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 film, directed by Zack Snyder (300), will test the limits of superhero movie fans. If you're not already invested in these characters because of the original graphic novel by Alan Moore and Dave Gibbons, this movie is unlikely to change that predicament.
That's bad news for Warner Bros and Paramount, which own American and international rights, respectively. Opening weekends will reflect the huge anticipation of this much-touted newsmaking movie. 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 and moves via newsreel through the Cold War to 1985 when Nixon is in his third term, tipping us that we're in an alternate 1985 America. The opening murder happens to a character called the Comedian (Jeffrey Dean Morgan), 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 US and the Soviet Union that could lead to nuclear war – nears midnight.
His investigation and renewed contacts with former buddies fills us in on their complicated histories and problematic psychiatric makeups.
But these aren't so much superheroes as ordinary human beings with comic-book martial arts prowess. The exception is Billy Crudup's Jon Osterman, aka Dr Manhattan, who in true comic book fashion was caught in a lab accident that turned him into a scientific freak – a naked, glowing giant with god-like powers that are being harnessed by an ex-Mask, Matthew Goode's menacing industrialist Adrian Veidt.
The question the movie poses then, is ah-hah, who is watching these Watchmen? They don't seem too different from the villains. So we don't empathise with these creatures. And what's with the silly Halloween getups?
The violence, too, is not as bad as early rumours would have one believe.
It's still comic book stuff, only with lots of bloody effects. The real disappointment is that the film does not transport an audience to another world, as 300 did.
The set pieces are flat and the characters have little resonance. Even the digital effects are ho-hum. Armageddon never looked so cheesy. The film seems to take pride in its darkness, but this is just another failed special effect.
Cinematographer Larry Fong and production designer Alex McDowell blend real and digital sets with earthen tones and secondary colours that give a sense of the past. But the stories are absurd and the acting too uneven.