In this alternate version of our history, masked heroes have fought for justice since the 1940s. By the 1980s, masked vigilantes have been outlawed and the world is teetering on the brink of nuclear war. The superhero Dr. Manhattan emerged in 1959 with the ability to control time, space and matter. As America's champion, Dr. Manhattan has triggered an arms race vs. the Soviets. They are trying to stockpile enough weapons to counter an omnipotent superman. When one of the few sanctioned heroes, the Comedian, is killed, an outlaw hero, Rorschach, investigates. He feels that something bigger is happening: he thinks someone is hunting for masked heroes. His former comrades have retired and moved on. Rorschach tries to warn the Watchmen and probe for answers. Billionaire and former hero, AdrianVeidt , is targeted by a gunman. Dr. Manhattan is linked to several cases of cancer among his colleagues and flees the Earth in a fit of upset. Rorschach himself is set-up, arrested and put into a prison full of former enemies with scores to settle. The stage is set for Armageddon and only the Watchmen can save the world.
I was awestruck by Watchmen in 1989. Alan Moore put the superhero genre on its head with such fantastic works as Miracleman and Swamp Thing. The superhero team-up was a staple of comics: Legion of Superheroes, The Avengers, The X-Men, not to mention the painfulSuperfriends . Alan Moore took these people apart, looked at what made them tick and put them back together as dysfunctional as they were heroic. It gave these characters a realism missing from most of the other comics on the shelves. I immediately thought that this would be a fantastic, butunfilmable movie-- 300+ pages of comic books could not be condensed into a single movie. I was not alone in that opinion. Hollywood played hot potato with the Watchmen project for years. Eventually it landed in the lap of Zack Snyder. Snyder was the director of 300: the graphic novel by Frank Miller. Snider made it into loud, violent, dreamlike cut-sequence of a movie; but it worked. 300 was largely shot against green screens. That helped make the dreamlike feel of 300 and it was a concern that Snyder would use the same tool set and make Watchmen closer to Sin City than Dark Knight. Thankfully, that is not the case: the movie is wonderfully gritty and dark in its tone, but vivid and alive like a four-color comic. The movie lends heavily from the comic book scenes like the panels from the comics could be onion skinned over the footage. Set in the mid-1980s, Watchmen is seeped in the culture of the day: the look, the fashions, the technology and the music. Apart from Snider's panache and the modern day aesthetic in the superhero costumes, you'd swear this movie was made in the 1985.
The Batman role of a psychopath with gadgets and a hunger for justice is split out into two key characters. Night Owl gets the cape, the gadgets and a cool cave. His character, played by Patrick Wilson, more-or-less takes up the role of the central protagonist in what is otherwise an ensemble piece. Rorschach has the tortured childhood, the Machiavellian mindset and the gravelly voice of a man who needs to be taken seriously. Jackie Earle Haley is awesome in his role. Matthew Goode plays Adrian Veidt, the billionaire wunderkind and perfect figure of humanity. The Comedian (Jeffrey Dean Morgan) populates flashbacks as a young and vicious crime-fighter; then later as a bloodthirsty dark hero on the CIA payroll; and finally as an old but powerful man. Morgan makes the character coherent-- still evil, but a little close to being understandable. The most complex and otherworldly character is Dr. Manhattan, voiced by Billy Crudup, who also was the figure for the motion capture. It's a significant disconnect that a likable everyman is the basis for glowing blue naked transcendental being. A little part of me kept thinking that Dr. Manhattan was about to say, "Cost of watch repair: $10. Intrinsic field sub-tractor: $2 billion dollars. Being able to reassemble yourself from subatomic particles: priceless." Silk Spectre I is played by Carla Gugino, who plays the mother of Silk Spectre II, played by Malin Akerman. One criticism of the original story and this adaptation is that the women fill weak roles as largely sexual objects or literal targets. Akerman's character does get to exhibit more range and more pivotal role. I don't know if this anti-feminist element could have been repaired and still keep some of the key plot points intact. In one incarnation of Watchmen, the role of Dr. Manhattan was going to be by Schwartzeneggar. Star power would have wrecked this movie. Instead they casted the players who best fit the characters from the comic as part of a chorus. In some cases, the similarity of the actors to their comic book counterparts is uncanny.
There was no way to jam every last detail from the comic into movie. The two mediums are different and nobody would want a 4 hr. version of the movie that included all of the minutiae. The ending from the comic book has been eclipsed by 20 years of stories that lended from the idea. Kept as is, it would have looked hokey. This alternative ending isn't perfect, but it's a good compromise to keep the same gist of the story resolution. I had serious doubts that this movie could have been pulled off. I was happily surprised in this film making triumph.