Director: Zack Snyder

Happiness is a relative thing in Watchmen, like the blood-spattered smiley face that is its most powerful symbol.

The surly superheroes of the film’s titular collective don’t particularly care about saving the planet —and why should they? Their most powerful member, glowing blue quasi-deity Dr. Manhattan (Billy Crudup), can stop most but not all of the bombs in an impending U.S.-Soviet nuclear war. Earth would only be relatively ruined.

Such cynical fatalism hangs heavily over Zack Snyder’s exceptional live-action adaptation of the apocalyptic 1980s comic satire by Alan Moore and Dave Gibbons.

Most of the visual details and all of the character shadings of the source tale — first a comic book series, later an award-winning graphic novel — arrive with gratifying exactness and astounding depth.

Against considerable odds Snyder (300) has directed a movie that should satisfy fanboys while engaging adventurous newcomers. Anyone looking for traditional caped heroics should heed the film’s first words, as government-backed assassin and rapist The Comedian (Jeffrey Dean Morgan) bites the concrete: “Wrong as usual.”

None of it, either on page or screen, can be construed as family entertainment. Watchmen is loaded with savage killings and mutilations, fairly explicit sex and a giant naked blue sage who isn’t afraid to display his shortcomings.

If this is what you’re into, the multitude of DVD choices should scratch any itch. There’s even a limited edition five-disc box that could keep you in your dungeon for days.

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