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The Watchmen are technically superheroes, but they are not clearly heroes. In their tragic, multigenerational tale, originally published as a serial graphic novel in 1986 and 1987, masks hide more than just the usual secret identities. They hide histories of sexual abuse, political duplicity, and certifiable insanity.
The Watchmen movie, set for release this weekend, is one of the most-anticipated films in recent memory. Zack Snyder is the director who gave us larger-than-life Spartans and demonic ancient Persians in another comic-book adaptation, 300. In doing so, he turned a complex historical struggle into a clear-cut cartoon of visceral good-vs.-evil. Now he brings that same visual flair to bear in depicting layers of moral complexity and neurosis in figures who look as if they should be icons of justice: the Batman-like Nite Owl, the atomic-powered Dr. Manhattan, the stealthy vigilante Rorschach, and others.
Synder convincingly mixes their story with visual elements from the tragic 20th century spanned by their often-sordid crimefighting careers. With a mixture of action-movie delight and news-footage repulsion, we see these ostensibly superheroic characters linked to some of the worst government-related horrors of recent decades: war, assassination, political repression, propaganda. Fans—including some new to costumed do-gooders—will likely applaud Snyder thunderously for it.
The Watchmen movie is a perfect adaptation of the original comic book written by Alan Moore and drawn by Dave Gibbons, but it's difficult to watch a movie so full of potent political themes, nerd-pleasing homages, and historical references and feel like your brain is in a single place on a single day, taking it all in.
If you're in one of the intersecting subsets of the population who care about comics or politics or genre films, watching Watchmen feels a bit more like your mind has become unmoored in time—like the character Dr. Manhattan from the film, experiencing all things simultaneously and attempting to process it by zigzagging back and forth across history, alighting on meaningful moments, like a sort of quantum Proust:
• It's July 1985, and I'm reading the DC Comics miniseries Crisis on Infinite Earths—a series that will incorporate into the DC Universe several characters DC purchased from defunct company Charlton Comics, characters who will in turn become the basis of the darker, grittier, more modern characters known as the Watchmen. One Charlton character, the moralistic hero known as the Question, was created by the Objectivist artist Steve Ditko (earlier a co-creator of Spider-Man) and will be the model for the embittered, right-anarchist vigilante...
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