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Some fine Swiss craftsmanship would’ve helped make this big-budget adaptation of Watchmen run a lot more smoothly.

The Keene Act

Navel-gazer or butt-buster; neither works out well for the audience
Navel-gazer or butt-buster; neither works out well for the audience

The graphic novel Watchmen stormed comic book stores 23 years ago and has since gone on to be dubbed “one of the 100 best English-language novels from 1923 to the present” in Time and “one of the 50 Best Novels in the last 25 years” in Entertainment Weekly.

Well, that might be a bit overstated. While the first half of the book really does live up to the hype; the second half turns into a plodding, navel-gazing exercise in cold war existentialism.

The novel certainly broke the mold and stretched the medium in all different directions, incorporating text-based “excerpts” from character autobiographies, newspaper articles and other reference materials with the ultimate effect of creating a fully-realized, self-contained world that felt authentic even while some of the ideas and politics were convoluted. (For example, Richard Nixon holds a five-term presidency from Vietnam right on into the 1980s and an odd joke about a “cowboy actor” (Ronald Reagan) in the White House popped up on the very last page.)

As for that first half, what a ride! It’s a terrific read in which the good guys are shunned, their masked vigilantism made illegal and their days of heroism relegated to the dustbin of memory. It so fully fleshes out a sense of history and individuality, it is a pleasure to read. The idea of “masked adventurers” plays off existing characters like Captain America, Batman and all the others, while also acknowledging by name other characters like Doc Savage and The Shadow as if they were real-life heroes.

Somewhat problematically, though, while reading Watchmen the mind can wander down the cinematic highway and stop at Pixar’s The Incredibles and mull over the similarities. The latter playfully jabs at ideas presented so seriously in the former. Capes? Yeah, they’re a bad idea. Superheroes kicked to the curb? Ditto.

Retribution

Now, after much ballyhoo and numerous ill-fated attempts that at one point featured Terry Gilliam as director, Watchmen is finally on the big screen. Sadly, it’s a big, bloated bore.

The problem has nothing to do with any deviations from the source material. Overall, this flick is faithful, perhaps too faithful and too literal. Key frames are recreated precisely and the source material is quoted liberally.

The problem has to do with the execution. It’s so lifeless, the movie just sits on the screen. Brooding comic book movies may be the new rage, but that doesn’t make this a great movie. This sucker broods, but it’s the brood of boredom. The Dark Knight was brooding and serious — and it rocked. It had its own soul, it found its own riffs and social commentary.

Zack Snyder’s Watchmen is like an Al-Gore-style PowerPoint presentation of a comic book’s themes and characters — all the elements that endeared the book to legions are physically present, but there’s no soul.

Who Watches the Watchmen?

The overall narrative of Watchmen centers on a string of murders (or rather, attempted murders) on former “masked adventurers.” It’s a storyline that creates an unlikely reunion while subplots involving things like Russians in Afghanistan, nuclear war, and a loony little comic-within-a-comic about pirates and a raft made of corpses weigh down the book’s exciting pulpy sensibilities.

The screenplay by David Hayter ( X-Men) and relative newbie Alex Tse, however, is gutted of all storytelling sensibilities. There’s no urgency in finding the murderer, there’s no sense of impending global destruction. There’s nothing. The movie starts out like gangbusters with a nice opening credits sequence that summarizes some of the heroes’ back stories, but it winds up being a butt-buster.

And it’s interesting to note the credits say “based on the graphic novel co-created by Dave Gibbons.” He’s the illustrator. No mention is made of Alan Moore, the writer.

There’s no need to even comment on the acting at this point. Most of the cast look like plastic action figures as soon as they put on their costumes and the acting is equally plasticine.

Ironically, one of the film’s diversions from the book is toward the very end when one character comments, “Nothing ends. Nothing ever ends.”

She must’ve tried to watch the Watchmen.