Starring: Jackie Earle Haley, Malin Akerman, Billy Crudup
Rated: R for strong graphic violence, sexuality, nudity and language
Running time: 163 minutes
Bottom line: Essential viewing
"Watchmen" is a force to be reckoned with. It's a sprawling, epic pop culture spectacle that refuses to let you ignore it.
Few movies arrive with as much hype. The trailers and viral marketing have been circulating for a year (there was a featurette on the movie's wardrobe alone).
All the publicity repeats like a mantra that "Watchmen" is the greatest graphic novel of all time. Several comic aficionados have declared bluntly that "Watchmen" makes everything else look childish.
Fans have been either waiting anxiously for or denouncing the prospect of a film adaptation for more than 20 years.
Those devotees can decide whether the film is faithful to the comics, but one thing is beyond dispute: "Watchmen" is unlike any superhero movie we've ever seen.
When their fellow costumed hero the Comedian (Jeffrey Dean Morgan) is killed, Rorschach (Jackie Earle Haley), Nite Owl (Patrick Wilson), Ozymandias (Matthew Goode), Silk Spectre (Malin Akerman) and Dr. Manhattan (Billy Crudup) begin to fear that someone plans to kill off their entire Watchmen league of heroes.
As Rorschach investigates, he begins to uncover something more complex and sinister. While the fate of the Watchmen hangs in the balance, the world inches ever closer to nuclear war.
The story is set in a fictionalized 1980s in which the world is enmeshed in Cold War paranoia, yet Richard Nixon is serving a fourth term. But the film dazzlingly leaps through time as it interweaves origin stories for each of the heroes into the central plot.
This makes for a dense movie that never drags even for a moment, despite being more than two and a half hours long. As rich as it is, they are clearly leaving out a great deal.
The cast members play it mostly low key and are quite good, but Haley turns in a devastating, award-worthy performance. Start the Rorschach for Oscar campaigning now.
The "Watchmen" comics changed the game. They were a series collected into one of the earliest graphic novels, and their whole intent - other than to entertain, of course - was to deconstruct the whole concept of a superhero.
Most of the Watchmen, in both novel and film, don't possess supernatural abilities. They are human, costumed vigilantes with certain pronounced talents and a noble desire for justice. That is, most are noble. Some are either maladjusted ideologues or sociopaths using the costume as a disguise that lets them behave badly.
The Watchmen experience human doubt and frailty, and some of them are deeply troubled, to say the least. In this world, heroes and villains alike are both good and evil.
This is only one of the ways "Watchmen" violently, gleefully rips the rules to shreds.
This might be the first superhero movie ever made strictly for adults. Intense violence has become standard for the genre, but here we get a sex scene with nudity, and since Dr. Manhattan's unique state of existence makes clothes unnecessary, he doesn't wear any. Nor does the film try to hide Dr. Manhattan's anatomy. So we see a whole lot of glowing-blue male frontal nudity.
"Watchmen" is made for mature fans of the graphic novel. Whether those folks will turn out and buy tickets is the big box office question. I think they should.
Will "Watchmen" the movie have the same game-changing influence as the graphic novel? Too early to tell.
But Spidey, the X-Men and all the other superheroes with movies in development had better take notice: the same old, predictable endings and the tired clichés might look silly and outdated after "Watchmen."
Jeff Marker is a media studies professor at Gainesville State College.