Early in director Zack Snyder’s adaptation of Alan Moore’s legendary graphic novel, there’s a shot of anti-superhero graffiti “Who watches the watchmen?” spray-painted in its entirety. In the book, the accusation against these masked “heroes,” who’ve managed only to keep Nixon in power and increase the chances of all-out nuclear war, is always left incomplete or partially obstructed. Most of the changes made to the source material are about that nitpicky, and exist mostly to spell things out to an audience that’s probably being underestimated. Explanatory dialogue from the book’s final chapters is moved up toward the beginning; scenes only hinted at in the novel are shown explicitly onscreen. But anyone complaining the film isn’t faithful to the book needs to refill his OCD meds. The changes are justifiable from a filmmaking standpoint, and most importantly stay true to the book’s larger ideas. Much of the film appears to’ve been shot Sin City style, using the book itself as a storyboard, and dialogue is often lifted word-for-word from the speech bubbles. As a companion to the book, filling out the universe already established, the film deserves four stars.
How it rates as a standalone movie, however, I’m not so sure. It’s probably unrealistic to hope that the film might mean to audiences in 2009 what the book meant to readers in 1986. Deconstructing the super-hero film when two of the most recent genre examples are Iron Man and The Dark Knight seems unnecessary, but Snyder’s much-bitched-about stylization — the gratuitous slo-mo, the computer-chiseled ab muscles — is incredibly effective here, where those flourishes highlight pointless brutality against innocent people, forcing a re-evaluation of the sort of ultra-masculine splatter Snyder’s previous film, 300, helped to re-popularize.
But as the action builds, the movie seems to become a race to hit as many fan-required plot points as possible under the dreaded three-hour mark, and I’m not sure it ultimately provides enough context to connect them. The end-of-times paranoia so palpable in the book never has space to develop, and the large-scale atrocities committed don’t get enough screen time to sink in. It’s impossible for someone familiar with the book to judge whether those coming to the story for the first time are given enough information to follow along, but the line of people headed for the exit before the closing scene wasn’t promising.