To borrow a line from "The Times They Are A-Changin'," the Dylan anthem expertly stitched into a montage of seismic 20th century events in the opening moments of Watchmen, this movie will shake your windows and rattle your walls.
At least it will for a couple of hours, before 40-odd minutes of draggy, comic-book exposition smother the wild, subversive superhero business that came before.
Watchmen is a fanboy's fantasy come true. Based on Alan Moore and Dave Gibbons' lauded, layered graphic novel - and handled with reverence by screenwriters David Hayter and Alex Tse and director Zack Snyder - the film follows a group of outcast caped crusaders as they search for the killer of one of their own. Seedy, corrupt, out of shape, these aren't your father's superheroes, though one of the "masks," Sally Jupiter (Carla Gugino), is the mother of another, the dominatrix-suited Silk Spectre II (Malin Akerman). But we'll get to that.
Watchmen is set in an alternate 1985: Richard Nixon is in his third term, having won the Vietnam War, and the Doomsday Clock monitoring nuclear tensions between the United States and the Soviets is inching ominously toward midnight. The movie, like the comic, is about power and history - its making, and its reimagining.
Much of Snyder's affectionately pulpy yarn transpires in a grimy, pre-Giuliani New York, with porno houses, dive bars, and graffiti-covered alleyways. And, in the high-rise apartment of one Edward Blake, a.k.a. The Comedian (Jeffrey Dean Morgan), a retired "mask" whose death - and blood-stained smiley-face button - gets the story rolling.
And what a story: flashing back and forth between two generations of costumed crime fighters - only one of whom has real super powers - Watchmen offers a paranoia-fueled look at heroism gone bad. It pokes a stick at the rotting corpse of a dystopian dream, a culture running on violence and fear.
The reclusive Moore, in his afterword to the graphic novel, described his initial concept for Watchmen as "a more cynical and baroque take upon the Justice League of America and their ilk." That skewed vision of classic superherodom remains at the heart of the movie, but there's deeper, messier philosophical stuff at work, too.
Voice-overed in hard-boiled noir mode by Jackie Earle Haley, whose character, Rorschach, wears a shifting inkblot mask, Watchmen's gang of vigilantes-in-tights includes the paunchy Dan Dreiberg, a.k.a. Nite Owl II (Patrick Wilson); the effete billionaire Adrian Veidt, a.k.a. Ozymandias (Matthew Goode); and the aforementioned Silk Spectre II, whose mom was the first Silk Spectre, strutting around in the company of The Comedian, the first Nite Owl, and other cartoonishly cloaked colleagues after World War II.
The relationships between these characters are a tangle of egos and enmity, but they share a common history - and a sense that history has left them behind.
And then there is Dr. Manhattan, a.k.a. Jon Osterman (Billy Crudup), a blue guy (his mood, and his skin color) who can turn himself into a giant, bend matter, teleport to Mars, and radiate nuclear energy - i.e., he's a walking bomb. That's how the United States won in Vietnam: Dr. Manhattan stomping through the jungles, irradiating the Viet Cong. And stomping around without any clothes: Watchmen is rated R for full frontal blue-man genitalia. (And rated R for the kind of gore Snyder delivered in his Dawn of the Dead remake, and the thwacking violence of his digital sword-and-sandals megahit, 300.)
Watchmen looks amazing. The attention to detail is obsessive - film shots replicate comic panels, right down to the scrawl on the walls and the litter on the curb. Snyder dazzles with dark, crackpot juxtapositions, upending the standard superhero fight scenes and throwing in some fetishistic sex, to boot. (Nite Owl's and Silk Spectre II's kinky clinch on a hover-ship is hot and ironic, thanks to the croaky tones of Leonard Cohen's "Hallelujah.")
And then, alas, there's the plot - a twisting, multitiered affair about murder, conspiracy, Cold War dread and nuclear holocaust. The last 40 minutes of Watchmen present an impossible let's-wrap-up-this-baby string of cliches (why do superheroes retreat to polar regions when they get moody?) and pointless fisticuffs. There is no happy ending - and that's cool, that's the point. But there is a whole lot of explaining to do.