"Watchmen" is set in an alternate 1985 America in which costumed superheroes are part of the fabric of everyday society, and the "Doomsday Clock" -- which charts the USA's tension with the Soviet Union -- is permanently set at five minutes to midnight. When one of his former colleagues is murdered, the masked vigilante Rorschach, washed up but determined, sets out to uncover a plot to kill and discredit all past and present superheroes. As he reconnects with his former crime-fighting legion -- a ragtag group of retired superheroes, only one of whom has true powers -- Rorschach glimpses a wide-ranging and disturbing conspiracy with links to their shared past and catastrophic consequences for the future. Their mission is to watch over humanity... but who is watching the Watchmen?
Before the credits, a mid-60's man in a bathrobe, puffing on a cigar, sits alone in his apartment watching PBS' The McLaughlin Group discuss a potential nuclear war with Russia. A tall slim figure breaks into the room. The two start to fight. After they trade blows the assailant is clearly getting the upper hand, and he hurls the man in the bathrobe out the window of his high-rise. He is killed when he hits the ground, and a smiley face button soon lands on the pavement next to his body.
The opening credits show historical pictures as Bob Dylan's "Times They are a Changin" plays. Masked, costumed vigilantes fight crime in America. In the 1930s and '40s, the vigilantes formed a group called the Minutemen to "finish what the law couldn't." The original lineup was heroic and helped catch criminals and win World War II. But they often suffered early and violent deaths in action, or became suicides, or were arrested for breaking the law themselves, or in one case were committed to an asylum.
We see a blue, other-worldly man shaking hands with President Kennedy; later we see a cigar-puffing man who might be the bathrobed man at the start of the movie (a bit younger) holding a rifle on the "grassy knoll" after Kennedy has been shot. And, in the glass of the helmet of the astronaut on the moon's surface, we do not see an American flag; we see the blue man again with a camera.
A second generation of heroes has formed, called the Watchmen. We see them being photographed -- as the movie goes on, we will learn that these are the Comedian (a burly guy with a simple mask over his eyes and chomping on a cigar), Laurie Jupiter (the new Silk Spectre), Dr. Jon Osterman (Doctor Manhattan, the naked blue humanoid, with true superpowers), Adrian Veidt (Ozymandias, whose costume is like that of a Greek god), Daniel Dreiberg (the new Nite Owl, looking somewhat like Batman), and Rorschach (in a trench coat and hat with a knitted mask that completely covers his face and displays constantly changing ink blots).
TV news reports that Nixon has been elected to a third term. By the 1980s, public opinion has turned against costumed heroes, who are considered a dangerous alternative to the police.
It is October 12, 1985. Investigating the murder of the man who fell to his death at the start of the movie, who we now know is Eddie Blake, Rorschach enters the crime scene apartment with a sophisticated grappling gun. Searching the apartment, he discovers the uniform, weapons and memorabilia of the Comedian, a former member of both the Minutemen and the Watchmen. We hear the voice over of what Rorschach will write in his journal: "Tonight, a comedian died in New York. Somebody knows why." He has to beat up a couple of policemen to get out of the building.
Meanwhile, Daniel Dreiburg is at the home of Hollis Mason, the original Nite Owl. The two have regular meetings and talk about old times. Hollis says that it all started with the gangs. The Minutemen were a masked response to the masked gangs. They discuss the Comedian's death and Rorschach's vigilante activities. Nixon's policies don't allow masked vigilantes, but this hasn't stopped Rorschach.
As Daniel leaves, they see a report about Rorschach and the policemen on television. Daniel leaves in the rain and goes home, where he finds that Rorschach has broken into his home, and is in his kitchen. Rorschach shows Daniel the smiley face button that he found where the Comedian was killed. They go down to the Nite Owl lab, under Daniel's home, where Rorschach speculates that someone is killing the superheroes. Daniel says "The Watchmen are over" and that Rorschach could give it up since no one knows who he is.
In his journal, Rorschach speculates that nuclear war is coming.
