'Watchmen' too complex for the silver screen

Based on nothing more than observational and anecdotal information, and the fact that studio heads make movies because they believe there's a ticket-buying audience out there, the working assumption is that there are legions of gnarly, obsessed gnomes out there who are completely taken with the superhero genre. They read the illustrated stories — which date back to 1938 and have roots in pulp crime fiction —with a vigorous attention to detail.

It's not a stretch imagining these fans up late at night, their faces lighted by the glow of blue-white computer screens, prowling superhero chat rooms, engaging in intense debates about comic books and graphic novels in all their nuanced wonder.

And, it's assumed, they revel in the spate of movies, based on these comic books, which have been a staple of moviemaking for several decades, now. You see them standing in long lines, barely able to contain their enthusiasm.

Of course, endless discussions are held by comic book loyalists about these films, focusing on how closely said movies adhere to the actual spirit and intent of the particular story in question.

All of the above would apply to the just-released film, "Watchmen," which is based on a series of comic books written and illustrated in 1985 by Alan Moore and Dave Gibbons, and then re-issued as a graphic novel.

OK, it's possible you are reading this and asking yourself, "Why should I want to see another movie based on comic book superheroes? Who likes this stuff, anyway?" Agreed, you might say, "Ironman" was pretty good. But it was lighthearted and campy and had Robert Downey Jr.

Consider, by way of rebuttal, that more filmgoers than you might think love these films. Many grew up reading comic books and have embraced the films as they reached the silver screen. And now, with the advent of CGI, when a superhero leaps off of a tall building (spider web strands or no), and does battle with a dark, villainous nemesis, well, it can be a rush because of the ratcheted up verisimilitude. Tell me that Superman doesn't look like he's really flying. This is the stuff of myth.

And then there's the fact that superheroes are deeply embedded in our popular culture, their stories often compelling, even though the template by now is familiar: the central character(s) has super powers (although it may suffice to be incredibly athletic and have a command of martial arts, ala Batman and the Watchmen), possesses an interesting backstory, and wears an intriguing, spandex-latex costume which acts as a disguise. Frosting on the cake: the world that superheroes inhabit is generally free of ethical ambiguity. Black is black; white is white. Bad guys are easily identifiable.

Which brings us back to "Watchmen." It's not uncommon, when viewing films based on serial superhero characters, that the uninitiated are at a bit of a disadvantage (that can occur with Harry Potter as well). There's a lot to absorb for your average non-comic book reading moviegoer.

But this overly long (120 minutes) film isn't just in need of a program, it's in need of a strong story, which would have been far more interesting had it been reworked entirely. Abandoning the linear arc of the graphic novel would only have improved it as a film.

"Watchmen" also is layered with what seems an over abundance of characters: Laurie Jupiter/Silk Spectre II (Malin Ackerman); Jon Osterman/Dr. Manhattan (Billy Crudup); Adrian Veidt/Ozymandias (Matthew Goode); Sally Jupiter/Silk Spectre (Carla Gugino); Walter Kovacs/Rorschach (Jackie Earle Haley); Dan Dreiberg/Nite Owl II (Patrick Wilson); Edward Blake/The Comedian (Jeffrey Dean Morgan).

All are brought into play, all have backstories, of sorts, and in the aggregate can seem a bit overwhelming, if not tedious. Keep in mind that Dr. Manhattan is a tall, buff, naked (really naked), blue, radioactive dude who we're supposed to believe has saved the world, won the war in Vietnam, is tight with Silk Spectre II — and when she dumps him, and he is in need of a time out, he goes to Mars. Honest. There's more, and while it's possible (barely) to recap the story, it all seems a bit uninteresting.

The film, as was the graphic novel, is set in 1985. The specter of nuclear holocaust is a shroud that permeates all existence while a cold war rages. President Nixon has just been elected to a third term in office and the Soviets are pondering crossing an unthinkable nuclear threshold while the president is preparing to respond. It all seems dated and, after all these years, somewhat silly, absent relevance and real punch and should have been contemporized.

The film also begs the question: What makes some superhero films so appealing and "Watchmen" seemingly scattered and confusing? Perhaps it begins with the fact that there is generally only one superhero in most films, and if he's likable with an appealing backstory, then the audience will gladly suspend its disbelief and root for him. In truth, he or she has to be recognizable as a person and closer to mortal than not. Clark Kent was Everyman and when he transformed into the Man of Steel it was a thrill. The Watchmen possess no such presence, lack dimension, and are all but impossible to identify with.

Creator and wordsmith Moore believed that Watchmen could never be adapted to the screen. It was simply too convoluted, too complex in character and theme. If it were slavishly translated, from graphic novel to screen, it would be confusing and likely collapse from its own weight. Which is what happens to "Watchmen."

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