We can now officially forget V for Vendetta. That 2005 turkey was a disaster of such epic proportions that many a lover of graphic novels swore off celluloid versions of classics. And it wasn't just the fans. Alan Moore, the legendary writer of Vendetta, was so disgusted with Hollywood and its populist ways-the studios ruined his League of Extraordinary Gentlemen as well-that he refused to have anything to do with future movie adaptations of his work.
He might have held true to his words and not even have watched Zack Snyder's Watchmen, but this movie is a triumph. It is a deftly made film which finally manages to render one visual format into another without losing an iota of the original's visceral impact. In fact, so unrelenting is this movie's dystopic vision that it's no wonder that it failed to set the box office on fire when it was released early last year.
It's a dark tale about superheroes and of a world that hates them yet finds them useful. Set in an alternative reality US in the year 1985-a world where the US has won the Vietnam War; Richard Nixon has been re-elected five times; and John F. Kennedy was assassinated by a government spook masked vigilante called the Comedian-it is a world beset with fear. The Comedian is one of a few masked vigilantes that live in an America hovering dangerously close to a nuclear war with Soviet Russia, and the only deterrent is Dr Manhattan, the only hero in the movie with actual super powers. Manhattan, the product of a nuclear experiment gone terribly wrong, is so detached and divinely gifted in his powers that the others' very human frailties come to the fore.
Watchmen succeeds in doing what Christopher Nolan's two recent Batman movies attempt to- rise above the merely spectacular and get to the heart of the superhero myth. They are the dark reflections of mankind's epic urges-that are heroic as well as horrific. So while Batman is tempted to cross the line often and yet in the end does what a noble hero must do, Rorschach operates beyond the pale. This beautifully stylised vigilante in a leather trench coat and a fedora with a mask that is a constantly shifting Rorschach's blot is the dark moral heart of the movie.
He is a homicidal maniac with integrity; a man whose disregard for people and the law make him abhorrent; but he calls a spade a spade and functions as a recorder of the moral decay he sees around him. It is about real people and the masks they wear. The movie is a precise and cruel disrobing of the superhero figure of its mystique. Masked vigilantes are revealed to be what they are-painfully human.
It is also a movie of bountiful special effects, as you'd expect. And although they do capture vividly the grandeur and the grime that Moore's story constantly juxtaposes, they don't get in the way of the story. When Watchmen was first published in the mid-Eighties, it proved to be a watershed event in the recognition of the graphic novel as a serious art form. You could trace the corpus of dark and gritty graphic novels to this one book. What Snyder's movie succeeds in doing is to create a similar precedent for superhero films. If you've seen and loved Batman Begins and The Dark Knight, don't miss Watchmen. It's a film that will almost surely be spoken of in the same breath as Bladerunner or The Matrix.