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"Watchmen": A Heady Mix That Will Infuriate Many

Who will watch the “Watchmen”? At a guess, I’d say everyone who has ever read the graphic novel, and a solid number of curious types besides. I have my doubts whether that’ll be enough to guarantee blockbuster box-office success – but, then again, who would’ve predicted a $70m opener on the way to a half-billion dollar global gross for Zack Snyder’s graphic-novel adaptation “300” this time two years ago?

What is assured is that “Watchmen” will result in terabytes of Internet opinion, rabidly for and against this interpretation of Alan Moore and Dave Gibbons’ ground-breaking literary comic artwork.

Having seen it last week, I can’t yet decide whether “Watchmen” is a masterpiece or a misfire comprised of many brilliant moments. It’ll take another viewing to make up my mind. The very fact that I can’t wait to see it again tells me something about how I’m leaning.

One thing I am certain of is that “Watchmen” is an important movie. Important for the boundaries it pushes, and pushes fearlessly, in retaining much of what set the original apart from its comic-book brethren.

Snyder is to be congratulated, and Warner Bros., too, for attempting to realize the original vision. I can’t begin to imagine the various script notes, board-room discussions and marketing department freak-outs that must have taken place about making this more anodyne, more accessible, more a PG-13, less a nasty noir R.

Even more than “The Dark Knight,” this is a comic-book movie for grown ups. Grown-up grown ups. Do not take the kids. Think twice about taking younger or impressionable teens.

That’s because “Watchmen” answers the niggling question about how the likes of Batman or Spider-man manage to enact superhero justice without ever killing anyone. They don’t. When Nite Owl or Silk Spectre II, the most righteous of our superheroes, get in a fight, bad guys die, and die horribly. Which brings us to the question: What does the power of such vigilante justice do to the very human minds of such “good guys”? The film’s answer: it reshapes, distorts or breaks them. Thus The Comedian, Rorschach and Dr Manhattan commit atrocities that’d make Rambo, Travis Bickle and Colonel Kurtz positively blush. And we’re spared little, with innocents shot, heads hacked and bodies detonated in the name of convenience, vengeance and righteous warfare.

If there’s anything that worries studio filmmakers more than violence, it’s sex, and again “Watchmen” goes there more fearlessly than a lot of arthouse films that draw praise simply for such frankness. God only knows how many studio suits tried to put Dr Manhattan in underpants at all times. Instead, Snyder lets him all hang out, in all his giant blue glory, in the majority of scenes - and even multiple times in the one frame. It makes “Forgetting Sarah Marshall” look positively sedate and coy flashes of male genitalia in “worthy” dramas conservative in comparison.

There is also kinky sex, sexual violence and sexual dysfunction, along with conspiracy theories, satirical pokes at American politics and at the sanctitiy of the historical narrative. “Watchmen” also embraces and parodies comic-book/superhero conventions and good versus evil stories, as it does movie-making techniques by, for instance, deliberately setting violent showdowns to anomalous musical choices. Want to know who killed JFK? You’ll find out to Bob Dylan.

It’s a heady, heady mix – and one that will infuriate many who think our movies are already too violent and too sexual. And they’re definitely entitled to that view. But it’ll also thrill for those of us who think the majority of such big movies are simplistic and reductive. A “Watchmen” movie without all of these elements, or one that was made morally black and white, or had its complexities dumbed right down, would have been no adaptation at all.

The word “brave” is bandied about too often by self-aggrandizing moviemakers or their marketing departments. Usually it’s in reference to a “worthy” drama that tackles “difficult” material and/or an A-list actor getting ugly to take on an unlikeable character with a view to awards-season glory. Rarely is it true of a $100m studio movie marketed at a fanboy demographic. But “Watchmen” earns such a description. It’s a gamble whose likes we’ve not seen before.

Michael Adams is an editor with the international movie magazine Empire and his writing has also appeared in Rolling Stone, FHM, Interview, Men's Style, Top Gear and Jobson's Mining Year Book. His upcoming comic memoir Schlock Around The Clock (HarperCollins, 2010) follows his year-long quest to find and watch the worst movie ever made.