March 26 2009 12:00 AM

Latest comic adaptation raises bar on Batman, etc.


Its OK if you havent read the graphic novel. In fact, youre probably better off. Its not even worth the energy to compare the two, because the movie is never as good as the book.

That said, "Watchmen" is a pretty good movie. Its darker and perhaps more entertaining than "The Dark Knight" and miles away from the comparatively upbeat "Spiderman" and "X-Men" trilogies.

"Watchmen" opens with the murder of The Comedian (Jeffrey Dean Morgan), an as-told-by-Howard-Zinn version of Captain America. The murder touches off an investigation by vigilante crime fighter Rorschach (Jack Earle Haley) who sports a mask of ever-changing inkblots. Rorschach has a hunch that someone is trying to murder "masks," or superheroes, which leads him to warn his former Watchmen teammates that their lives might be in danger. From there we are introduced to the rest of the team: Nite Owl II (Patrick Wilson), Dr. Manhattan (Billy Crudup), Silk Spectre II (Malin Ackerman) and Ozymandias (Matthew Goode). In their own separate ways, the former Watchmen try to piece together the puzzle, all while the threat of a nuclear war between the United States and the U.S.S.R. looms.

For me to describe the rest of the plot would do the movie injustice, because theres just so much. It would be like, I dont know, trying to adapt the greatest comic book ever into a few short paragraphs.

“Watchmen” was written by Alan Moore and released as a series of comic books over 1986 and 1987. Since its release, the movie rights have been traded to different studios and shopped to different directors. And as well, “Watchmen” has been canonized as one of the greatest books of the last century.

In the hands of director Zack Snyder, “Watchmen” is given fair treatment — Snyder even took whole sections of the comic and portrayed them verbatim onscreen. The movie doesn’t follow the original work entirely. Most noticeably, the ending is different and is, in its execution, the weakest part of the movie (complete with the clich “bad guy” speech telling the “good guy” how he hatched and executed his nefarious plans).

But during the meat of the film, Snyder does a good job of blending action, special effects (there’s a lot of gore and sex in this; also, all the fisticuffs are in that banal Matrix-esque slow motion style) and the soap opera side of “super” heroes and their struggle to live in a paranoid world that has outlawed their profession.

Some of the best scenes in the movie are in the details: A 1985 Richard Nixon, then in his fifth term, deciding whether to nuke Russia; the spectacular violence of a giant Dr. Manhattan decimating the Viet Cong with his matter-bending powers, or the beautiful introduction showing us the history of the Watchmen (originally the Minutemen) set to Bob Dylan’s “The Times They Are A-Changin.’”

“Watchmen” purists might criticize this film a bit more. But Snyder and Co. have given us an unpretentious movie that, in its end, casts doubt on what it means to be a “superhero” and basically takes the piss out of all the comic book movies that came before it.