"Watchmen" turns superheroics into campy soap opera

Fri Feb 27, 2009 1:50am EST
 
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By Kirk Honeycutt

LOS ANGELES (Hollywood Reporter) - It's not easy being a comic-book hero these days. The poor boys have taken their lumps in "Hancock," "The Dark Knight" and even "Iron Man." Self-doubt, angst and inadequacies plague them. And now comes "Watchmen." Its costumed superheroes, operating in an alternative 1985, are seriously screwed up -- and so is their movie.

As stimulating as it was to see the superhero movie enter the realm of crime fiction in "The Dark Knight," "Watchmen" enters into a realm that is both nihilistic and campy. The two make odd companions. The film, directed by Zack Snyder ("300"), will test the limits of superhero movie fans. For anyone who's not already invested in these characters because of the original graphic novel by Alan Moore and Dave Gibbons, nothing this movie does is likely to change that predicament.

That's bad news for Warner Bros. and Paramount, which hold domestic and international rights, respectively. Opening weekends everywhere will reflect the huge anticipation of this much-touted, news-making movie, which opens March 6 stateside. After that, the box-office slide could be drastic.

Snyder and writers David Hayter and Alex Tse never find a reason for those unfamiliar with the graphic novel to care about any of this nonsense. And it is nonsense. When one superhero has to take a Zen break, he does so on Mars. Of course he does.

The film opens with a brutal killing, then moves on to a credit-roll newsreel of sorts that takes us though the Cold War years, landing in 1985, when Nixon is in his third term -- tipping us that we're in an alternate 1985 America, where our superheroes have taken care of Woodward and Bernstein and other forces have evidently taken care of the U.S. Constitution.

The opening murder happens to a character called the Comedian (Jeffrey Dean Morgan), who was once a member of a now-banished team of superheroes called the Masks. Fellow ex-Mask Rorschach (Jackie Earle Haley), his mask one of perpetually shifting inkblots, takes exception to his old colleague's death. He believes the entire society of ex-crime-fighters is being targeted even as the Doomsday Clock -- which charts tensions between the U.S. and the Soviet Union that could lead to nuclear war -- nears midnight.

His investigation and renewed contacts with former buddies fill us in on the complicated histories and problematic psychiatric makeup of these colleagues.

It's all very complicated but not impenetrable. We pick up the relationships quickly enough, but soon realize these back stories owe more to soap operas than to superhero comics.   Continued...

 
<p>Eric Tetangco, of Los Angeles, arrives dressed as Rorschach from comic Watchmen during the 39th annual Comic Con Convention in San Diego July 24, 2008. REUTERS/Mike Blake</p>