The rich and brilliant Adrian Veidt is being interviewed. The reporter observes that only Adrian and Hollis ever revealed their true identities. Adrian talks about developing renewable energy sources, and that if he could eliminate fear of not having enough, war would be obsolete. Daniel is watching the interview, and he warns Adrian that someone may be after the Watchmen. Adrian is not worried. Adrian speculates that a being like Dr. Manhattan, with his powers that can control atomic structure, might be able to stop much of a nuclear strike, but not all of it.
The next evening, Rorschach sneaks into the US Army Rockefeller Military Research Center to warn Dr. Manhattan and Laurie Jupiter who live there in private quarters. Manhattan can normally see the future, but he says that he cannot see it now due to temporal interference caused by tachyons moving through time that may have resulted from a nuclear holocaust. He transports ("zaps") Rorschach outside the military facility in mid-sentence when he upsets Laurie; Rorschach challenges Laurie's judgement of the Comedian, who once tried to rape her mother. Rorschach refers to the incident as a "moral lapse". Manhattan then tells Laurie that he has been working with Adrian to solve the energy crisis in an effort to avert the war. Manhattan reads her mind, and observes her parents fighting (we see this same scene repeated twice more in the movie). He also tells Laurie that he knows she wanted to have dinner with him, but that she will instead be going out to dinner with Daniel.
When Laurie arrives at the restaurant, Daniel is obviously smitten. They have dinner and talk about the old days. She observes that the Keene Act, which outlawed costumed vigilantism, has prevented them from going out as superheroes. Laurie confides that Jon (Dr. Manhattan) is becoming more remote. As she gets in a cab to leave the restaurant, Daniel observes that she is being watched by a "government escort". She responds that they don't want her upsetting the country's most valuable asset.
At a cemetery, the Comedian is given a funeral with military honors, while Simon and Garfunkel's "Sounds of Silence" plays.
Laurie is teleported to her mother's home by Dr. Manhattan, where she immediately throws up into the toilet. The older woman, Sally Jupiter, observes that she thought Laurie would have gotten used to that means of travel by now. "It beats flying coach," says Sally. She is drinking margaritas in the afternoon and reminiscing about her old Minuteman days, when she was the original Silk Spectre. She shows Laurie a pornographic comic that is based on Sally's super-hero of the 1940s (the original Silk Spectre). Laurie is appalled by her mother's behavior.
In a flashback, Sally remembers the original Minutemen having a group photo taken in a wood-paneled club. Afterward, Sally goes to the billiards room to change out of her costume and the Comedian enters, making suggestive advances toward her. Sally tries to push him away but the Comedian brutally punches her and is ready to rape her when another member of their team, Hooded Justice, intervenes and beats Blake severely. Blake suggests that Justice gets off on beating men and Justice stops. Sally concludes the flashback with a cryptic observation about Eddie Blake.
Back at the rainy cemetery, Dr. Manhattan and Daniel are there. Manhattan remembers that during the Vietnam War, the Comedian and Manhattan fought the Viet Cong and North Vietnamese Army, turning the tide of the war and allowing the United States to win. In a bar, as the war is over, a Vietnamese woman confronts the Comedian and tells him she is pregnant with his child. When the drunken Comedian refuses to take responsibility and insults her, she slashes his face with a broken bottle, causing a permanent scar. Infuriated, and over Manhattan's pleas for him to stop, the Comedian shoots and kills the woman. Blake then berates Manhattan for not stopping him, claiming that his failure to act shows that Manhattan doesn't really care about humanity.
Adrian also watches the coffin being laid to rest and remembers a meeting of the Watchmen. He recalls that the Comedian was a sarcastic, misanthropic pessimist, while Ozymandias wanted to help humankind. The Comedian burns Adrian's display, saying that the threat of nuclear war trumps any efforts by the "Crimebusters" group Adrian wants to form.
Daniel recalls a time when the Comedian and the Night Owl tried to calm a rioting group of protesters during a police strike; the comic gleefully fought with the protesters and shot tear gas at the people. Daniel, obviously bothered by the way lawlessness has engulfed the nation, asks the Comedian "What happened to the American Dream?" Amidst the destruction caused by the mob, the Comedian answers "It came true! You're lookin' at it." Blake also mentions that Congress was enacting new legislation that would outlaw costumed vigilantes.
