Sure, "Watchmen" was the "Moby Dick" of superhero graphic novels. The tale's crazy salad of world-weary crime busters, adolescent nihilism, pulp bloodshed and political paranoia captivated a generation of fans. On the screen, however, the overpacked story loses focus. The writer of the "Watchmen" comics, Alan Moore, disavows all film adaptations of his work. Movies like this are why.
At root, "Watchmen" is a murder mystery set in a bleak alternative 1985. Richard Nixon is in his third term and the world is on the verge of nuclear annihilation. In a worst-case New York, the cynical antihero known as the Comedian is murdered. All that's left of him is entrails on the sidewalk and a bloodstained smiley-face pin. The film goes splat, too -- and takes an interminable 2¾ hours to do it.
The Comedian's onetime colleagues regroup to find the killers. "Watchmen's" justice league is a splintered band working at cross-purposes. There's sadistic misanthrope Rorschach and danger-seeking Silk Spectre II. Nite Owl II gets a kinky charge out of dressing in vinyl and bloodying street thugs. A tragic accident turned a genial physicist into the godlike Dr. Manhattan. Uber-genius Ozymandias claims the right to impose his will on ignorant mankind. These characters want to save the world, but can't set their own hearts right.
The tale veers down a hundred tangents. Narrative points of view change hands faster than a basketball as back stories unfurl, the location leaps from Antarctica to outer space, and Henry Kissinger channels "Dr. Strangelove."
Moore's overarching theme is that superheroes are reflections of America's political ideology. They embody the impulse to fight in the name of eradicating terror, rather than bringing peace. That's a rich subtext; the problem comes in dramatizing it. After an exciting night of heroism, the Spectre and the Owl couple in his flying machine. The over-reverent score, the earnest groping by actors Malin Ackerman and Patrick Wilson, and director Zack Snyder's soft-porn photography make this an early contender for Worst Movie Sex Scene of 2009. Second-worst? The S&M rape scene between Jeffrey Dean Morgan's Comedian and Carla Gugino's Silk Spectre I.
The film is a looker, to be sure, with every bone shard and dog carcass and fireball and spike of splintered glass art-directed to glossy perfection. But the slavishly literal adaptation expires from narrative bloat.
"Watchmen" bites off more than a single film can chew, and chokes on its gluttony.