It is the nineteen-eighties and the world is different to how we remember it: for a start, there were no costumed superheroes around back then, but there are here, and one of them, The Comedian (Jeffrey Dean Morgan) is relaxing in his New York City apartment watching television. He has done many evil things in his life, but he could always justify them to himself as most were in the service of his vision of the American Dream, yet now perhaps these acts will catch up with him. As he watches yet another debate on the possibility of global nuclear war, he is unaware that right outside his front door there is someone about to burst in who will kill him...
So the Comedian doesn't need to worry about the upcoming conflict, but here it's everyone else who does. Watchmen was one of the defining works in comics at a time in the eighties when people started to take them seriously: without betraying their origins artists and writers such as Frank Miller and Neil Gaiman were having their work talked about in such tones as those reserved for literature by readers who felt that finally the medium had come of age and could face adult subject matter without sacrificing the elements which made these works recognisably of their genre. Sure, Miller's The Dark Knight Returns was held up as the American epitome of how well this could be produced, but there was another writer across the Atlantic generating maybe even more respect.
He was Alan Moore, and his Watchmen is often held up as the comic book, excuse me, graphic novel that stretched the boundaries to illustrate the full potential of those picturebooks. Working with artist Dave Gibbons, he created a masterpiece that, if appearances are to be believed, was the envy not only of the comics industry but the movie world as well as filmmakers toiled for two decades to adapt Watchmen to the big screen. Famously, Moore was less than impressed with these efforts and refused to have his name on his filmed works if he could help it, but with this item, there were those who said that he had prematurely misjudged the production as here was a movie which finally got Moore right.
As the dust settled and that initial hyperbole died down, Zack Snyder's Watchmen did not quite look quite as revolutionary as many thought, or hoped, as it took its place among the umpteen comic book adaptations of the day as visually impressive, but dramatically hollow as if faithfully recreating the imagery had not been enough, and it's true that the film's greatest sequence is its titles, which fill in the story so far in a series of clips, some barely moving, where we understand that Richard Nixon is still President, superheroes won the Vietnam War, those heroes who did not toe the government line were dispatched with and outlawed, oh, and The Comedian assassinated President Kennedy.
If nothing else this proves the power not of movies, but the comics they seek to emulate, as everything after that is respectful to its source to the point where you might be wondering why they didn't animate the frames of the original. Fans of the book will find the novelty of seeing live action versions of the drawings is considerable, but the film rarely tackles the strong sense of morality that Moore infused his writing with. It's a nice try, but you're more likely to be musing over whether this had to be quite so long or alternatively looking forward to the next action sequence than you are pondering over the weight of the debates that the material brings up. Here, the heroes find their sense of right and wrong was never as clear as they all hoped it would be when they got into the crimefighting business, and the fact that they have to act immorally for the greater good is something that corrupts each and every one of them to varying degrees. It's provocative stuff, yet ill-served by a brave, impeccable-looking attempt that allows the whole thing to boil down to a middling sci-fi conceit with a twist ending. Snyder didn't so much bring the comic to life as pickle it. Music by Tyler Bates.