In the mid-’80s, writer Alan Moore began to imagine a world in which the superheroes and costumed crime-fighters he’d grown up reading helped shape the Cold War decades that had repeatedly brought humanity to the brink of extinction. It wasn’t a better world. Behind their masks and glowing eyes, the heroes Moore conceived and created with artist Dave Gibbons were hindered, and occasionally crippled, by the same conflicting impulses, childhood traumas, and redirected neuroses that drive everyone else. Moore and Gibbons’ graphic novel Watchmen helped redefine the types of stories superheroes could be used to tell, not just by freighting them with darkness—too many subsequent creators showed how easy that could be—but by weaving their capes and gadgets into a dense, deep narrative: a detective story played out against the apocalypse in a world so thoroughly realized that Charles Dickens would be jealous.
The same elements that make Watchmen a great book made a Watchmen film a difficult prospect. (Moore, on principle, removed himself and his name from the project, which probably didn’t help.) It’s remarkable that any Watchmen movie made it to the screen, after the years of false starts and litigation. And the one we got—directed by Zack Snyder, most recently responsible for the ably made, philosophically dubious Frank Miller adaptation 300—deserves credit for staying true to the characters, plot (up to a point), and look of the original material while still generating his own kind of energy. Sometimes that energy feels misapplied and overcranked, as the roar of the action drowns out the film’s human voices, but Snyder’s Watchmen keeps moving so assuredly, it’s nearly impossible not to get swept along.
Keeping Moore’s alternate-universe ’80s New York setting, Watchmen opens with the murder of The Comedian (Jeffrey Dean Morgan), a long-serving crime-fighter with a late-career sideline in covert ops. (The film keeps Moore’s dark joke that electing Nixon to multiple terms is one of his world’s problems.) A masked vigilante named Rorschach (Jackie Earle Haley)—the only one who didn’t hang up his disguise when the government outlawed civilian crime-fighters in the mid-’70s—launches an investigation and uncovers a much larger conspiracy, one seemingly tied to mounting nuclear tensions between the U.S. and the U.S.S.R., as well as a bunch of Rorschach’s old colleagues. These include the Silk Spectre (Malin Akerman), who inherited the title from her mother (Carla Gugino); Nite Owl (Patrick Wilson) a bookish, wealthy master of machines; Ozymandias (Matthew Goode), who’s since turned his remarkable intellect to acquiring wealth and power; and Dr. Manhattan (Billy Crudup), a lab-accident-created glowing godlike being whose connection to humanity remains an open question.
There’s sometimes too much Dr. Manhattan in Snyder’s Watchmen, which often feels like a feat of engineering first, an artistic expression second. But his source material keeps him grounded, as does solid work from Crudup, Wilson, and especially Haley, whose performance evokes pity, fear, sympathy, and revulsion as he goes about his single-minded pursuit of justice without compromise. Others bring less. Given a central role, the lightweight Akerman serves as an Andie MacDowell-in-Four-Weddings-And-A-Funeral-level distraction, and Snyder isn’t always well-served by his tendency to start at 11 and try to turn up the volume, particularly in a bunch of over-the-top, bone-cracking action scenes. The time spent developing watchmen-fu would have been better invested in not blowing one of the book’s big Mars setpieces, or figuring out a better alternate ending than the one dropped in the original’s place.
And yet in the end, the film’s ambitious drive to create a dread-soaked alternate America and people it with flawed, recognizable heroes carries it along. Snyder uses grand gestures to create a sense of world-imperiling doom rooted in another era, but equally at home in this one. But he also remains willing to slow down to capture the gravity of a funeral, or dwell on a moment between old partners patching up a friendship as doomsday approaches. Moore’s touch emphasizes how messed-up and needy comic-book people would have to be to do what they do. Missteps and all, Snyder’s film gets that right, and this as well: When we look up in the sky, we don’t see a bird or a plane, but a mirror.