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Published:5 March 2009

Billy Crudup as Dr Manhattan, a superhuman with magical powers in Watchmen
Wind back to the 1980s with the Watchmen

Directed by Zack Snyder
Certificate 18

IT took two decades for Alan Moore’s classic graphic novel to make it to the big screen. The intricate storyline, which spans nearly 60 years and deals with some hefty issues involving the future of the human race, gave numerous directors a headache. But it’s finally here, and the wait was worthwhile.
The narrative is hard to sum up succinctly but, essentially, Moore tells of a group of masked superheroes called the Watchmen who once stalked the dingy alleys and parking lots of metropolitan America, battling baddies and foiling crimes. It is now the mid-1980s and the days of costumed crime-fighters have gone: all are washed-up, retired, unsure of how their once adoring public now perceives them.
One of their number, Dr Manhattan, is a giant blue figure with magical powers, the only really superhuman among them. He is the USA’s great hope in avoiding a nuclear holocaust, so when he decides he no longer wants to be a tool for the military, things look bleak for national security.
Meanwhile, when one of the gang is murdered, masked loner Rorschach fears there is a plot to do away with the Watchmen. It leads him to contact the retired superheroes to try and solve the puzzle – and he unravels a much bigger issue that could determine the future of the planet.
All of this is set against a backdrop that would do the History Channel proud. We discover that Richard Nixon and Henry Kissinger are in the White House. With shades of Dr Strangelove about it, Nixon and Brezhnev in the Kremlin are facing each other down. Nuclear war is imminent.
Minor gripes with the film are two-fold. Moore’s works attract a cliquey group of hero-worshippers and the director has faithfully recreated the story on screen. While you can rail against books being sloppily adapted, the attempts to make this film go straight from page to screen has problems. At times the pace is wobbly, as the story meanders.
Also, “superhero” is a genre of storytelling that lends itself better to crashes, bangs and wallops rather than larger philosophical debates. Still, there is just too much that is good with this film for this to matter.
The final word must be for the way the film is offset by its soundtrack.
With the theme of a nuclear holocaust hanging over the plot, the choice of mid-80s classic 99 Red Balloons was inspired. As Dr Manhattan strides through Vietnam, we hear Ride of the Valkyries, a clever nod to Apocalypse Now.
It’s as if the director has flipped through his record collection and chosen his Desert Island Discs.

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