A tall, wizened man pays his respects and goes back to his flat by an adult movie theatre. He is "Moloch", a one-time "arch-enemy". In his home, he is assaulted by Rorschach, who wants to know why Moloch went to the funeral. Moloch says that Eddie Blake had broken into Moloch's house a week before, very drunk, and had cried and rambled about a list.
Laurie and Jon are having an intimate erotic moment when Laurie realizes Jon has replicated himself. At first, she is put off by making love to two people at the same time, but then she realizes that a third Jon is working on the energy design at the same time. Angry at not having his full attention she throws an object through the blue figure's head. Laurie leaves as Jon teleports the machine to Adrian in Karnak, his Antarctic stronghold. Laurie goes to Daniel's house saying she has nowhere else to go. He is going to meet Hollis for their weekly session and invites her to join him.
Jon dresses in a suit and tie (without physically touching his clothes) and zaps himself over to a TV studio for an interview. At the same time, while Dan and Laurie are walking to Hollis', they are confronted by a large gang of street thugs. Dressed in their street clothes, they defend themselves with vigor.
Simultaneously, at the interview, Manhattan is accused of afflicting many of his former colleagues with cancer. His once very close girlfriend, Janie Slater, appears and reveals that she too is stricken, and she damns Jon in public. In the ensuing press scrum, Jon screams "leave me alone", and he zaps everyone out of the studio.
Laurie and Daniel's fight with the thugs ends, and she decides not to continue on to Hollis'. Daniel and Hollis watch the end of Manhattan's interview on television. Hollis remarks that Manhattan was "crucified" in front of a national audience.
Dr. Manhattan teleports himself to Mars. There he recalls many events in a haphazard order. Years ago he had a loving relationship with Janie; he reassembled a watch with his father; he was trapped in an atomic chamber by a time lock before a lab accident turned him from a human scientist, Jon Osterman, into Dr. Manhattan; how he fell in love with Laurie.
Manhattan is slowly "resurrected" as a nervous system, a skeleton, and finally, a blue humanoid. TV news reports "The superman exists and he is an American". Dr. Manhattan is told he needs a logo, and he draws a circle with a dot in the middle on his forehead, a symbol of a hydrogen atom. President Nixon enlists his help to end the Vietnam war, which he does.
The TV reporter now denies that he said the quote about Superman. Instead, he says, that his words are "God exists and he's an American". The flashbacks end, and Dr. Manhattan observes that he is tired of humans, and he begins to build a large, watch-like device on Mars.
Laurie is confronted by government officials for "not doing her job" (appeasing Dr Manhattan both physically and emotionally) and allowing him to leave Earth. In a flashback, while dressed as the Silk Spectre, she meets the Comedian. Her mother intervenes and tells him to stay away from her daughter.
Nixon, Kissinger and the war cabinet consider the recent events with the Soviet Union and prepare for war. Nixon seems willing to lose the East coast in a nuclear war with the Soviets, and he tells them to begin fueling America's bomber planes. Nixon says Dr. Manhattan has two days to solve the problems, and he "hopes he's on our side".
Laurie tells the government officials that the only one who can bring back Jon is himself.
Lee Iaccoca and other industrial leaders have a disagreeable meeting with Adrian. Adrian reminds them of his brilliance, and how he has had a desire to be like Alexander the Great and unify the world. He also says he's wealthy enough to buy them several times over and tells them they can leave. As Iaccoca apologizes, the elevator door opens, and a deliveryman starts shooting. Veidt eludes the bullets, one of which hits Iaccoca between the eyes, and subdues the shooter but the man swallows a poison pill, froths at the mouth, and dies.
Laurie and Daniel discuss the attack as they lunch at the Gunga Diner. Daniel says that it is not safe for the former heroes, and as they leave the diner, he suggests Laurie move in with him, for safety. She agrees, and they leave the diner. We hear Rorschach's voice over, in which he says that he is watching them walk away, but not in his costume.
