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If you want a lead-off pun about having "watched the Watchmen," then look at 99.9% of the other reviews out there. I give you nothing.

Watchmen is a film I've waited twenty years to see, and having now seen it, I feel like I might have enjoyed it more if I'd only waited ten. This is not to say that I didn't enjoy it; in fact, I enjoyed it far more than I would've had the first attempt at making it actually succeeded, what with its Sam Hamm-penned script that tossed out most of the important story material, including almost everything with The Comedian, which would've been a bit like making Star Wars without Darth Vader, i.e. possible yet utterly stupid. Director Zack Snyder has shown far more reverence to the original material, at least in some ways, if not in all of the most important. The comic's author, Alan Moore, while being a bit overwrought about such things, isn't entirely wrong with his complaints about Hollywood films missing the point. But he is much more wrong than a cynical viewer might've expected.

The story, heralded as the greatest comic book ever written, centers around a group of retired superheroes in an alternate version of 1985, where Nixon is still president and the world teeters on the brink of nuclear war with the Soviets. The murder of the brutally amoral crimefighter The Comedian sends the only remaining active vigilante from the old days off in a search to find the killer and uncover the reason behind the killing; was it an old enemy picking off costumed heroes, or something bigger? The evidence for a vast, invisible conspiracy begins to mount, and the remaining retired heroes begin to find themselves drawn back into the fray, even as the threat of World War III looms ever larger.

For anyone familiar with the comic, the detail will be impressive indeed; the cast, even down to the lesser characters, look scarily like their pen-and-ink inspirations. For such an expensive, high-profile film, it's cast with virtual unknowns, with priority seeming to have been fixated on resemblance to the comic book characters as opposed to bankability. The preponderance of scenes and dialogue taken straight from the book will inspire grins of pleasure from fans across the nation, and the running time of nearly three hours does help to insure that not all that is significant to the soul of the original work had to be purged for the sake of running time. It's impressive, and clearly a labor of love, but in some areas it could've worked better.

Watchmen the book was a work centered on ideas: Moral relativism, determinism versus destiny, finding meaning in a godless universe, and other such weighty topics. Watchmen the movie touches on these things but doesn't linger on them, preferring instead to draw out the action scenes, of which there were never very many, frankly. Understandable, since that's what audiences expect to see from comic-book movies, and films that cost a lot of money do have a responsibility to make that money back, but it's the ideas, the psychology of the work that makes the book shine. The ruthless vigilante Rorschach has a very specific thematic reason behind his ink-blot mask persona, and you're not going to know what that is from the film alone. One is more likely to view him as a psychopathic crackpot than what he was originally: the most uncompromisingly moral character in the story. Similarly, Laurie/The Silk Specter is charming and pretty, looks great both in and out of her costume, and kicks lots of ass; about the only things she doesn't do are 1. wear silk, and 2. play the really emotional scenes with the weight they deserved. On the other hand, somewhat sheepish everyman Dan Dreiberg/Nite Owl is damn near perfect, as is the etheral, inhuman Dr. Manhattan, a physicist transformed into a godlike being with a nonlinear view of time and a profound disconnect with the world that it seems only he can save from oblivion.

The way a film is made and marketed these days is different than it was just ten years ago, with the home viewing experience now a much more significant factor, and the already-rumoured extended DVD cut may well restore much of what I admired about the book that was lost in translation. I will give Snyder credit for keeping, if downplaying, the notion of the world as being "a clock without a craftsman," something I'd have given odds would be cut to pander to this predominantly religious nation. And the ending, if slightly different, is still just as uncomfortable and ambiguous as ever it was; people looking for a tidy tale of good versus evil won't find it here. But in many ways, the less faithful V for Vendetta adaptation did it better, compressing the narrative while keeping the core idea unchanged. Too many of my favorite passages got dropped to make way for more slow-motion beatdowns, a trademark of Snyder's direction that I don't find personally appealing. I guess too much intellectualism is a hard sell in a country that considers The Matrix to be philosophically challenging entertainment.

But it's still pretty good. Just someone explain to me how, after all the piddling details they slavishly included, they missed the fact that the gang of heroes wasn't called "The Watchmen."

-review by Matt Murray

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