This is a review of the movie, not the graphic novel, which I hear is quite different and certainly more complete. The movie's plot concerns a group of former superheroes, called The Watchmen, who are being picked off one by one by an unknown murderer. The living, naturally, want to figure out who this is. Side plots include avoiding a nuclear holocaust, a series of failed or corrupted relationships, and the dehumanization of a mutated physicist named Dr. Manhattan. But really, I do the plot very little justice.
The film suffers from having three competing artistic visions rather than a unified one. To begin, it cannot decide how it would like to represent the comic book world. At times, it would like to make fun of comics, with bam-boom-pow, 1950s Batman-like fighting scenes and lines from the evil villain like, "I'm not going to reveal my plan to you. What do you think I am, an evil villain in a comic book?" This approach could have been quite a bit of fun, if they'd stuck to it. But then the characters would drop melodramatically out of airships or strut across the screen in purple-and-gold tights delivering serious lines about a nuclear holocaust without a trace of humor, as if they'd forgotten they were, just a few scenes earlier, making a parody of the comic genre.
Alongside these 2 versions of the same film was yet another fighting to get through the macabre, violence-laden storyline: that of a post 9-11 vision of the United States. The graphic novel, which was written in the mid-80s, imagines what would have happened if nuclear war between Russia and the US hadn't been averted (or had, in a way . . . well, I don't have time to explain that). The directors of this movie reinterpreted it to be both about the graphic novel's original concern -- war with Russia -- and the terrorist attacks on New York City. While they occasionally make the parallels, showing shots of the twin towers still standing, ready to fall, they do not do so faithfully, making their point clear only when the film ends, as they pan out to show a gaping hole a nuclear explosion has left in NYC. The hole is the construction site for the 9-11 towers, suggesting we have already survived our own near-annihilation.
But since the graphic novel was already such a complicated story, these three artistic visions fight each other the entire way, struggling to stay faithful to the novel for all of its die-hard fans while simultaneously trying to mock the genre, honor the genre, and turn it into a political commentary that it only barely mentions and at the most inconvenient times in the film.
These factors, coupled with the gratuitous sex and violence which add nothing to a story that was fascinating all its own, made it a disappointment to say the least.