The new science fiction film Watchmen is set in a world that was identical to ours until the middle of the last century, when a group of costumed vigilantes appeared in the US.
All were “ordinary” people with usually questionable motives for wanting to run around dark alleys in brightly coloured costumes.
But then in the 1960s an authentic superman appeared with enormous power. The US government snapped him up in a bid to restore their supremacy in the arms race, giving him the codename Dr Manhattan, recalling the Manhattan Project that developed the nuclear bomb.
His appearance exposed the others as misfits. They were banned, except for the few who worked for government agencies. The film’s plot follows a mid-1980s investigation into the systematic killing of former superheroes.
Its title refers both to the question “Who watches the watchmen?” and the doomsday clock ticking away the seconds until an apparently inevitable nuclear Armageddon.
The film is based on a graphic novel from the mid-1980s, written by Alan Moore, and is filled with the concerns of the period.
The film sticks closely to the original but Moore was dealing with uncomfortable questions of contemporary politics. Now the film depicts a very historical alternative universe.
Watchmen takes apart superhero myths, but is hardly a simple rejection of them. It remains half in love with the costumed vigilante—from the simple-minded psychotic drive of Rorschach to the all-powerful Dr Manhattan.
It is still a magnificent fantasy and more thoughtful and engaging than most Hollywood blockbusters, but without current political resonances it is hardly edgy.
Directed by Zack Snyder
Film out Friday 6 March