elements like Hollis Mason that I know will be greatly expanded in the director's cut), but the climax uncomfortably excised a few scenes and beats I found thematically essential, and it didn't help that Matthew Goode's Ozymandias has to deliver the most important (and what should have been emotional) exposition. It holds the movie back from potentially great to merely very good.
And no, I'm not talking about the removal of the graphic novel's infamous psychic alien squid. I thought Snyder's new climactic event of the nuclear destruction of New York, Los Angeles, Hong Kong, and Moscow and framing of Dr. Manhattan actually tied the story together perfectly (and similarly, I thought Rorschach's retrieval of his mask at the prison makes the chapter he spends retrieving it in the comic now look like bloated filler). I had no problem with that whatsoever.
What I DID have a problem with was the removal of the blood, corpses, and mayhem when Dr. Manhattan and Laurie warp into New York City. Those panels are shocking and among the novel's most iconic images and without them the true horror of what Adrian has done is lost. We only see a handful of people get cleanly vaporized and it fails to really hit you in the gut - at risk of quoting Stalin, the deaths become a statistic, not a tragedy. Following that, I wasn't crazy about the depiction of Veidt's bullet-catching, and I really missed the multitude of news stations announcing the end of war and dawn of a new peace, all leading up to Veidt's climactic cry of "I DID IT!", instead replaced with an understated speech by Nixon.
Rorschach's death was handled well (again, truly enormous kudos to Jackie Earle Haley for this scene), but following that was the movie's worst excision, the only one that really bummed me out: the quiet scene between Veidt and Dr. Manhattan in Veidt's office where Veidt asks if he's done the right thing in the end and Manhattan merely tells him that nothing never ends before leaving the galaxy. It was a sublime scene, especially for the character of Veidt in revealing his uncertainty, and I was stunned that they axed it, instead having Manhattan warp out almost immediately after killing Rorschach. Wagging finger of shame to Snyder and the screenwriters for that.
But beyond my gripes about the climax, the first two acts are superb outside of a couple of shady performances, and I do think that this is about as good a Watchmen movie as we ever could have hoped for. Honestly, in 2009, an era when big-budget movies are nearly always dumbed down to PG-13, I'm a little awed a studio actually gambled on a dense, hard R, nearly three-hour long superhero movie with graphic violence, sex, nudity, and relatively little action. Props to whoever convinced them to make the gamble and props to Snyder for a fine adaptation.
4 Stars out of 5