Superheroes and superstars have three things in common—they enjoy the fickle, fleeting adoration of legions of fans, they are held to a higher moral standard than the rest of us, and they seem incapable of calling it quits. That’s why, when Bruce Wayne shuts down his basement Batcave in The Dark Knight, when Peter Parker tosses his latex in the garbage in Spider-Man 2, when Bob and Helen Parr are relegated to stultifying suburbia in The Incredibles, our sixth sense tingles—we know it’s a matter of time before the cape and cowl go back on.
That sense of anticipation runs through the first half of Watchmen, an ambitious, heavy-handed American dystopia set in an alternate 1985. Through an exquisitely-crafted early sequence, we see that America has decisively won the Vietnam conflict, Richard Nixon is still President, and that the Cold War is heating up. The US and USSR are watching each other with twitchy trigger-fingers on their nuclear arsenals. Masked vigilantes, once revered, have now been imprisoned, institutionalized or disbanded.
Lost in this grim world are the former Watchmen—Rorschach (Jackie Earle Haley), Nite Owl (Patrick Wilson), Silk Spectre (Malin Akerman) and Dr. Manhattan (Billy Crudup). They are living inconspicuously, helping the government, prowling nighttime streets, watching their costumes gather dust. They are all dissatisfied, with their own lives and with the society they inhabit.
It’s a compelling setup, made all the more so by acute political and social commentary. Paranoia about nuclear war, communist sympathies and military supremacy are veiled swipes by the filmmakers at America’s current fears of a nuclear Third World, terrorist networks and asymmetric warfare. Disturbed by the human propensity for violence and destruction, Nite Owl asks a fellow hero, The Comedian, “What happened to the American dream?” The chilling reply: “It came true.”
But somewhere between the dirty streets of Manhattan and the barren surface of Mars, Watchmen loses its way. After smaller stories of pedophiliac murderers in New York and war criminals in Hanoi, suddenly the Watchmen are fighting in a faux pyramid in Antarctica to save the world from doom. It’s the curse of the blockbuster that pyrotechnics too often take priority over plot. The film’s pessimism ends up feeling pedestrian. Any group of caped crusaders can save the world. Yawn.
The more interesting questions are whether the world is worth saving, and from whom. Writers David Hayter and Alex Tse force us into philosophical difficulties, but then provide too-easy answers. In Watchmen, the threat to humanity is human antagonism; the threat to America is American aggression. These are not problems solved by a knockout punch, no matter how beautifully rendered.
The film is also overly long, at 163 minutes. Anticlimactic, moralizing speeches don’t make it feel any shorter. Director Jack Snyder and editor William Hoy should have shaved a half hour from the running time, leaving Mars and Antarctica on the cutting room floor. As Watchmen keeps reminding us, the world we’ve created is cold and unforgiving enough.
Directed by Jack Snyder.
With Billy Crudup, Carla Gugino and Jeffrey Dean Morgan.
163 minutes. Action/Fantasy.