Watchmen **** (out of ****)

Director: Zack Snyder
Writers: David Hayter and Alex Tse, based on the graphic novel by Alan Moore and Dave Gibbons
Cast: Billy Crudup, Matthew Goode, Carla Gugino, Malin Akerman, Earle Haley, Jeffrey Dean Morgan, Patrick Wilson, Matt Frewer, Gary Houston
Rating: R (strong graphic violence, sexuality, nudity and language)
Running Time: 163 min
Release Date: 3/6/09

I went to see The Watchmen this weekend because it was about the only new thing to see. It is a movie adaptation of a seminal work that has been purported to have raised the genre of the mere comic book to that of the graphic novel. It turned out to be a rather enjoyable film in spite of its gruesome aspects.

The Watchmen takes place in an alternate universe in 1985 with Richard Nixon now serving his fifth term as president. Do we detect some major liberal angst generated by the Reagan years? The background is the ever present threat of a U.S.-Soviet nuclear war. However, the U.S. has a deterrent more powerful that a MX missile with 10 Mk-21 warheads: We have Dr. Manhattan (Billy Crudup)! The Doctor is a blue fuzzy apparition of a physicist who was transformed into super-being by an experiment gone wild.

The background story attempts to show a world in which superheroes exit. The Watchmen have been around since 1940 fighting crime and doing a few other things too. The U.S. wins the Vietnam War after Nixon persuades the Watchmen to intervene as one notable example. I guess this is how he was able to get the 23 Amendment repealed and be elected for another three terms? Naturally, Henry Kissinger is still at his side.

The action starts with the murder of The Comedian (Jeffrey Dean Morgan), one of the more notorious Watchmen. Now who was that on the “grassy knoll” in the Kennedy assassination scene anyway? Rorschach (Jeffrey Dean Morgan) immediately suspects that someone is out to kill off the Watchmen and that The Comedian is just the first. As we follow his effort to warn the others, we meet the rest of the team: The Nite Owl II (Patrick Wilson), Oyzmandias (Matthew Goode), Dr. Manhattan, and his girlfriend Silk Spectre II (Malin Akerman). The government, i.e. Nixon, has banned masked crime fighters like the Watchmen. But, it still relies on Dr. Manhattan to keep us safe from the Soviet nuclear threat. Then he doesn’t wear a mask and in fact usually doesn’t wear clothes either!

Rorschach has one of the strangest superhero masks ever. It is a continually changing “ink blot” pattern, hence his name. If you would guess from this that he is a crazy [characterization deleted] then you’d be correct! He repeatedly flies into fits of psychotic rage killing those (mostly villains) he thinks deserve it. He has a complete disdain for what he calls “liberal sensitivities”.

Oyzmandias has the super skill of being the smartest man in the world. He has reasoned that the primary risk of war is the struggle over energy resources. Therefore, he has set out to develop a limitless source of energy. Silk Spectre II aka Laurie Jupiter meanwhile finds it impossible to like up her mothers, Silk Spectre aka Sally Jupiter’s (Carla Gugino), reputation.

The action takes a major turn when Dr. Manhattan’s girlfriend, Silk Spectre II, breaks up with him and develops a relationship with Nite Owl II. The jilted Dr. Manhattan loses his sense of purpose and leaves for Mars to wallow in self-pity. This of course causes a radical shift in the U.S.-Soviet strategic balance. Before long Nixon and Kissinger are planning a preemptive attack on the Soviets as they fear the Soviet are planning an attack on the U.S.

This film is a fun political nostalgia trip and a great satire of the whole superhero concept. Such treats as snippets of the McLaughlin Group debating the impact of Dr. Manhattan on the strategic balance as just one example. If one can get past the graphic violence and some sexuality, Watchmen provides a lot of laughs for those familiar with the reference points or the original work. It is definitely not for children.

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