quis custodiet ipsos custodes?

Of course, nearly everyone is watching Watchmen this weekend. But as an inescapable cultural phenom, it’s actually come on fairly soft — the billboards highlighting its main characters and iconic smiley graphic are stock superhero movie advertising, but they don’t go for the hard sell, and they respect the visual complexity and gloomy color scheme of the original comic. I won’t deny I was a little worried by the Zack Snyder’s presence at the helm — I loathed 300 — but on the other hand I quite liked Dawn of the Dead and didn’t care for Robert Rodriguez’s Sin City, which makes me think I just don’t like Frank Miller. All that taken together, plus some nifty trailers following Rorschach’s investigation gave me hope for this, the Holy Grail of comic book adaptations based on the Ka’aba of fanboy obsession.

So I was pleased when David Hayter and Alex Tse’s script and Snyder’s film opened with a pretty dead-on parody of The McLaughlin Group, the venerable talk show that’s been around since long before the comic’s 1985 timeframe. I was the only one in the theater laughing, I think — to everyone else, I guess, this just looked like a boring fake news show. But to me, it indicated that the filmmakers were willing to grapple seriously with the political environment that was so critical to the mood of the original comic. Having John McLaughlin, Pat Buchanan, and Eleanor Clift yammer away about the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan might seem like an odd way to set the mood for the first big action film of the spring, but I found it reassuring. Everything that drives the original comic — both its plot contrivances and the emotional watchsprings of its characters — emerges from Cold War paranoia and its accompanying economic anxiety. This is even more true of the film, which smartly dispenses with most of the history of the first group of caped vigilantes, the WWII-era Minutemen, in an early montage set to “The Times, They Are A-Changin’,” so that the focus is almost entirely on the characters who lived after the U.S.-Soviet split and the rise of nuclear power.

But for the uninitiated, a primer: in the universe posited by the comic, superheroes are a well-known fact of life, but they tend almost exclusively toward the Batman end of the spectrum — freakish loners with some useful gadgets and some athletic kung fu skills. At first the public welcomes the intervention of the do-gooding weirdos, but after a while they become objects of suspicion, and their activities are largely outlawed.

There’s only one truly superhuman figure: Dr. Manhattan, a godlike consciousness wrapped in created during a freak nuclear accident. Formerly physicist Jon Osterman, Dr. M is now so far removed from his human self that he has trouble remembering either the fears or the tenderness that motivate those around him. (The film’s creepiest conceit by far: Dr. Manhattan splits into different bodies, enabling him to engage in a threesome with his girlfriend and himself while also doing research in the next room.)

Dr. Manhattan and the Comedian, a kind of fascist Captain America, are given special license by the U.S. Government in exchange for their help winning the Vietnam War, but the rest of the heroes go underground for a decade or more, either retiring the latex or, in the case of the moralizing and puritanical Rorschach, going rogue. That’s the status quo, until someone starts knocking off masked men, starting with the Comedian in the film’s first big fight sequence.

All of this is developed with extraordinary depth and complexity in the graphic novel — which Alan Moore was deliberately trying to make the “Moby-Dick of comics” — and so it’s no slight compliment when I say that that the filmmakers handle all of this material in a remarkably compelling and mature way. Watchmen is fundamentally about the dark side of heroism — about the human cost of saving humanity from human nature — and each of the male superheroes can be seen as a different masculine approach to dealing with the application of power. Dr. Manhattan is one of the “Masters of the Universe,” someone so far removed from human suffering that he can no longer relate to it or make moral choices about it; Rorschach is his inverse, a small, faceless man defined entirely by his sense of righteousness. Meanwhile the Comedian and the Nite Owl also form a matched pair: the former is an unabashed defender of white male American privilege, while the latter is a milquetoast and largely ineffective peacemaker. Finally, there’s Adrian Veidt, Ozymandias, who’s smarter and faster than any of the other heroes except Dr. Manhattan, and whose drive to perfect the world is as outsized and unbalanced as his elephantine ego.

Snyder and his writers get all of this right, and in particular Snyder’s sensitive casting of excellent, non-star actors deserves praise. Maybe you wouldn’t think of soft-spoken Billy Crudup for the part of a 7-foot blue demigod, but Snyder did, and he also plucked Matthew Goode, Jackie Earle Haley, Patrick Wilson, and Jeffrey Dean Morgan out of the zeitgeist at precisely the right moment, finding a genuine yet under-used talent for each role.

Which makes it even stranger that the female roles are so underdeveloped and underserved. There are few enough female characters to begin with — Moore’s no sexist, as far as I can tell, but the graphic novel is decidedly a book about male anxiety — without casting the atrocious Malin Akerman as the single female lead. And Akerman, though she’s the standout, is not alone: nearly every subplot having anything to do with women becomes, in Snyder’s hands, awkward and painful to watch. The Comedian’s attempted rape of the first Silk Spectre, the confrontation with the pregnant Vietnamese girl, Dr. Manhattan’s emotional abandonment of the two women who mean the most to him, Laurie’s reconciliation with her mother — all fall abysmally flat. Snyder is clearly comfortable with stripping men down to their rawest elements (be forewarned: there are quite a number of nude blue penises in this movie), but even the most modest attempts at exploring women’s lives and emotions are abject failures. It’s as though he’s incapable of dealing with women as anything but latex-sheathed Amazon sex toys. This isn’t exactly atypical in a Hollywood action director, but it’s jarringly out of sync with the remarkable emotional honesty he shows with the male characters.

Other minor quibbles:

A few of the music cues are awful — most egregiously the use of “The Sound of Silence” over a funeral — and in general the soundtrack feels like a cheap and easy collection of “cinematic” hits — “All Along The Watchtower,” Leonard Cohen’s “Hallelujah,” the “Ride of the Valkyries”…. You get the point.

Also, the ending is modified slightly from the book. I don’t think it ruins the story, but I also don’t think it helps dramatically. Overall, it’s a wash; I didn’t hate it, but I’m curious why it was handled that way.

When you see the opening credits, you may notice the curious title card saying that the film was “adapted from the graphic novel co-created by Dave Gibbons.” Which is credit-speak for, “Alan Moore wouldn’t let us put his name on this movie.” I know it’s Moore’s blanket policy not to take a credit on any of the film adaptations of his work, but here it seems almost churlish — unlike previous adaptations of The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen and V For Vendetta, Watchmen is an honest, respectable piece of work that, while less complex than its inspiration, is nonetheless largely worthy of it. Oh well. Maybe he’d have signed his name to a five-part miniseries directed by Terry Gilliam.

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