‘Watchmen’ exceeds expectations

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If you’re expecting something like Superman, Wonder Woman or Aquaman out of “Watchmen,” you’re in for a shock.

When “Watchmen” debuted in 1986, it was universally hailed as a high-water mark for comic books. Ever since, comic fans hoped for, and dreaded, a big-screen version, as it had been declared un-filmable — and with good reason.

Hollywood has been notoriously bad at making even the simplest of comic-book adaptations any good. Most of the time, producers use the film as star vehicles, aim them at the lowest-common demographic and water down the stories to appeal to a mass audience, which is why the genre is more associated with disappointing efforts like the horrible “Catwoman,” the absolutely wretched “The Spirit” and the painfully boring “Superman Returns,” than more transcendent efforts like “The Dark Knight,” “Iron Man” and “X-Men.”

Fortunately “Watchmen” holds its own against “The Dark Knight,” which is impressive considering there are no big stars attached and the story is complex and layered with high-global concepts, moral ambiguity and “heroes” who are very human and very flawed.

“Watchmen” is set in an alternate version of Earth circa 1985, where Richard Nixon is still president, superheroes have been either outlawed or co-opted by the government and the U.S. and Russia are inching closer and closer to a world-ending nuclear exchange. The plot kicks off with the murder of a retired superhero, The Comedian, and his former superhero colleagues, led by Rorschach (now a vigilante feared by both cops and criminals), coming out of retirement/hiding to find out who killed him and why.

Over the course of the film, the viewer learns through flashbacks that The Comedian (Jeffrey Dean Morgan) probably won’t be missed in death, as he was an alcoholic, womanizing rapist. And that was when he wasn’t on the clock pulling off government-sanctioned assassinations. Dr. Manhattan (Billy Crudup) is pretty much a god with limitless powers, but his status as the only thing keeping World War III from happening is making him increasingly wary of the limitations of humanity. Rorschach, played with admirable intensity by Jackie Earle Haley, is a sociopath amalgam of Batman and Dick Tracy with some deep-seated mommy issues.

And these are supposedly the good guys.

Other heroes, like Night Owl, Silk Spectre and Ozymandias, are seemingly content in their civilian lives, but are reluctantly drawn back into action as Rorschach begins to pull the pieces of a larger conspiracy together.

It’s obvious in the first 10 minutes of the film that director Zach Snyder (“300”) isn’t going to pull any punches: The film is just as violent, gritty and dark as the comics, if not more so. Most comic-book movies like to smooth over the more violent elements of the story, preferring to imply rather than show, to earn a PG-13 rating.

This is not that film.

The fistfights are visceral and bloody. The sins of the individual characters are unflinching. The deaths — and there are many — are brutal and shocking. All the gory and salacious details are shown, from the bird’s-eye view of the Kennedy assassination to two of the heroes getting it on in an aircraft.

There’s also a gay superhero in the film, which is a comic-book film anomaly. Granted, her time in the film is short and tragic, but at least it’s something. The fact that a reality-manipulating android spends most of his time walking around naked probably won’t hurt the film’s gay appeal either. However, the minor subplot of the relationship between Metropolis and Hooded Justice — who stopped The Comedian from raping the first Silk Spectre — didn’t make it to the movie.

But to call “Watchmen” a comic-book movie doesn’t do it justice. Combining a murder mystery, political intrigue and philosophical questions about ethics is a tall order and “Watchmen” delivers with impressive efficiency and skill. The film is also visually stunning, as it simultaneously does an excellent job of looking like it’s 1985 and pulls off convincing CGI feats, like Rorschach’s morphing mask and the glowing-blue visage of Dr. Manhattan.

If “Watchmen” doesn’t earn comic-book movies the utmost respect, nothing ever will.

Larry Nichols can be reached at [email protected].