This is what it sounds like when nerds cry. Clay Enos

Most great comic book movies—Spider-Man 2, The Dark Knight, X2: X-Men United—respect their source material but tell stories that could only be told on a movie screen. They are stellar adaptations. Watchmen leans more toward recent movies like Sin City and Zack Snyder's own 300 in its slavish devotion to the source material; if you were to freeze-frame the movie at certain points, you'd have a giant reproduction of panels from the comic. On one level, it's incredibly satisfying that the director takes comics that seriously. But on the other hand, Snyder seems to miss the point of what makes Watchmen such an amazing comic book.

You can't explain the plot of Watchmen (in a world on the verge of nuclear Armageddon, a band of retired superheroes gathers together to avenge the murder of one of their own) without doing the book a disservice. This is because there are two remarkable aspects to Watchmen, and the plot isn't one of them. First, and perhaps most importantly, it's a marvel of symmetry, and that gorgeous, intricate structure amplifies the story; one of the characters is a watchmaker's son, and another is the ever- scheming World's Smartest Man. In copying the structure of the books, Snyder has produced an oddly paced film, and the inevitable time constraints smear the symmetry into something unrecognizable.

Second, Watchmen made it impossible for almost anyone to write a great superhero comic book for nearly two decades afterward. Using clever satire and well-placed logic, it deconstructed the superhero genre in such a profound way that the best writers are just starting to shake off Watchmen's influence now. For this to be a truly great adaptation, it would have to render every other superhero movie silly and small in comparison. It decidedly does not.

Part of the problem is in the acting: Malin Akerman as the Silk Spectre, particularly, seems carved of wood (although she's a beautiful sculpture, and her nude scenes are awe- inspiring). Patrick Wilson, as the dorky, impotent Nite Owl, brings a human heart to the bombast, but he falls flat at the very end of the film, when he has to hit all the superhero marks—screaming, grimacing, talking tough—in 15 uncomfortable minutes. Billy Crudup plays the God-powered Dr. Manhattan as a giant nude blue Charlie Brown sulking on Mars because he stopped believing in miracles (between Crudup's impressive blue wang and Wilson's bare ass, there's a lot of male nudity in Watchmen, which is rather refreshing for a mainstream major studio film). Only Jackie Earle Haley—with his face covered for nearly the entire film as the psycho vigilante Rorschach—manages to transcend the dialogue, which reads so perfectly on the page but smacks of artificiality when spoken aloud. His Rorschach both parodies the right-wing wish fulfillment of crime fighters like Batman or The Punisher and speaks to a vulnerability that very few tough guys, with the exception of Clint Eastwood, are able to display on-screen. It's troubling that Rorschach, so obviously an unhinged wing nut in the books, comes across as more of a sympathetic character here—the audience burst into applause when Rorschach tortures and maims criminals in a way that is supposed to be more horrifying than inspiring.

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There's a lot of ambition: Pat Buchanan, Henry Kissinger, Annie Leibovitz, and Lee Iacocca were never characters in a Batman movie. The World Trade Center looms, self-importantly, in the back of quite a few shots. The 163-minute running time passes quickly, and the special effects are beautiful. But without spoiling anything, the ending of the movie, which completely differs from the comic, seems superficially smarter at first, but falls apart under the stress of a few seconds' consideration.

After Watchmen was published, comics got a lot more explicit, violent, and crass. This was the understandable reaction from mediocre writers who couldn't re-create Watchmen's complexity. Snyder, likewise, doesn't seem to understand the difference between mature and explicit: Hands get lopped off and bones pierce skin in splattercore scenes that go for the plain and simple gross-out. But that wasn't Watchmen's point. Nobody ran in slow motion from a fireball in the comic-book version, and Snyder can't resist throwing in a good seven or eight of these sorts of clichéd action scenes into Watchmen. He can't trust himself to be subtle, and instead he batters the viewer half to death with symbolism (especially in the soundtrack: "The Sound of Silence" over a funeral scene, "All Along the Watchtower" in the lead-up to a climactic showdown). If this were any other superhero movie, it would be a serviceable bit of eye candy. But because it's called Watchmen, it's got to be considered a failure. recommended