Before it became fashionable to psychoanalyze our superheroes, there was " Watchmen," a DC Comics series whose masked avengers ranged from flawed to half-insane. First published in 1986, "Watchmen" helped bring the clean-cut superhero into the age of moral relativism, and its impact has stretched beyond comics into Hollywood. You can feel it in " Spider-Man," "Hulk," "Hellboy" and others.
Those movies have supplanted "Watchmen," long delayed by false starts and legal wrangling. But the film still offers an arrestingly dark vision. By comparison, "The Dark Knight" seems almost sunny.
The story begins in a nightmare 1985, with Richard Nixon in office, the Cold War growing hotter and the Watchmen, once a group of crimefighters, sitting out the chaos. Dan Dreiberg (Patrick Wilson) has hung up his Nite Owl costume; Laurie Jupiter (Malin Akerman) no longer struts in spandex; and Adrian Veidt (Matthew Goode) has traded his cape for a businessman's suit, like an inverse Bruce Wayne. Looming over everyone is Dr. Manhattan ( Billy Crudup), a nuclear scientist who's been transformed into a god - glowing, omnipresent, disinterested.
The remaining true believer is Rorschach (Jackie Earle Haley, deliciously feral), whose mask of ever-morphing inkblots reflects his inner turmoil. He's a nut job with a code of honor: When fellow crusader The Comedian ( Jeffrey Dean Morgan) is murdered, Rorschach vows to avenge his death, even if the entire world must pay.
Writers David Hayter and Alex Tse effectively streamline Alan Moore's sprawling story while director Zack Snyder ("300") lovingly re-creates Dave Gibbons' pulpy illustrations. If anything, Snyder could have toned it down: You can almost see the swoosh lines trailing each punch and kick, even when a woman is being raped.
Despite some tonal shifts and odd choices ( Leonard Cohen's "Hallelujah"? During a sex scene?), "Watchmen" delivers the goods. Twenty years earlier, it might have been considered a masterpiece.
Rated R )
PLOT In an alternative 1985, a group of flawed superheroes tries to stop a nuclear holocaust.
CAST Patrick Wilson, Malin Akerman, Billy Crudup, Jackie Earle Haley
PLAYING AT Find showtimes and tickets at a theater near you.
BOTTOM LINE A faithful, fast-moving and energetic adaptation of the legendary comic-book series