movie versions of the great gatsby and beloved opened with fewer expectations than watchmen. maybe that's because less was at stake in film versions of conventional literary classics. now, with hollywood's adaptation of alan moore's 1986 graphic novel, the future of pop culture hangs in the balance: post-literary hipster culture meets post-cinematic movie culture to see who will dominate. this battle takes place on the $150 million big-screen game board of presiding general zack snyder, the action-movie wunderkind who showed undeniable aplomb in dawn of the dead and 300.
it's up to snyder to make movie sense of moore's innovation (the graphic novel from which contemporary graphic novel and comics sensibility derived). snyder must create a drama where the concept of superheroes complements american pop and political history. the watchmen-silk spectre ii (malin akerman), dr. manhattan (billy crudup), adrian veidt (nathan goode), nite owl (patrick wilson) and rorschach (jackie earle haley)-are mostly everyday superheroes who investigate the murder of one of their forebears (the comedian, played by jeffrey dean morgan). snyder presents them in a crisscrossing cinematic context, testing their credibility as vulnerable humans and imperfect superhumans.
hit or flop, watchmen is nothing less than a test of pop culture's maturity and juvenilia. staying true to the original source material, snyder must either justify our belief/tolerance in superheroes as artful metaphors of human endeavor or succumb to exploiting our fealty to commercial product. not a summer blockbuster, watchman appears at a low point of popular culture when tv shows are crap and incessant movie versions of comic books have all reduced cinematic potential to action-movie triteness-as in last year's 1-2 sucker punches iron man and speed racer. snyder at least has a true movie sense; he's a real filmmaker as opposed to jon favreau whose dung-like iron man was celebrated by film critics desperate to seem hip while the wachowski brothers' speed racer was just off the rails, both hyperbolic and asinine.
snyder's artistic challenge matches our own struggle for meaningful art. feeling his way through both watchmen's labyrinthine narrative and hollywood's manipulation of the zeitgeist, snyder seeks to express his personal geeky taste for sex and violence. storytelling itself is not his strength. this film-noirish mystery feels remote-like a half-hearted retelling of an overly familiar joke. it's a consequence of so many recent comic-book-movie adaptations deriving from the same stockpile of superheroes, evil-geniuses, gadgets and apocalyptic catastrophes. as hollywood sinks lower into juvenilia, it dulls our sense of drama. cinematic expectation gets reduced to a fan boy's f/x appreciation.
but watchmen traps snyder in his own success. it's often as dull as a david fincher film, going through the alan moore legend/formula as dutifully as any old-time biblical epic. during its nearly three-hour length, padded with overly slo-mo fight scenes, only a brief segment where silk spectre ii and nite owl overcome their sexual dysfunction through performing good samaritan deeds shows snyder's 300-style liveliness. most of the film is a deadpan display of retro/topsy-turvy nixon-era politics and pop culture (including the 1970s smiley face button and caricatures of tv pundits). sequences timed to bob dylan, simon and garfunkel and kc and the sunshine band's "boogie man" mix with stylized period flashbacks of watchmen's ancestors that suggest 3-d color versions of weegee photographs.
despite fincher-style extravagance, snyder shows no distinctive vision. he's defeated by the false sophistication of graphic novels. among unsophisticated readers, alan moore's melange of cultural history passes for postmodern analysis when it's merely kitsch. and the script by david hayter and alex tse keeps it dull. neither political satire nor camp, it fails the unique fantasy mix of classicism and modernism that distinguished both 300 and vin diesel's the chronicles of riddick. the looming colossus of dr. manhattan and rorschach's vengeful jailbreak sequence never mesh as a coherent vision; they look like two styles of genre filmmaking colliding. here's where watchmen prognosticates pop's dread future: the jumble of references, influences and icons bespeak a grab-bag cultural illiteracy disguised amidst the trivialities of adolescent fiction. when zack doesn't get to indulge 300's eroto-violent knack the result is just product. -- watchmen directed by zack snyder running time: 163 min.