Film directed by Zack Snyder In UK and US cinemas now.

Owing to complicated, interlocking storylines coupled with a gruesome take on humanity, Alan Moore's comic-book novel Watchmen was long considered to be unfilmable. Director Zack Snyder has at last made a film version. But the title should have stayed on the printed page.

Quantum morality: Dr Manhattan in Watchmen. Credit: PARAMOUNT PICTURES

Watchmen depicts the rise and fall of superheroes in an alternative 1985 in which the United States won the war in Vietnam, Richard Nixon is in permanent rule, the world is careening towards nuclear war, and a terrible lab accident created Doctor Manhattan, a super-being capable of manipulating the quantum universe.

The depth of character and story development in the 12-issue series, published by DC Comics in 1986–87, transformed the genre. The books were brutal, dystopian and had a deeply pessimistic view of the human condition. Watchmen grappled with intractable moral issues, many arising from cold-war apocalyptic nightmares. It asked if humanity would destroy itself, if that self-destruction could be prevented, and at what cost — and it questioned the role of science in preservation versus destruction.

Some elements of Watchmen's failure as a film were predestined. It sinks beneath the weight of backstory — necessary for the uninitiated but yawningly dull. The most colossal blunder is the casting of Matthew Goode as the smartest man in the world, Adrian Veidt, also known as the superhero Ozymandias. Veidt, who propels the story to its awful conclusion, should be magnetic but instead comes across as repulsively foppish. It is impossible to accept him as the executor of the most diabolical practical joke ever.

The end of the film fails, especially in terms of science ethics. In the book, saving the world from nuclear holocaust is accomplished through abhorrent yet inspired acts of technological and artistic creation. The result shocks — a Machiavellian decision with cataclysmic consequences, leaving the reader to dine on a stew of ambiguity. Was this murderous apotheosis of science ultimately required for the preservation of humanity? What is the cost to society of Veidt's salvation plan, or even of modern efforts such as the International Space Station? In the film, the creative act is replaced by one of theft and dissimulation, and the choice for the viewer is stripped of subtlety.

The book and film are summarized by asking “Who watches the Watchmen?” For the film, the answer should be, not many. Buy the book.