In an alternate 1985, where Nixon is president, The U.S. won the Vietnam War, and costumed heroes have been banned by an act of the Senate, a superhero is killed. The death of the mercurial entity known as The Comedian (Jeffrey Dean Morgan) sets a string of events into motion that will soon see the world poised on the edge of nuclear annihilation, and the few remaining heroes locked in a life or death race against time to save the world. In the gritty and compelling new movie “Watchmen” by Director Zack Snyder, a clever blend of film noir and gumshoe style films of old combined with action and adventure as well as a deep examination of human frailties to create a film like no other.

No sooner has the death of the Comedian hit the streets (literally), when the edgy vigilante Rorschach (Jackie Earle Haley), begins to suspect that there is a larger and far more sinister plot in effect, one that has targeted the few remaining costumed avengers of New York City. Rorschach’s theory is disbelieved by his former associate Dan (Patrick Wilson), who prowled the streets as Night Owl and is now content to keep to himself, with his days of costumed glory behind him. He keeps his social circle limited to the first Night Owl and visiting with Laurie Jupiter ( Malin Akerman), and her husband, Dr. Manhattan (Billy Crudup).

With his concerns being dismissed, Rorschach is left to do the legwork on the mystery which soon shifts into high gear when he is framed for a murder he actually did not commit and an attempt is made on the life of the other former Watchmen, Ozymandias (Matthew Goode). With Rorschach in prison and surrounded by enemies, Dr. Manhattan, the all powerful and blue skinned being, is forced to take refuge on Mars after Laurie leaves him and a series of accusations are levied against him at a press conference .

It soon becomes clear to all that the death of The Comedian was not a random act of violence or a simple act of revenge, but rather the first salvo in a war against costumed heroes. With the former team in chaos, Laurie to take up residence with Dan, who has long held a torch for her, to defy the government order and suit up again. After saving a group of people from a fire, Laurie and Dan find the passion and purpose that has been missing from their post-hero lives and passionately unite and set out to free Rorschach and get to the bottom of the conspiracy before it is to late.

The film is an amazing mix of comic book action and mystery that includes a suprising amount of mature material that examines everything from humanity’s ultimate destiny to the inner psyche of tortured and flawed individuals. The characters all have their flaws and traumas and compensate by donning masks and taking on new personas. The deeply troubled Rorschach is filled in by some horrific and disturbing flashbacks that show how he became the disturbed and deeply dangerous crusader for justice that he is, so extreme in his measures that he is wanted by the police for his actions. Dan and Laurie try to move on from their past, but find that they are more comfortable in their costumed personas than they are in their day-to-day lives. Dr. Manhattan is perhaps the most dysfunctional of all as he has shut himself off from his wife, humanity, and joy. He has evolved beyond caring for anything but his experiments.

Snyder keeps the nearly three hour film moving at a brisk pace and deftly captures the look and tone of the graphic novel on which the film is based. The opening segment that shows alternate versions of great moments in history is amazing, as is the well choreographed action sequences. Despite being a superhero film, “Watchmen” is a superb mystery and drama that is loaded with interesting characters and clever social commentary. The cast is very strong, and Haley is remarkable as Rorschach. He is utterly captivating whenever he is on the screen and has crafted a true modern anti-hero for the masses.

Some may find the graphic violence and sex in the film a bit extreme, but in order to fully capture the duality of the characters and the dark world that they dwell in, it was in many ways restrained from what is actually implied by the source material. “Watchmen”, is a true marvel and is one of the most entertaining, diverse, and original action films in memory.

4 stars out of 5