Impotence, not coincidentally, is the unifying theme of Watchmen. I've posted before that the story, as told by Gibbons and Moore, is essentially a freudian analysis of the psychosexual complexes that motivate people to dress in leotards and fight crime, and (therefore) that motivates readers of the genre to commune with the medium with fervent intimacy. When you look past all of the story's remarkable trappings, it is ultimately a tale of freaks and failures, of men and women who believe they're heroes and villains but in the end are little more than slaves to their own subconscious feelings of powerlessness. It is here that I take issue with Snyder's adaptation.
Dave Gibbons' name appears in the credits of the film; Alan Moore's does not. This is appropriate, but it is not because Snyder failed to attempt to preserve the integrity of the text. Indeed, both authors' work, as it appears in the ink on the page, is preserved with remarkable fidelity here. Scenes from the novel are regularly reconstructed panel-for-panel and line-for-line. The problem is simply that Gibbons' vision is well-served by the big-screen costuming and special effects; Moore's is not.
To show Night Owl and Spectre engaging in kung fu heroics is not only an exaggeration of the text, it is a fundamental misreading of their characters. These aren't action heroes; they're people who get their capes caught in revolving doors and are brutally gunned down. Moore's greatest insight with Watchmen was to realize that if flawed people choose to engage in heroics that are infinitely beyond them, the results of their efforts are not comic (as was, and is, so widely popularized in comedies of bungling superheroes), but tragic. Snyder seems to be completely oblivious to this. These aren't people who are uniquely endowed to be heroes, as the Night Owl/Spectre fight sequences would imply, but are either tormented into doing so (like Rorschach and the Comedian, the moral centers of the work), or are looking to get off (basically everyone else).
Watchmen (the book) benefits in a variety of ways from its medium, but the comic format has its drawbacks. Because of the ease with which its pages turn, one can miss the many subtle themes Watchmen has to offer. As the above highlights, the movie's greatest flaw is not that it gets the story wrong (J. Hoberman actually argues it gets it too right) but that it misses one of Alan Moore's fundamental points.
Thus, there are two things anyone should do before seeing this film: (1) read the book, and (2) read it again. This is not a suggestion so much as a prerequisite. To see this film without understanding the novel's underlying themes is to reduce its real substance to mere plot.
Having fulfilled the above requirements, I left the movie theater last Saturday feeling elated in the knowledge that this movie was probably as good as it could have been. It was true to the book, Snyder's stupid camera tricks never bogged down scenes the way they did in 300, and besides a couple of miscasted roles, the acting was more right than wrong.
And yet, this film's greatest success has nothing to do with what occurs between its previews and closing credits. Unlike the multitude of superhero films released this decade -- Spiderman, X-Men, and Batman among the most popular -- Watchmen serves not to supplement, but to complement (or even advertise) its source material. Since the buzz began for Snyder's adaptation nearly a year ago, the book has seen record sales, and it is currently sitting at the top of Amazon's bestseller list.
Ignoring the merits of the film altogether, Zack Snyder and Warner Bros. Pictures deserve one helluva pat on the back for igniting a new interest in both a twenty-year-old comic book and the graphic novel medium itself.