Director Zack '300' Snyder lifts the lid on graphic novelist Alan Moore's grimly alternate vision of 1985. The glory days of costumed vigilantes have been brought to a close by a government crackdown... but after one of the masked veterans is brutally murdered, an investigation is initiated. The reunited heroes - including Nite Owl (Patrick Wilson), Silk Spectre (Malin Akerman), the amoral Comedian (Jeffrey Dean Morgan) and the unhinged Rorschach (Jackie Earl Haley) - set out to prevent their own destruction. But in doing so, they discover a deeper and far more diabolical plot. Dark, violent, erotic and true to the source comic, this is bloodily satisfying meat for fans and the uninitiated alike.
Jeffrey Dean Morgan
Jackie Earle Haley
Author Alan Moore declared it "unfilmable". It resides on Terry Gilliam's 'tried and failed' list. And even Paul Greengrass saw the plug pulled when budgets spiralled.
"It" is Watchmen, Western comics' equivalent to The Lord of the Rings, and a film 23 years in the making.
But, through sheer will and fanboy love Snyder has succeeded where Gilliam and Greengrass failed, bringing Watchmen to the screen faithfully and smartly, if not completely (an expanded version should be coming to DVD).
The secret of Zack's success is in not trying improve on first-rate source material.
Previous Alan Moore adaptations (The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen, we're looking at you) failed miserably by attempting to graft a blockbuster template onto Moore's vivid, idea and character driven stories.
And when it comes to visionary, epic, heavyweight, ambitious comic-book storytelling, Moore's Watchmen is the daddy.
An alternate history story where superheroes (or masked crimefighters) are real, America won in Vietnam thanks to the film's one true superhero, the omnipotent Dr Manhattan, and by 1985 Nixon still resides in the White House, this is a long way from Iron Man, Spider-Man and The Dark Knight.
Against an apocalyptic backdrop of East/West nuclear brinkmanship, right-wing thug The Comedian (Morgan) is tossed out of his high-rise apartment.
Relentless, unhinged crimefighter Rorschach (Haley) believes a serial killer is picking off one-time masked crusaders.
His investigation brings him back in contact with fellow outlawed masked heroes (never actually named Watchmen in the book): the Batman-lite Nite Owl (Wilson), the vivacious Silk Spectre (Akerman), the popsicle blue Dr Manhattan, and smartest man on Earth Adrian Veidt (Goode).
Flitting back and forth between post-WW2 America and the mid-eighties doomsday scenario, Snyder boldly retains Moore's intricate structure and re-creates some of the comic's finest sequences as spine-tingling moments of cinema: the US rout of Vietnam, Dr. Manhattan's exile on Mars, Rorschach's prison standoff with an old foe.
Remaining so true to the comic may be the movie's box-office kryptonite - do people want their superhero movies this quixotic, thematically layered, and dark?
Not just Dark Knight dark, but certificate 18 dark. These superheroes mete out bone-snapping torture and murder in the name of law and order, and a villain happily buzz saws the arms off bodyguards in the man who put him away.
But, for those prepared to take the trip Watchmen dishes up plenty of mental meat - where does crimefighting stop and vigilantism begin - and nails a believable world of costumed heroes from the tonally spot-on opening credits.
Here the film is aided immeasurably by a cast chosen for their acting ability and resemblance to their "sequential art" counterparts than opening weekend grosses.
Wilson is spot-on as the good-natured, slightly nebbish Nite Owl, pining for Silk Spectre, who is brought to life by Akerman, more comfortable with action than emoting.
One-time almost famous Billy Crudup's Dr Manhattan manages to be aloof, alien and sympathetic, even when walking around naked, initially distracting member proudly on display, and Goode's Adrian Veidt (aka Ozymandias) conveys the intellectual sang froid that nothing or no-one can do him harm.
Morgan's the Comedian is a government approved Joker, cheerily torching the Vietcong and smoking JFK, but his late life remorse is the one thing better realised here than in the novel.
Best of all is Jackie Earle Haley as Rorschach, a small, sinewy man who impresses despite the handicap of giving 80% of his performance behind a Rorschach blot mask (in a role mooted for Simon Pegg when Greengrass was directing).
And although only Crudup's Manhattan has superpowers, dismantling tanks and, more messily, people with the wave of a hand, Snyder's use of slow-mo gives the rest of his cast a super heroic weight when dispensing justice.
This will never match Moore's creation - squeezing the 338 page comic into 160 minutes has meant plot pruning and Rorschach's fascistic flirtations have been tempered - and Snyder is arguably too adult with his sex and violence, fumbling the comic's black humour.
But, the collective sigh of relief from the majority of Watchmen fans would extinguish the fire of even the most devastating nuclear strike.
In fact it is only on the soundtrack that Snyder cops out, populating his eighties era movie with Jimi Hendrix, Bob Dylan, Simon and Garfunkel and Leonard Cohen.
Where is Frankie Goes To Hollywood's Two Tribes, Zack? Or Wham's Club Tropicana anyone?