But it's a 1985 you'd be utterly unfamiliar with. Richard Nixon is serving his fifth term. Costumed vigilantes—superheroes, some call them—have been outlawed. And, from the window of a New York penthouse, a man plunges to his death.
So begins Watchmen, a movie adapted from the lauded graphic novel by Alan Moore and Dave Gibbons. It took more than 20 years to push Watchmen to the screen: Many considered the book unadaptable. Moore—no fan of Hollywood—wanted it that way.
Watchmen, with its myriad subplots, characters, allusions and time shifts, certainly doesn't lend itself to a popcorn muncher. Neither does it lend itself to written synopses. About the best I can do is say that at its most simplistic it's a mystery story—one that Agatha Christie would want no part of.
The dead man turns out to be a guy called The Comedian, a costumed crime fighter who, because he works for Nixon's government, was one of the few superheroes allowed to keep his gig. Then he's thrown through a thick plate glass window after being beaten senseless—a cold-blooded killing without a punch line, only questions.
Rorschach, a rogue vigilante who takes his name from his ever-mutating mask of blotches, is determined to ferret out answers.
"Maybe someone's picking off costumed heroes," he growls to Dan Dreiberg, a one-time superhero who decided to retire his alter ego—Nite Owl—when the government made costumed crime fighting illegal. Nite Owl doubts Rorschach's conspiracy theory at first, but he quickly realizes something's up. Dr. Manhattan, the only superhero with actual superhuman powers, has exiled himself to Mars because he believes his strange abilities cause cancer in others. A gunman nearly kills Adrian Veidt, a wicked-smart businessman who once adventured under the name Ozymandias (and still markets his own line of action figures). And Rorschach gets framed for the murder of one-time villain Moloch the Mystic.
Much of what was once considered revolutionary about the book Watchmen feels, well, a bit old now. These superheroes are (mostly) human, filled with very human frailty and failings. While Batman and Spider-Man may have issues, some Watchmen are just plain bad. A couple are downright pathological. Still, they harbor kernels of goodness inside their dark, dark shells: Rorschach's uncompromising adherence to his own code of right and wrong. Dr. Manhattan's evolving belief that humanity is a real miracle—"like turning air into gold." Ozymandias' desire to lead humanity into a new age of hope and peace.
Right and wrong, hope and peace, miracles. That's all good, right?
Philosopher Voltaire once said that "if God did not exist, it would be necessary to invent him." So it's fitting that, in the essentially godless world of Watchmen (most characters seem to believe that God is absent or, at best, too distant to care), we meet Dr. Manhattan.
Run-of-the-mill superheroes serve as lowercase-g gods—capricious beings who both protect and judge the populace, and whose failings harkens back to ancient mythology. To underline the connection, the film showcases a hero-filled dinner party, with the participants aping Leonardo da Vinci's "The Last Supper."
But far above them all looms Dr. Manhattan, a one-time scientist named Jon Osterman who was radically transformed during a lab mishap. Now he's big and blue (and generally naked) and has the ability to manipulate matter, see into the future and zap from place to place faster than Rorschach can say "hurm."
When America's industrial/military complex first unveiled Manhattan to the world, one of his friends allegedly said, "The superman exists, and he is American." Turns out, the guy was misquoted.
"What I said was, 'God exists and he's American,'" he says.
Manhattan denies this: "I don't think there is a god," he says. "And if there is, I'm nothing like him." But because his abilities are so far above those of the average human, Manhattan becomes a godlike avatar: When he's sent by the U.S. government to fight in Vietnam, surrendering Viet Cong bow to him. People say things like, "Even Dr. Manhattan can't be everywhere at once." And Manhattan takes on a uniquely Old Testament-style aura at the end of the film, when humanity (mistakenly) thinks he's killed millions of people. Apparently fearing more "divine" retribution, the world makes peace with itself and, when superhero Silk Spectre asks Nite Owl whether peace can possibly last, Nite Owl says, "As long as people think Jon's watching us, we'll be all right." Manhattan even says he now loves life again—and that he's going to a different galaxy to create some.
Much of the book, and subsequent film, seems to ruminate on naturalist William Paley's famous 1802 "watchmaker" argument—that the universe is so complex it supposes a designer, or watchmaker. It's interesting to note that Manhattan's father was himself a watchmaker, teaching his son the trade. Manhattan, after his transformation, ponders a universe where "nothing is made—a clock without a craftsman." Clocks and watches show up repeatedly. For instance, Manhattan sets his watch on top of a Bible. And the very name Watchmen takes on a suggestive tone when these ideas come to mind.
Characters occasionally quote from scripture. Rorschach muses over ancient Egyptian concepts of the afterlife.
Dr. Manhattan spends most of the film in the big, blue buff, and audiences see him every which way: back, side and front. He sends nude duplicates of himself to pleasure girlfriend Silk Spectre—resulting in a bizarre foursome. (They're interrupted during foreplay.)
Later, Silk Spectre becomes Nite Owl's main squeeze, and the two engage in a graphic sex scene, complete with nudity (her breasts and both of their backsides), much movement and a climax—all while Leonard Cohen's song "Hallelujah" plays in the background. Another physical tryst, where the two strip and writhe around on a couch, ends when Nite Owl finds himself to be impotent without first doing superhero-type work. Nite Owl also has a dream in which he and Silk Spectre, both nude, meet in the middle of a barren landscape and "strip" their nudity, revealing superhero outfits underneath. They then kiss before being obliterated by a nuclear explosion.
