On an alternate Earth, the Watchmen used to be a band of superheroes
until their activities were outlawed and they were forced into retirement.
As the story begins in 1985, one of the old team has been killed, and
another suspects that the murder is the beginning of a plan to kill all of
them, so he begins his own investigation into the slaying and, in the
process, comes into contact with all of his former colleagues.
In the greater sweep of civilization, Nixon is in his 5th term because
the superheroes helped him win the war in Vietnam, and made him popular
enough that the term limits had to be eliminated. Unfortunately, The
Soviet Union is not quite falling into line so easily. International
tensions are strained tighter than during the Cuban Missile Crisis, and
the world is on the very brink of nuclear annihilation. It seems that the
only thing preventing the world from beginning the atomic shoot-out is the
presence of a God-like superhero named Dr. Manhattan, who is so powerful
that he exists outside of time and space, but is gradually becoming more
detached from earthly life, and therefore less involved with the fate of
the race he once belonged to.
What does the murder of a superhero have to do with international
politics? That's a fair question, but rest assured that the two plots
described in the paragraphs above do eventually merge into one, albeit
Stop asking such questions. You should not try to apply any logic to
the film. There is none. If logic prevailed, you might ask yourself these
1. Granted that Dr. Manhattan could not stop every single missile
launched in a nuclear war, why does he not take pre-emptive action by
either removing all of the Russian nuclear capabilities or, for that
matter, removing everyone's weapons before they have a chance to
2. Why the hell did Dr. Manhattan belong to a superhero team? Given
his nearly infinite powers, how exactly did the others, all basically
human, further his efforts?
The presence of Dr. Manhattan in the Watchmen world is problematic in
the same way that Superman's powers make it so hard to create any
challenges or partnerships for him in the DC world. Sups and Doc are just
so powerful that they make all plotting clumsy and unrealistic. The actual
story line of Watchmen's "present" time does manage to get Dr. Manhattan
out of the way quite deftly, at least temporarily, but there is simply no
way to deal with the questions posed above as they apply to the past of
their universe. You just have to accept everything posited about the
history of this counter-Earth, even if it seems to make no sense. Live in
the present with them.
Unfortunately, there's only about ten minutes worth of plot in the
present, and the film is two and a half hours long. (There is a rumor that
a special DVD version will add yet another hour to the running time.) The
rest of the time is padded out with flashbacks and more flashbacks inside
those flashbacks, all of which are needed because there are many
characters to develop. If the many characters were familiar ones whose
origins were already familiar to us, like Superman or Spiderman, the
screenwriters would not need to bog the film down in back-story, but
that's not the case here, so the film has to present the wherefores.
In attempting to present the necessary exposition, the screenwriters'
choices were not always wise.
For example, there is a lot of running time devoted to the fact that
Silk Spectre turns out to be the daughter of the original Silk Spectre and
The Comedian, two people who supposedly hated one another. Yet when the
Silkstress finally learns the secret of her paternity, our reaction is "so
what?" It has absolutely nothing to do with either of the two main plots
described above. All of Silk Spectre's back-story could have been
eliminated without losing anything vital from the film, thus serving the
double purpose of making the film both better paced and less confusing.
The character of Silk Spectre's mother could have and should have been
eliminated from the film entirely.
(end SPOILERS) I marked that as a spoiler,
which it is, but it will not actually spoil anything for you. The secret
of Spectre's paternity is of no interest before it is revealed and of no
significance after it is revealed. In other words, it is an answer you
don't care about to a question you never would have asked in the first
The film has its share of additional problems. Here are some major
1. Some of the special effects are so poor as to be laughable. Night
Owl's plane/boat contraption looks fine in repose, but in motion it
looks like it was animated by either Ed Wood or those supermarionation
dudes who created Supercar in the early 60s.
2. One of the central performances is just awful. The guy who plays
Ozymandias, the "word's smartest man," is so weak that it's difficult to
believe he's even a professional actor, and it's shocking that the
director couldn't see that immediately. He comes off as a cross between
Owen Wilson as Hansel in Zoolander and Mike Myers in "Sprockets." I kept
expecting him to say, "Und now, vee tance."
3. The script quotes a lot of comic book dialogue and narration.
Lines that look fine on the written page can often sound pretentious
when real actors have to deliver them. (I'm dreading the Mighty Thor
4. The fight scenes are often clumsy.
On the other hand, the film has elements and
moments of sheer genius:
* Jackie Earle Haley is brilliant and just downright terrifying as
Rorschach, the sociopathic super "hero" whose view of humanity fills him
with bitterness for a race in which nobody else can ever live up to his
uncompromising standards. I never felt a real chill when Heath Ledger was
on the screen as the evil Joker, but Jackie Earle managed to make me
shiver while playing a good guy! His character is defined by this bit of
narration: "The streets are extended gutters and the gutters are full of
blood and when the drains finally scab over, all the vermin will drown.
The accumulated filth of all their sex and murder will foam up about their
waists and all the whores and politicians will look up and shout 'Save
us!' And I'll whisper 'no'."
* Billy Crudup, with the most difficult role as a God unable to shake
off his human origins, manages to create a Dr. Manhattan who is both
detached from humanity and yet in tune with its core values. He manages to
engage both our curiosity and our sympathy.
* The Nixon/Kissinger war room is a nice bit of homage to Dr.
* Patrick Wilson has some great moments as Dan, aka Night Owl, and the
screenwriters gave him some great material to work with. Seemingly content
as a peacefullly retired superhero, his wimpy facade disguises the fact
that he is actually unhappy to have been castrated by society. His
response to his loss of potency is another type of impotence, much to the
disappointment of the female superhero, Silk Spectre. But when he and the
Spectre decide to flout the superhero ban and get back in the fray, Owl's
manhood returns to him. The more daring their adventures, the happier and
sexier he becomes. After they save some people from a burning building and
make passionate love, the renascent Night Owl suggests that they break
their colleague (Rorschach) out of prison. Spectre tells him that blasting
in and out of a maximum security prison will be much more difficult than
putting out a fire, to which he responds "and much more fun," with a sense
of delight that we had not previously seen from the reserved and
* Interesting score from song-poets: Dylan, Leonard Cohen, etc.
* Sci-Fi/Fantasy, the genre of superhero comics, has always been an
arena in which interesting ideas are presented and examined. Watchmen is
filled with daring ideas. Some of them are sheer lunacy, to be sure, and
none of them are presented with any sense of balance. It may even be true
to say that the vast majority of the ideas are just plain wrong. But none
of that is as important as the fact that the ideas are both original and
interesting. Let's face it, if we wanted sound reasoning, nuance and
complexity, we wouldn't be watching a movie where the characters have
names like Moloch the Mystic. We watch a sci-fi/fantasy movie to encounter
the outré, the fantastical, the speculative, the wildly imaginative. In
that respect, Watchmen is a triumph, if a slightly demented one.
Bottom line? I like this movie. It has a film noir grittiness to go
with a sci-fi sense of imagination, sort of like Blade Runner, except it
also has a truly nutty Dr. Strangelove overlay. It's one weird-ass and
occasionally confusing movie, but one I found consistently fascinating,
even though it seems to me like a good movie that should have been much