Watchmen Review: (A Few) Moments of Greatness

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Warner Bros.

Superheroes Nite Owl (Patrick Wilson), Silk Spectre (Malin Akerman) and Rorschach (Jackie Earle Haley) in Zack Snyder's Watchmen

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All Along the Watchtower

The story's kernel of genius, which Moore kept popping over 12 monthly installments, is that actions have consequences, even in Action Comics. (That early comic book, which in 1938 contained the first adventure of Superman, was published by D.C., which 46 years later ran Watchmen.) The world of fantasy alters the "real" world it parallels. When superheroes do stuff, it changes the history of the America we've lived through. Moore's alternate history went like this:

Soon after Siegel and Shuster's Superman appeared, and a year later, Bob Kane's Batman — and, perhaps not coincidentally, right after the first science-fiction convention where Forrest J. Ackerman came dressed as a spacemen, thus inaugurating the pulp tribute costume — a group of citizens donned masks and gaudy couture and called themselves the Minutemen. Not so much groupies as avatars of the fictional superheroes, they spent World War II getting off on doing their truth-justice-and-the-American-way thing. Disbanded in 1944, they reconvened with some new personnel, and by the '60s were important factors in the country's social and foreign policy. By 1985, when the main story takes place, Eddie is one of the last original Minutemen/Watchmen still in action — and after being on the losing end of a ferocious fight in his high-rise apartment, splat, he's comedy history. (See pictures of animated movies.)

At its heart, Watchmen is a detective story, with Eddie (Jeffrey Dean Morgan) as the victim and Rorschach (Jackie Earle Haley), he of the shifting-inkblot mask, as the questing sleuth. Dr. Manhattan (Billy Crudup) is not much help in the search, preoccupied as he is with helping another superhero, Ozymandias (Matthew Goode), in a secret experiment that may save the world or put a big hole in it. Dr. M. has also paid scant heed to his girlfriend Laurie (Malin Akerman), a.k.a. Silk Spectre II, who's ready to fall into the open arms of nerdy Dan Dreiberg (Patrick Wilson), a.k.a. Nite Owl II — some new Watchmen have moved up when older ones retired. Meanwhile, still-President Nixon (Robert Wisden) and other top U.S. officials are poised to avert a nuclear strike from the U.S.S.R.

Moore conceived the story when Reagan and the Russkies were still spitting threats across the Berlin Wall, and few imagined the Soviet Union could collapse under its own dead weight. In that sense, Watchmen is another replay of the Nixon years to which Hollywood filmmakers are addicted — Frost/Nixon, Milk, etc. — and a period piece that may not resonate with audiences who weren't alive when Tricky Dick was in power. (Snyder says he was asked if Nixon could be replaced by George W. Bush; he wisely declined.) Set in the recent past, it features characters who cannot escape their own, more remote past. (See pictures of movie costumes.)

All detective stories move from the present to the past; they're essays in social archaeology, the metaphorical digging up of the corpse to discover what made him tick and who stopped his clock. It's an apt structure for the Watchmen, since most of them are past their prime — Eddie's 67 when he dies; the first Silk Spectre (Carla Gugino), who had a carnal run-in or two with Eddie, is in her 60s; and Dr. Manhattan is 56, though he looks great for his age — and facing serious midlife introspection. International celebrities for decades, they have a lot of history to remember or suppress, to warm or haunt them.

The movie sketches the four decades of this vigilante group in a brilliant opening-credits sequence, set to Bob Dylan's The Times They Are A-Changin'. 1945: In the Times Square revelry on V.J. Day, a nurse is kissed by the slinky superheroine Silhouette in the style of Alfred Eisenstadt's famous photo. 1961: President Kennedy greets Dr. Manhattan at the White House. 1963: JFK is gunned down by the splenetic, cigar-chomping Comedian. 1969: A U.S. astronaut walks on the moon, and finds Dr. Manhattan waiting for him. 1971: President Nixon sends Manhattan and The Comedian to Vietnam; the war is over within a week, with the locals lining up to surrender personally to the big blue guy. 1976: Nixon is elected to a third term. 1977: Nixon pushes the Keene Act through Congress, outlawing the Watchmen. 1985: America is an open sewer of drugs and porn, and The Comedian is defeated, defenestrated, dead.

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