In theaters.

Spotting movies that completely abandon their source material is easy. The characters have different attributes, different motivations, different personalities; the plot veers wildly off course; and the ending bears no resemblance to the original. Trickier, though, are those movies that carefully hold to characterization and plot and yet feel somehow … off.

Watchmen is the latter. The adaptation hews so closely to the landmark graphic novel that much dialogue has been lifted directly from the source and some scenes appear to have used the novel’s illustrations as a storyboard. Aside from a few elisions and a minor modification of the climax (which, frankly, is an effective choice), director Zack Snyder’s Watchmen is scrupulously faithful. And yet, I have misgivings about the adaptation. I wish I could point to something concrete—distorted characters, mangled plots—but nothing so obvious is wrong. The problems are in tone and attitude, elements so amorphous that you could argue that the difference is merely one of interpretation—and you would be right. But with a layered, complex work such as Watchmen, interpretation is all that matters, and if that twists the wrong way, faithful adherence to raw plot points is almost beside the point.

The movie uses flashbacks and a masterful montage under the opening credits to outline the history of “masked adventurers” in its alternate universe, but the focus is on the novel’s central plot: Edward Blake (Jeffrey Dean Morgan), once known as the Comedian, one of the first generation of adventurers, is brutally killed, and the vigilante Rorschach (Jackie Earle Haley) becomes convinced that someone is picking off his former crime-fighting colleagues. The extraordinarily wealthy Adrian Veidt (Matthew Goode), once known as Ozymandias, dismisses Rorschach’s concerns—he’s too busy developing a renewable energy source with Dr. Manhattan (Billy Crudup), the one truly superpowered superhero, to pay attention to Rorschach’s conspiracy theories—but Dan Dreiberg (Patrick Wilson), once Nite Owl, and Laurie Jupiter (Malin Akerman), once Silk Spectre, begin to take Rorschach seriously. Together they uncover a scheme more frightening—and with much more terrible ramifications—than even Rorschach could have dreamed.

The dense, tangled plot might not make complete sense to those who haven’t already read the book and soaked up all the details and backstory from the page that can only be briefly alluded to on screen, but for the most part, I think the transition works rather well. Snyder and his team deserve credit for refusing to dumb down the plot. The movie is ambitious, and in many ways, it succeeds beautifully. The stylized fast- and slow-motion Snyder employed in 300 works well in the action sequences here, emphasizing the physicality of the movements, the fact that these people are human, however gifted and well-trained. And the relatively static framing, reproducing illustrated images from the novel, is a fun change from the chopped-up, hyperkinetic editing of so many other contemporary action movies.

But in many ways, Snyder is like a general who knows tactics but not strategy. As well-timed and exciting as many individual scenes are, the pacing of the movie itself is less impressive. The second act sags, and the climax feels off tempo, particularly in the blundering epilogue. Worse, Snyder’s savvy eye is undercut by his inept ear. The introduction and culmination of musical tracks is bizarrely abrupt and amateurish-sounding, and most of the soundtrack choices are so obvious and on-the-nose as to be laughable. We get the whole fear-of-nuclear-annihilation theme without “99 Luftballons.” We get that the characters are approaching the final showdown without “All Along the Watchtower.” And dear god, please, we get the ecstasy of the sex scene without what must be the thousandth use of Leonard Cohen’s “Hallelujah” in a movie or TV show. (Even without Cohen’s drone, that scene is squirmingly awkward and overchoreographed. I actually flashed back to the legendarily goofy pool scene in Showgirls, with Elizabeth Berkley splashing about in an alien facsimile of passion. It’s almost that bad.)

As for the casting, it’s a mixed bag. Akerman delivers dialogue like she learned in phonetically, and Goode’s wandering accent is a distraction. But Morgan and Haley both plumb the rich layers of their twisted characters, and Wilson gives a devastatingly good performance as Dreiberg, beautifully conveying the reticent man’s frustration and self-loathing. Wilson might even be too good, making us too sympathetic to his morally compromised character.

But there I blame the director more than the actor, and that, in fact, is my problem with Snyder’s Watchmen: it goes too easy on Dan and Laurie, flattening them into flattering stand-ins for us “good people” when, in fact, Alan Moore’s original writing is far more nuanced and challenging. The movie’s missteps are subtle but significant. For example, at one point in the film, Dan and Laurie impatiently and passively wait for Rorschach to kill off a retreating adversary, and the moment is played for laughs. Later Dan and Rorschach go together to interrogate a man and the camera repeatedly cuts to Dan wincing as Rorschach breaks their subject’s fingers one by one. He is literally cut from the distasteful sight of torture, absolving him of responsibility, despite the fact that the two of them agreed ahead of time on what would be done. If two people agree that one will play good cop to the other’s bad, they are complicit, but the Watchmen movie uncritically treats Dan and Laurie’s hands as clean, even giving them a tone-deaf happy (well, relatively happy) ending in what should be a much more uneasy, unsettling denouement.

No doubt it’s difficult to keep shades of triumphalism from creeping into an action movie. The characters on screen are literally larger than life, and we’re accustomed to applauding their exploits. But Watchmen demands a more detached, critical perspective, and Snyder isn’t adept enough to pull that off. His cinematic Watchmen steps dangerously close to being exactly the kind of thing that the print Watchmen was critiquing and satirizing.

People might have worried about how well Moore’s elaborate narrative would translate to the screen, but the plot turns out to have been the easy part. Snyder can handle the narrative, more or less, but that’s not half as important as what he can’t handle. His Watchmen gives us the body but not the spirit, the words but not the music.

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