Rigorously faithful to the graphic novel source material and visually stunning, helmer Zack Snyder’s pic is too long, and in being so faithful to the source includes much detail that will seem extraneous to anyone who is not a full-fledged comic book nerd.
The film opens in the apartment of The Comedian/Edward Blake (Jeffrey Dean Morgan), former superhero or “mask,” now living in the alternate-universe 1985 in which Nixon is president, and the masks are outlawed. Blake is killed by an unknown assassin in a stylized battle, inspiring an investigation by another mask—who still wears his mask—Rorschach/Walter Kovacs (Jackie Earle Haley).
Rorschach believes that a conspiracy is afoot to kill all the masks, and sets out to warn them. Rorschach also provides narration throughout the movie. Although several characters are called “superheroes” in the story, they do not have any supernatural powers except for Dr. Manhattan/Dr. Jon Osterman (Billy Crudup). As told through flashbacks, after a nuclear accident Osterman developed a host of supernatural powers, along with an eerie blue glow.
As described by comics guru Nicholas Michael Grant…
At minimum he can restructure subatomic particles at will, perceive happenings on the subatomic level, live forever, resize himself at will and teleport. By following these powers through to their logical conclusion, there is probably nothing that Dr. Manhattan couldn’t do.
And, supposedly because he is progressively becoming less entangled with humanity and its conventions, he tends to parade around buck naked most of the time. Of course, he does seem to like human sexual practices.
Dr. Manhattan becomes integral to American defense policy, and promotes a decisive victory in Vietnam. At present, he has allied with a former superhero, or “Watchman” as they are also called, named Adrian Veidt (Matthew Goode). The two are working on a project to provide free energy to the world, using specialized energy reactors that will be deployed all over.
However, during an appearance on a TV talk show, Dr. Manhattan is confronted by a journalist who suggests that many people he has been associated with—including a former girlfriend—are dying of cancer. The implication, of course, is that his nuclear-reconstituted body is to blame. At this, he exiles himself to Mars, and his current girlfriend Laurie Juspeczyk/Silk Spectre II (Malin Akerman) hooks up with Daniel Dreiberg/Nite Owl II (Patrick Wilson).
Laurie and Daniel decide to get back into the superhero business, and become lovers. At the same time, Veidt is nearly killed by an assassin, and Rohrschach is framed for a homicide, sending him to a prison filled with perps he sent there. As you might suspect, though, the vengeful cons will have the worse of it, for in one of the movie’s best lines, Rohrschach tells them, “None of you understand. I’m not locked up in here with you. You’re locked up in here with me.”
More details are revealed in flashback as the real conspiracy unfolds, and it is far bigger than just killing off Watchmen. By story’s end, much is resolved, but it is not particularly satisfying.
With the exception of Crudup and Haley, the perfs are mediocre at best, and given Snyder’s desire to reproduce the graphic novel frame by frame, the actors do seem pretty confined. The most interesting character by far is Rohrschach, and that might be because he is the least conflicted, even if he is ultra-violent, and probably a bit nuts.
As a purely visual experience, Snyder could not have done much better, but judicious editing—even if it would have offended the comic book nerds—would have made a better film.