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Weak characters mar visually impressive “Watchmen”

Jackie Earle Haley brings Rorschach to menacing life in "Watchmen."

Jackie Earle Haley brings Rorschach to menacing life in "Watchmen."

A formidable, CGI-enhanced blue man with glowing skin who takes jaunts to Mars and has an apparent dislike of undergarments. A raven-haired beauty poured into a costume that makes her look part dominatrix, part horribly underfed yellow jacket. A gruff-voiced vigilante with a constantly shifting Rorschach test of a face. There’s no doubt “Watchmen” is a veritable smorgasbord for the senses. But does Zack Snyder’s adaptation of Alan Moore’s graphic novel create a world where the characters engage us as much as the special effects do?

Meh, not quite. There are a few intriguing characters — Jackie Earle Haley’s Rorschach, a true sociopath, deserves the inaugural Creepiest Masked Avenger Ever award — but the rest are underdeveloped and weak. Perhaps there was something lost in the novel-to-screen translation (isn’t there always?), but in “Watchmen” it feels like the casting director started clicking wildly on the Internet Movie Database and ended up with this cast — a ragtag group that has little camaraderie and even less chemistry. With few exceptions, the characters fall flat. And if there’s one thing that kills a superhero movie, it’s flat characters (remember “Superman Returns”?).

To be fair, maybe the actors get lost in the plot, a relatively easy task considering there’s gobs and gobs of it that take almost three hours to sort out. (For diehard comic fans, the 163-minute running might feel too short; to the rest of us, it feels far too long.) There are plots and subplots and parallel storylines running rampant, and Snyder unveils them in fractured, disjointed fashion. First, there’s the business of America in 1985. In Moore’s vision, it’s a nation governed by Richard Nixon, now settling in for his third term as president. Masked heroes have been banned, and the mistake is realized a little too late — tensions between the U.S. and the U.S.S.R. have bubbled over, pushing the alert to DefCon 1. Nuclear war is imminent, but the Watchmen — vigilante Rorschach; disenfranchised techno whiz kid Nite Owl II (Patrick Wilson); Dr. Manhattan (Billy Crudup), the all-powerful result of a magnetic mishap; Silk Spectre II (Malin Ackerman), trying to live up to her mother’s reputation; and Ozymandias (Matthew Goode), the smartest man in the world — have bigger problems. Someone’s picking off the scorned heroes one by one, starting with the amoral Comedian (Jeffrey Dean Morgan).

How do these plots converge? That I won’t say, though fans of the novel already know the answer. Part of the fun is watching the events unfold. Frame for frame, “Watchmen” feels every inch a dark graphic novel put to screen. (Note, however, that it’s less visually impressive than Snyder’s “300.” But who’s splitting hairs?) Crudup’s Dr. Manhattan, in particular, stands up to the CGI makeover in a way, say, The Hulk never did — though he’s as shy about showing his blue jewels as Britney is about showing her … never mind. Rorschach’s mask is particularly inventive. And the movie’s opening credits make excellent use of Bob Dylan’s “The Times They Are A-Changin’.” Artfully staged, the credits condense years of timelines and backstory into a minutes-long music video of sorts. It’s so well done that only three things can be said about it: 1) It’s history come alive; 2) The song perfectly captures the ebb and flow of heroic glory; and 3) It’s great fun to watch.

Too bad the same can’t be said for the characters. There’s no fancy way to say it: They’re dull, flat and unsympathetic. Wilson and Goode — both fine dramatic actors — are rather spectacularly miscast as Nite Owl II and Ozymandius. They try to play cool and subtle in “Watchmen,” and it doesn’t work in a movie with no room for subtleties.  That goes double for Akerman, one of the weakest, one-note actresses working in Hollywood today. Her dialogue, her interactions with Wilson and her mother (Carla Cugino), even her expressions all seem forced — or bland beyond words.

Yet there are a few notable exceptions. With Rorschach, Haley, an enormously talented actor relegated to ensemble parts, bests his Oscar-nominated performance in “Little Children.” Skulking in the shadows and exacting his brand of justice with menacing glee, Rorschach is a frightening creation similar to Heath Ledger’s Joker. Nowhere is that more evident that when he’s thrown in jail and stripped of his mask. He screams a warning: “I’m not locked up in here with you. You’re locked up in here with me.” Delivered with animalistic ferocity, it’s a truly disturbing line, and it creates a scene that will haunt your dreams. Haley deserves an Oscar nod for his work here — he’s that good.

Crudup, Cugino and Morgan, too, create memorable characters. Crudup, who gets about 10 minutes total of screen time, gives life to Jon Osterman (pre-Dr. Manhattan), showing us the measure of a life ruined by a freak accident that cut off his ability to feel for humankind. As the original Silk Spectre, a boozy wreck of a fallen hero drowning unpleasant memories in martinis, Cugino turns in a fine, layered performance. There’s a hollow sadness in her eyes that’s hard to ignore. As for Morgan, well, he gets the juiciest role as the Comedian, a crude, unfeeling hulk who wants what he wants when he wants it and doesn’t care to understand why. In his way he’s darker and more frightening than Rorschach because The Comedian flaunts his strength and uses it against everyone, even the victims he rescues. But Morgan scarcely gets the chance to dig deeper into his psyche before the role’s cut short. That gripe extends to the movie as a whole: the uninteresting characters get too much screen time and the great ones are woefully underused. It’s a small complaint, but it translates to a huge mistake that turns “Watchmen” from an intriguing character study into an average caped hero movie.

Grade: C