“Watchmen”
At the Quality 16 and Showcase
Warner Bros & Paramount

Courtesy of Warner Bros. & Paramount

3 out of 5 stars

For those who have devoured “Watchmen” in book form, noting and nitpicking the intricacies of Dave Gibbons and Alan Moore’s graphic opus is unavoidable. It’s exhausting to compare the comic with Zack Snyder’s new adaptation, but many folks haven’t read the book and will see this film free of the burden of expectations, leaving one wondering how “Watchmen” will be received by the uninitiated. But the real dilemma lies not in the audience, but the filmmakers’ intentions.

“Watchmen” is a canonical book already legendary in its legitimization of the comic genre and a Hugo-winning work Time magazine called one of the “100 best novels from 1923-present.” It’s already a visual masterpiece, and there’s no real need for a film version. But it entices nonetheless.

Always engrossing but not quite satisfying, Snyder’s “Watchmen” is a divisive experience. First published in 1986, the “Watchmen” comic series is the intricate saga of an alternate ’80s and its “heroes.” Masked vigilantes are banished by a fifth-term Richard Nixon, and the flawed members of the Watchmen are deconstructed in the face of crisis. At the very surface, “Watchmen” is about the reunion of these heroes in the wake of a former colleague’s death.

The death prompts former Watchman Rorschach (Jackie Earle Haley, “Little Children”), a borderline psychopath, to investigate and warn his old team of possible foul play. Among the disbanded group, The Nite Owl (Patrick Wilson, “Lakeview Terrace”) is a wannabe Batman suffering from impotency and insecurity brought on from retirement. Silk Spectre (Malin Akerman, “27 Dresses”) is the token female, forced into tights by her mother. She dates Dr. Manhattan (Billy Crudup, “Almost Famous”), the only member with actual powers. A naked, blue, deific figure, Manhattan is the product of “intrinsic field subtraction.” He can see past, present and future at the same time, while turning bad guys into a million gory pieces with the flick of a wrist. And he’s incredibly emotionless. Those are just the most present characters — to go further would probably spoil everything.

Snyder (“300”) slaves to present images with a Holy Grail sense of fidelity, giving the audience a comprehensive experience. Second viewings might be necessary, as “Watchmen” is a film about detail. Snyder wisely lingers in countless shots, focusing on the minutiae of the character’s lives. Papers, photos, buttons, apartments and numerous other items become entire stories to themselves, and it’s truly effective.

The Nite Owl’s gadgets and underground lair perfectly encapsulate the hero’s need to remember his former glory, but the lair’s dustiness forces him to remain stagnant. Rorschach’s lava lamp-like mask is a work of art in itself. It’s a shame Snyder loves slow motion, which he liberally employs in the inevitable action and sex scenes.

The movie succeeds because of the richness of the source material, and that’s what makes “Watchmen” worthwhile. When Snyder steps in and slings gratuitous extremities (a guy’s arms get sawed off), the experience is slightly demeaned.

Attempting to condense the original 12 issues of the comic, the movie feels rushed and needs breathing room. Surely, slow motion isn’t the only way to notice the little drop of blood falling onto a smiley face button. In the end there’s a bigger story, but “Watchmen” is about all the small stuff, which is engaging regardless of previous attachments.

The filmmakers shouldn’t be credited with making the best presentation of “Watchmen.” The whole thing was already perfect in 1986. See “Watchmen” and enjoy it, but consider just reading the original instead.

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