Watchmen is colorful and cheap.

Watchmen Warner Bros.

Watchmen (Warner Bros.), Zack Snyder’s long-awaited adaptation of the seminal 1986 graphic novel written by Alan Moore and drawn by Dave Gibbons, shows an acolyte’s respect for the sacred text on which it’s based. The film is slavishly true to the letter of the book, with a few exceptions: Moore’s use of nested narratives—interpolated text from imaginary books and newspapers, comics being read within comics—has been streamlined into a single master story line. But the book’s spirit—its paranoia, its dark humor, and above all its bleak anti-triumphalism—has been squelched in the transition to a big-budget action epic. Watchmen fans wondering whether their graphic novel has been ruined will be thrilled to see its key scenes reproduced with storyboardlike fidelity, but those who’ve never read it will be unlikely to understand what the big deal was in the first place.

What was the big deal? In his analysis of the singular place Watchmen  occupies in the comic-book canon, Grady Hendrix points to two elements that set the series apart. First, there was the multimedia, Chinese-box format. But, more importantly, Watchmen was morally ambiguous to a then-unprecedented degree. Its heroes weren’t (like the Batman of the Dark Knight series or late-era Spider-Man) towering superbeings struggling with Hamlet-like inner demons. They were ordinary, struggling, screwed-up Joes who, for motives ranging from daddy issues to out-and-out sociopathology, felt compelled to put on suits and practice ill-considered mayhem.

Watchmen the film kicks off with a bravura credit sequence that uses tableaux vivants colored like faded vintage comics to illustrate the decline of the Minutemen, a gang of self-made 1940s “superheroes” who lost their moral compass and wound up drunk, dead, or institutionalized. As the movie proper begins, we find ourselves in 1985, but not the one you remember: In this dystopian alternate reality, Richard Nixon is serving his fifth term, thanks to his superhero-aided victory in Vietnam, while the nation slips toward a WWIII-style nuclear confrontation with a far-from-fading USSR. Meanwhile, superheroic exploits have been banned by an act of Congress, and the Minutemen’s next-generation successors, a motley gang calling themselves the Watchmen, have been driven into early retirement. When one of the few surviving Minutemen, the gleefully amoral Comedian (Jeffrey Dean Morgan), is thrown out a high-rise window, his old buddy Rorschach (Jackie Earle Haley) vows to investigate. In the process, he visits the remaining Watchmen—still with me? Ready for a rundown?

Dr. Manhattan (an almost entirely digitized creation voiced by Billy Crudup) is a once-ordinary scientist who, after one of those Hulk-style lab accidents (safety first, people!), has mutated into a glowing blue giant who can see the future. Dr. Manhattan’s superhuman knowledge of time and space (he’s the only Watchman with quantifiable powers) has rendered him almost entirely indifferent to human affairs: “A live body and a dead body contain the same number of particles,” he notes on learning of his comrade’s death. This Spock-like detachment is understandably maddening to Dr. M.’s longtime girlfriend, Laurie Jupiter, aka the Silk Spectre II (Malin Akerman). While old Bluey tends to his abstruse experiments, Laurie reignites a friendship with Dan Dreiberg (Patrick Wilson), once the fearsome Nite Owl II, now a paunchy introvert who spends his days tinkering with his homemade hovercraft. There’s also Ozymandias (Matthew Goode), the world’s smartest man, whose only superpower at first seems to be the gift of boring audiences into a state of near-catatonia but who emerges into importance late in the story.

The psychological sophistication of Moore’s novel survives in a few story lines here, especially during Dr. Manhattan’s periodic jaunts to Mars. (It’s the only place he can be alone and think, a kind of spa retreat in the sky.) And though Malin Akerman is a bit stiff as the Silk Spectre II, she has some wonderful scenes in which she and Sally Jupiter (Carla Gugino), her alcoholic ex-superhero mother, explore the seldom-charted terrain of female Oedipal anxiety. Did Laurie really want to follow in her mother’s latex-clad footsteps, or was she shanghaied into superherodom by the force of Sally’s personality? The sharpest dialogue is lifted straight from the book, an action comic in which, get this, even the women have complex back stories and meaningful motivations.

Zack Snyder’s last film, the vile 300, should be locked in a cargo container and buried at a toxic dump site. Perhaps because of its brainier source material, Watchmen is nowhere near as violent, but the action scenes unfold with a similarly sadistic delectation. Whenever a fight begins (and there’s one about every 15 minutes in this 160-minute movie), brace yourself for an abundance of narratively pointless bone-crunching, finger-twisting, limb-sawing, and skull-hacking. These extreme sports are often filmed in Matrix-style slow motion, a technique that tends to grind the story to a halt. Like the money shots in porn movies, Snyder’s action scenes are an end in themselves—gratifying if you like that sort of thing, gross if you don’t.

Snyder also makes the common superhero-movie mistake of assuming that masks, badass accouterments that they are (and Rorschach’s cloth one with shape-shifting inkblot patterns is pretty cool), are more interesting to look at than human faces. When Jackie Earle Haley doffs his mask midway through the movie, the sweaty, shifty, ratlike face beneath is a hundred times more frightening and fascinating than any inkblot could be. But damned if he doesn’t clap the mask back on again shortly thereafter, thereby muffling one of the film’s few gripping performances.

The other one—Billy Crudup’s—also risks being smothered by the digital animation that renders his face near-unrecognizable and his body (with dangling azure wang on full view) completely so. But the actor’s delicate, almost adolescent voice is always distinguishable beneath Dr. Manhattan’s gargantuan physiognomy. Crudup conveys the sadness of a man whose human desires and memories have been made all but inaccessible by the crushing weight of technology. Sadly, Watchmen plays as if Zack Snyder performed a similar lab experiment on Alan Moore’s wonderfully human-size story.

Slate V: The critics on Watchmen and other new movies