So, Watchmen. The Mount Everest of graphic novels, the multilayered masterwork that many (including writer Alan Moore) said couldn't be filmed. Well, director Zac Snyder has filmed it and the good news is he's done well.
First, for those who aren't comicbook geeks, a bit about Watchmen. Published and set in the mid-1980s, it is a dark, complex and emotionally mature work about a team of flawed and mostly retired superheroes dealing with the impact of the murder of one of their own and an imminent nuclear war. There's The Comedian (Jeffrey Dean Morgan), a cynical, cigar-chomping killer, Silk Specter, who is filling the slinky costume of her mother, Owlman, a flabby nerd, Ozymandias, the world's smartest man and a billionaire businessman, Rorschach (Jackie Earl Hayley) a brutal vigilante, and Dr Manhattan (Billy Crudup), a former scientist who developed godlike powers in an accident.
Part of the genius of Moore and artist David Gibbons' work is that it manages to be a whole lot of things at once: a dissection of the psychology of superheroes, a story about stories, a character-driven drama and a compelling murder mystery. Along with the similarly grim and intelligent reinvention of Batman, The Dark Knight Returns, Watchmen revolutionised superhero comics by pushing the boundaries on sex and violence, having heroes with realistic personality flaws and showing that you can use people wearing capes and masks to make profound statements about human nature.
Watchmen does all this weaving together a lot of different stories about more than half a dozen major characters, including many, many flashbacks. Like Lord of the Rings, it's a heck of a tough thing to film - particularly when you need to strike that balance between staying true to the source material and adapting it for a different medium. The risk is that you will alienate either mainstream audiences or the fans, or both.
Snyder has stayed as true to the graphic novel as possible and (sacriledge!) has made some changes that are actually improvements. He's also ramped up the action, with some thrilling fight scenes. But it's certainly got flaws.
It's too long, the pacing isn't perfect and the graphic violence and sex doesn't really work. The problem with having both beautifully choreographed, balletic fight scenes and realistically bloody carnage is that the former tells you that violence is cool and the latter tells you that (unless you're a sadist) violence is awful. Together they jar. And I also (skip the next sentence if you're worried about possible spoilers) suspect the story may be too confusing and the end too unsatisfying for most people who've not read the graphic novel.
But there are many more plusses than minuses. There are some superb scenes, such as the trawl through the 'history' of the superheroes during the opening credits, great song choices and visually the film is lovely. Moore's story and themes remain powerful, as do Gibbons' images, and the acting is very good. Crudup, as the sad, detached Superman struggling to deal with the squabbles and complexities of humanity, and Wright, as the loathsome Comedian, are particularly good. Best of all is Hayley, whose sociopathic but sympathetic Rorschach is the character who will stay longest in the mind. He reminds you that the kind of person who would put on a mask and wander beating up criminals is less likely to be Bruce Wayne and more likely to be Travis Bickle.