SPOILERS FOR THE FILM AND COMIC
I was skeptical that a film adaptation of Watchmen could ever succeed. The original comic book was, first and foremost, in my opinion, a deconstruction of the American superhero genre by a Brit who obviously grew up enamored of the fiction and remained obsessed with it even as his reverence turned to adult frustration at the lies it peddled. Though it's often trotted out as the "greatest superhero comic of all time," it would never be my first recommendation to a newcomer to comics. Much of the meaning of the work would be lost on a reader who has not first amassed a knowledge of the more traditional works that led up to it. While superheroes are nothing new to film, I wasn't convinced that the movies thus far released, barring perhaps The Incredibles, which tread similar ground, had been sufficient to instill the nostalgia that Watchmen was originally meant to subvert.
Having now seen the film, I can't say, from my perspective as someone who had read the comic, exactly how well these messages made it through, but I thought the movie worked surprisingly well enough that it could stand on its own without any of that stuff, instead focusing more on the always familiar Cold War backdrop. I did feel that the opening credits montage, which I loved, did a fantastic job of staging the narrative by leading the audience through its history of superheroes, mirroring the decades of progress in American superhero comics.
Aside from the inherent difficulty of translating the comic to film, I was initially a tad concerned at hearing that there were no superstar actors or director attached. I loved Zack Snyder's Dawn of the Dead, but, though a good-looking film elevated by memorable performances by Sarah Polley and Ving Rhames, it was not a terribly deep work. 300, meanwhile, was again an often visually-striking movie, but it had less personality and impact than a typical WWE commercial. Perhaps its flaws could not be blamed on Snyder, but Watchmen was not the sort of project for which fans would have accepted any excuses. Thankfully, Snyder and his team managed to put together, not only his most visually awesome film, featuring stunning realizations of Nite Owl's flying craft, Rorschach's inkblot mask, and Dr. Manhattan's infinite powers, but also a weightier narrative than any of his previous films, and perhaps the source material, faithfully adapted, did make the difference.
As for the cast, among the principals, the only names and faces familiar to me before Watchmen were Jeffrey Dean Morgan, whom I liked from TV's Supernatural, and Billy Crudup, who had not really impressed me in Mission: Impossible III. Nevertheless, Crudup was pitch-perfect as Dr. Manhattan, while Morgan and Jackie Earle Haley were equally good as The Comedian and Rorschach, respectively.
The most problematic character in the film was Ozymandias. While I thought Matthew Goode actually delivered a solid performance, the movie's treatment of the character differed significantly from the image I had of him from my reading of the comic. The film downplayed the character's clownish status as a self-marketing celebrity who had dealt with the ban on superheroics by commercializing his identity. In the book, this element was perfectly captured by a key scene in which he went on live TV and performed gymnastics in costume. Perhaps making up for the loss of that image, we instead got an extended fight scene, admittedly the film's most exciting, where he beat the hell out of The Comedian. His new black costume, while still silly, was nowhere near as garish as his old lavender number. Overall, I found him a little too smooth for my tastes, and his German accent, I'd have thought, would have immediately set off alarms in the minds of moviegoers. To my surprise, Goode is actually an Englishman, and his decision to use a German accent was a deliberate choice. It wasn't something I'd have ever considered from reading the book, and it likely robbed the film plot of one twist, but maybe the movie wanted to focus a little less on his personality as a schemer and more as an idealist whose actions were thoroughly consistent with his beliefs.
I was disappointed, however, by the "bullet catch" scene, which I considered, in the comic, to be the character's defining moment as the pinnacle of human excellence. In the original comic, the moment was magnificently set up by a preceding scene in which Nite Owl, upon hearing Ozymandias's explanation of his plot, asked what he would have done if his assassin, never knowing that his target and client were one and the same, had shot at Ozymandias first instead of the secretary. Ozymandias replied by supposing that he would have had to catch the bullet, which Nite Owl at first interpreted as a ridiculous joke, until he noticed that Ozymandias wasn't laughing. Later, when Laurie arrived, she got the drop on Ozymandias, and he was forced to react by turning around and catching the bullet in one fluid motion. In the film, they had a short standoff before Laurie fired, presumably giving him more preparation to anticipate the shot. It was a humanly impossible feat all the same, I suppose, but I felt the film version lost a lot of the impact. Still, if that was my biggest complaint with the movie, then I'd say it was a smashing success.
Beyond the film itself, I'd like to talk about my theater experience. I attended an afternoon showing that was far from packed, yet a tall man with a large afro decided to sit directly in front of me. Honestly, not that big a deal, but, given that it was still early and there were so many seats still open, I thought it a little inconsiderate. But that was not the real story.
This same guy and his wife/girlfriend apparently thought it was a good idea to bring their(?) infant baby to the R-rated Watchmen. Regardless of whether or not the baby would remember the awful things that earned the movie its rating, its wailing, which began immediately, would certainly pose a bother to the rest of us, as would the mother's forceful commands telling it to be quiet. It was clear that these parents were not considerate people.
Now, to be fair, I am at a very different point in life from these parents, so I may lack the proper perspective to judge. It's easy for me to say that they should have gotten a sitter or maybe just sat this one out altogether. But maybe they'd been waiting their entire lives to see this movie, and due to, I don't know, "circumstances," they couldn't leave the baby behind. It got me to thinking that the theater experience does not really accommodate such a scenario, despite it coming up at every single movie.
Earlier, an acquaintance had told me that he would not be going to the movies for Watchmen, because he was already in the process of downloading it to his computer. He does a lot of that these days. I do not and, furthermore, do not condone it, but I suppose it is more convenient and obviously cheaper, and I won't pretend that I haven't crossed similar lines in the past. For the obnoxious couple at the theater, I might actually have suggested it as an option that would have made everybody happier.
Given how rampant Internet-powered piracy has become--I hear enough at work to know that it doesn't take a genius hacker to pull this off--it's already clear that the movie industry will eventually have to somehow work out a digital distribution system even for new movies, and cleaning up theaters might be a happy side benefit. Thinking of myself, it's hard for me to quantify what I get out of going to the movies that I can't from watching at home. Bigger is better, I suppose, and I do only go to certain types of movies, not because those are the only ones I enjoy, but because some movies, like Watchmen, are such events that they demand the grand treatment. I also don't tend to go to the movies alone, so I guess there's a social aspect, which certain movies are more conducive to than others. Maybe I also go for the atmosphere, as exemplified by the collective audience applause when Rorschach, a prisoner surrounded by inmates hungry for vengeance against one who helped put them away, put the thugs in their places before uttering the greatest of his many memorable lines, probably the most brilliant line Alan Moore has ever written. But did the energy of that moment outweigh the irritation felt at the afro man and his wife?