It only took a mere 23 years for Watchmen to go from seminal graphic novel to the big screen. Starting pre-production in 1986, Watchmen passed through almost every studio and the hands of several directors -- Terry Gilliam, Paul Greengrass, and Darren Aronofsky -- before landing in the lap of Zack Snyder, all the while drawing ire from the one man who didn't want Watchmen adapted: co-creator and writer Alan Moore. Snyder's involvement clearly excited Fox, who caught the whiff of possible success and decided to sue Warner Bros. over the rights. Reviews of the movie's first 22 minutes (shown at comic conventions) were mostly positive, demonstrating that Snyder had pulled off what had been deemed an impossible adaptation.
What makes Watchmen such a difficult property to adapt is re-creating the rich, alternate America that Moore placed his Watchmen story into. Set in the 1980s with President Nixon still in office, America is on the brink of nuclear war with Russia. Meanwhile, dating back to the second World War, costumed vigilantes have fought crime, up until the Keane Act forced every superhero to retire, with the exception of Dr. Manhattan (Billy Crudup), the scientist turned naked and blue super being whose limitless powers won the Vietnam War for America, and The Comedian (Jeffrey Dean Morgan), the cigar chomping assassin, who both work for the U.S. government. When The Comedian is brutally murdered, the one hero still at work, Roschach (Jackie Earle Haley), springs into detective mode. He interviews Ozymandias (Matthew Goode), the rich entrepreneur and smartest man alive; former partner Nite Owl (Patrick Wilson); and the lovely Silk Spectre II (Malin Akerman), who followed her mother (Carla Gugino) into the crime fighting business and now resides in a military base with boyfriend Manhattan.
Even at 2 hours and 40 minutes, Watchmen had to ditch a lot of material from the comic book -- its dense amount of history went beyond comic book panels to include fictional news articles, memos, even excerpts from a character's autobiography. Fans of the comic are understandably nervous about what material Snyder would keep or not, and while there's probably no pleasing everyone, Snyder is thankfully able to keep the tone of the graphic novel. He makes the movie feel like the comic book, which has to be seen as a triumph for the fans.
With the tone captured, the success of the movie then lies in the hands of the performances, and Snyder has cast well. Haley as Rorschach practically steals the movie; his performance, which had the audience cheering during the screening, is the perfect embodiment of the comic character. Patrick Wilson perfectly captures the shlubby, resigned nature of Nite Owl, and Goode's Ozymandias is so subtle and restrained it probably will get overlooked. Crudup's performance is limited to voice over, with CGI handling Crudup's facial expressions and, uh, naked ... parts. The only performance that doesn't quite hold up is Akerman's. While she definitely looks the part, Akerman's beauty just isn't enough for the more challenging, emotional moments. Of course, we doubt many will complain after seeing the more intimate scenes.
If performances aren't a major concern in a comic book movie, then action is. Like he proved in 300, Snyder likes big, entertaining action, and Watchmen certainly gets its share. The comic book depicts a few bare-knuckle brawls, but when they are reproduced for the big screen, the impact is much larger. Snyder's favorite move is to slow down the action during the tense moments then speed back up, and it's effective, not only for the fight scene, itself, but to keep the audience heartbeats racing during its lengthy running time.
Considering how long people have been trying to make Watchmen, a big-screen version was inevitable, and fans should rejoice that Snyder was the one to finally make it -- not someone who didn't have the same reverence for the source material. Watchmen is still an impossible graphic novel to adapt, considering every character, even the smaller ones like the newsstand Bernies or Rorschach's doctor, have their own stories running alongside the main storyline. Fans of the comic will no doubt debate the changes Snyder made to the ending (no squid), but considering what could have been (the studios wanted Adrian Veidt to die), it's easy to live with an exciting comic book movie anchored by a great cast, and most important, intact with the tone of what Moore and artist Dave Gibbons created.