I’m not much of a comic book reader. Occasionally I am intrigued enough by an anime to check out the original manga, but that’s about it. As a result, I never read the seminal graphic novel by Alan Moore and Dave Gibbons on which Watchmen is based. It seems that some people who are familiar with the graphic novel are unhappy with the movie. I can only judge how it stands by itself, as a movie, for someone unfamiliar with the source material.
For me it’s thrilling. It will not be to everyone’s taste. It is very violent, and dark (and darkly funny.) It is full of splendid imagery, great lines, and wonderfully drawn, over-the-top, larger-than-life characters.
The story is set in 1985; an alternate 1985 in which Richard Nixon is beginning his fifth term in office. His popularity is much greater in this timeline, apparently due to his decision to use superheroes to bring the Vietnam War to a quick and bloody end. However the public has become disenchanted with these masked vigilantes, and superheroics have been outlawed.
One superhero is unwilling to conform. Rorschach (Jackie Earle Haley), a grim, ruthless and paranoid enemy of all forms of moral corruption, continues an illegal battle against crime. When The Comedian (Jeffrey Dean Morgan) is murdered, Rorschach decides that there must be some sort of conspiracy to kill retired superheroes, and vows to root it out.
Other superheroes have adjusted better. The nerdy Nite Owl II (Patrick Wilson) lives a quiet life, though he still occasionally descends to his secret underground headquarters to tinker with amazing gadgets. Ozymandias (Matthew Goode), billed as “the world’s smartest man”, has made a fortune marketing superhero action figures and is financing an effort by Dr. Manhattan (Billy Crudup) to develop a source of free energy.
Dr. Manhattan was a typical nuclear physicist who fell victim to a lab accident which turned him into a giant glowing blue naked mesomorph. His godlike powers make it increasingly difficult for him to sympathize with ordinary humans, but his relationship with Silk Spectre II (Malin Akerman) provides him with one continued link to humanity.
It turns out that Rorschach is right: there is a conspiracy and a particularly nasty one at that.
The underlying message seems to be that superheroes are a rather bad idea. Power tends to corrupt, and super powers, which separate the hero from the rest of humanity, can be particularly corrupting. Yet the movie clearly loves these superheroes, badly flawed though they are, and it’s hard for the audience to avoid sympathizing with them.
Watchmen was directed by Zack Snyder (300). Dan Kois and Ashley Quigg of Slate imagine what the movie would be like if directed by Woody Allen, Judd Apatow, Quentin Tarantino, Tyler Perry, Sofia Coppola or Pedro Almodóvar.