Dr. Manhattan, pre-transformation, has sex with his girlfriend; she later leaves him after he develops an interest—and passionately kisses—Silk Spectre (who's 16 at the time).
Silk Spectre's mom, Sally (who also was a costumed adventurer named Silk Spectre), is sexually assaulted by The Comedian. We're asked to watch as he attacks her. (He unzips his pants during the assault. She's in a state of partial undress.) We learn later that he and she also have a consensual encounter.
Elsewhere: Silk Spectre's outfits are slinky and provocative. Rorschach's mother was apparently a prostitute. Another prostitute flashes her breasts at a passing superhero. Audiences catch glimpses of pornographic magazines and movies. A naked man is seen frolicking during a party.
An old-school female superhero kisses another woman. ...
The two are later found dead in bed together, the words "lesbian whores" scrawled in blood across the walls. A male superhero is a sadist. A villain is said to be a masochist who follows superheroes around, begging to be beaten.
That's the tame stuff. Watchmen put the "graphic" in "graphic novel" when it was released piecemeal in 1986 and '87. It's as bloody a comic book as you'll likely see, and it, as Slate reports, "helped kick off a decadent death spiral that would see adolescent violence peddled as adult content full of rape, murder and corpse-burning."
But the book looks positively demure compared to the film's butchery.
In the book, Rorschach dispatches a pedophile killer by chaining him inside his house and then burning it to the ground, with readers only seeing Rorschach walking slowly out the door. In the movie, Rorschach chains the pedophile up—then buries a meat cleaver in the evildoer's skull. Repeatedly.
In the book, Dr. Manhattan blows up a criminal's head, a cloud covering the carnage. In the movie, Manhattan blows up several criminals simultaneously: Blood coats bystanders; gore hangs from the ceiling.
"Nobody over 25 could take any joy from the savagery that is fleshed out onscreen, just as nobody under 18 should be allowed to witness it," writes Anthony Lane in The New Yorker. "You want to see the attempted rape of a superwoman, her bright latex costume cast aside and her head banged against the baize of a pool table? The assault is there in Moore's book, one panel of which homes in on the blood that leaps from her punched mouth, but the pool table is [film director Zack] Snyder's own embroidery."
When people get shot, we see skin separate like a burst balloon. When people have their arms broken, we see the bones stab through the flesh. Arms are cut off with buzz saws. Dogs fight over the leg bone of a murdered little girl—foot and shoe still attached. Dr. Manhattan has his body stripped into oblivion, layer by layer ... twice. The Comedian shoots and kills a pregnant woman (he fathered the child) after the woman slices his face with a broken bottle. Rorschach, as a child, rips off someone's ear with his teeth.
Superheroes punch, kick, shoot, stab, poison, immolate, harpoon and vaporize legions of people. And that's not counting the 15 million folks who get obliterated by explosions at film's end. Clearly, Watchmen shares far more with Saw than Spider-Man.
Crude or Profane Language
Twenty-plus uses of the f-word and at least a half-dozen s-words. God's name is abused 25 or so times. (It's paired with "d--n" more than a dozen times.) Jesus' name is callously interjected at least another six. A wide variety of vulgarities and crudities—"b--ch," "b--tard," "h---" and so on—are heard throughout.
Drug and Alcohol Content
The Comedian smokes cigars and drinks to excess. Sally also appears to be a heavy drinker: She offers a margarita to her daughter in the early afternoon. Ozymandias poisons champagne, killing dozens of scientists. Nite Owl and Silk Spectre share some wine over dinner. Manhattan's first girlfriend buys him a beer. Nite Owl drinks the stuff, too. Moloch, in an effort to treat cancer, takes medication made from apricot pits—which has been declared illegal.
Other Negative Elements
Silk Spectre throws up. Rorschach makes several height- and weight-related jokes. Rorschach's mother tells him she wishes she had had an abortion. Most of the characters break the law by fighting crime in costume, and some assault law officers.
Watchmen, the book, is a brutal, bleak and bitter tour de force. Named by Time magazine as one of history's 100 best novels, it explores philosophy, politics, theology and human nature. It culminates in a literally monstrous act of heroism: In order to "save the world," one of the protagonists unleashes a made-up monster on the streets of New York—the mere appearance of which kills millions of people. Our "hero" feels bad about the loss of life—but he figures that their unknowing, unwilling sacrifice saved the human race. And, while Moore obliquely suggests that the man's gone mad, he eventually leaves it up to the reader to decide: Did he do the right thing?
Watchmen, the movie, retains that cruel sense of despair. At times, its adherence to the source material feels almost slavish. Yet it's a bit pastiche, too, layering in extra—gratuitous—sex, blood and gore just for raw, big screen shock value.
As a book, Watchmen is messy. As a movie, Watchmen is a mess. In fact, I'll go so far as to call it dispirited, depressing schlock—both as a work of art and as a mode of message. Fanboys may be enthralled, but I'd imagine the uninitiated will walk away appalled, confused and even strangely bored. At the advance screening I attended, where folks generally stay glued to their seats, I saw a number of people leave the theater. Some never came back. This isn't a movie as much as an assault.
"Who watches the Watchmen?" one graffiti artist paints in both the movie and book. If I had my druthers, I know what my answer would be: