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It's not easy being a comic book hero these days. The poor boys have taken their lumps in "Hancock," "The Dark Knight" and even "Iron Man." Self-doubt, angst and inadequacies plague them.

Now comes "Watchmen." Its costumed superheroes, operating in an alternative 1985, are seriously screwed up — and so is their movie. If anyone were able to make a nine-figure movie, something like "Watchmen" would have been the opening-night film at the Sundance Film Festival.

As stimulating as it was to see the superhero movie enter the realm of crime fiction in "Dark Knight," "Watchmen" enters a realm that is both nihilistic and campy. The two make odd companions. The film, directed by Zack Snyder ("300"), will test the limits of superhero-movie fans. If you're not already invested in these characters because of the original graphic novel by Alan Moore and Dave Gibbons, nothing this movie does is likely to change that.

That's bad news for Warner Bros. and Paramount, which hold domestic and international rights, respectively. Opening weekends everywhere will reflect the huge anticipation for this much-touted, news-making movie. After that, the boxoffice slide could be drastic.

Snyder and writers David Hayter and Alex Tse never find a reason for those unfamiliar with the graphic novel to care about any of this nonsense. And it is nonsense. When one superhero has to take a Zen break, he does so on Mars. Of course he does.

The film opens with a brutal killing, then moves on to a credit-roll newsreel of sorts that takes us though the Cold War years, landing us in 1985; Nixon is in his third term, tipping us that we're in an alternate America. Our superheroes have taken care of Woodward and Bernstein, and other forces evidently have taken care of the U.S. Constitution.

The opening murder happens to the Comedian (Jeffrey Dean Morgan), once a member of a now-banished team of superheroes called the Masks. Fellow ex-Mask Rorschach (Jackie Earle Haley) takes exception to the death. He believes the entire society of ex-crimefighters is being targeted.

His investigation and renewed contacts with former buddies fill us in on the complicated histories and problematic psychiatric makeups of these colleagues.

It's all very complicated but not impenetrable. We pick up the relationships quickly enough but soon realize these backstories owe more to soap operas than to superhero comics.

These superheroes, before Nixon banned them, were more vigilantes than real heroes, so the question the movie poses is: Who is watching these Watchmen? They don't seem too much different from the villains.

Which also means we don't empathize with any of these creatures. And what's with the silly Halloween getups?

The violence is not as bad as early rumors would have one believe. It's still comic book stuff, only with lots of bloody effects and makeup. The real disappointment is that the film does not transport an audience to another world, as "300" did. Nor does the third-rate Chandler-esque narration by Rorschach help.

There is something lackadaisical here. The set pieces are surprisingly flat, and the characters have little resonance. Fight scenes don't hold a candle to Asian action. Even the digital effects are ho-hum. Armageddon never looked so cheesy.

Looks like we have the first real flop of 2009. (partialdiff)
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