Rorschach later reviews the ID card of the man who tried to kill Adrian. The man worked for Pyramid International and Rorschach remembers he had seen a letter from Pyramid earlier at Moloch's apartment. He returns to Moloch's apartment, but he discovers that Moloch is so recently dead that his cigarette is still smoldering. The police have the building surrounded and know that Rorschach is inside. Realizing he's been set up for the murder, Rorschach makes a torch out of a spray can and fights his way out of the building. Nonetheless, he is captured and unmasked. He is identified on the TV News as Walter Kovacs, age 35.
Walter is jailed for the murder of Moloch until sentencing. The state psychiatrist, Dr. Malcolm Long, tells Walter that he won't want to be in the general population, because criminals he captured will want to get even. He gives Walter a psych assessment. As Walter looks at ink blots, he recalls moments in his life. At an early age, he sees his mother kissing a man. She slaps him and says that she "should have had that abortion." We also see a young Walter seriously injure much bigger kids who are taunting him. Walter resents being called "Walter" by the psychiatrist, and he talks about how evil society is. He recalls a seminal event, when he was a young Rorschach, and he uncovered the grisly murder of a 6-year old girl by a pedophile. Finding a cleaver at the scene of the crime, he brutally cleaves the murderer's head in two with multiple blows. He tells Long that "Walter died that night" and only Rorschach remains. Long leaves, saying "I can't help him." In prison, Walter is taunted by another inmate on the food serving line, and Walter splashes him with hot grease from a deep fryer, burning him horribly. Rorschach screams to the rest of the population "I'm not locked up in here with you, YOU'RE LOCKED UP IN HERE WITH ME!"
Laurie snoops around in the basement of Daniel's building, and she finds the Night Owl's lab and his flying machine. She pushes a random button that activates the ship's flamethrower, starting a fire in the lab. Daniel comes down to help her put out the fire. He tells her that the ship is called "Archie" after Merlin's pet owl, Archimedes. He says that he inherited a lot of money from his father who was disappointed that he became a crime fighter. Daniel tells Laurie that Hollis was his hero. She tries on the night vision owl goggles, and she says that this must be how Jon sees. Daniel looks disappointed and goes upstairs. Laurie follows and tells him "Jon sees a lot of things, but he doesn't see me." The two make love on the sofa as Daniel observes that they may be going too fast. Laurie says that they have all the time in the world. A newscast in the background reports the buildup of Soviet tanks.
Locked in his cell, Rorschach is taunted by a dwarf, Big Figure, a crime kingpin he had arrested 15 years earlier, now looking for revenge. Big Figure tells Kovacs that he can wait as long as necessary to get into his cell.
Daniel has a strange dream in which he and Laurie are naked on a field under the stars. She pulls off their "skin" revealing their superhero costumes as a nuclear explosion goes off and vaporizes them. He awakens, and Laurie finds him staring at his Night Owl gear. The two decide to get into costume, take Archie out and "do something stupid". Archie flies around the city as they listen for police messages. They hear of a burning building and go to rescue a group of people trapped on an upper floor. Night Owl drops her into the burning building and then lines up Archie as she sends all of the trapped people into the ship, just a moment before an explosion would have killed them all. After dropping off the passengers, Daniel puts the flyer on autopilot and the two superheroes have steamy sex in the aircraft.
Meanwhile, a prison riot is taking place. One of the dwarf's large henchmen attempts to grab Kovacs behind the bars. Rorschach grabs and binds the man's hands to the bars. Another henchman comes with a grinder and proceeds to first cut the others arms off and then cut open Rorschach's cell bars.
We cut to Laurie and Daniel in the aftermath of their lovemaking. They decide to try to rescue Rorschach from prison.
Back at the prison, Rorschach quickly subdues the grinder man against the cell toilet and the dwarf runs for his life.
Back in costume, Silk Spectre and Night Owl land at the prison where a full scale prisoner revolt is in progress. Meanwhile, Rorschach heads straight for the psychiatrist's office and gets his mask. Silk Specter and Night Owl arrive and subdue dozens of prisoners with fists and kicks. We see the dwarf run into the men's bathroom to hide, as Silk Spectre and Night Owl find Rorschach. Before he leaves, he says "Excuse me, I have to visit the men's room". For a moment, we see Big Figure through the swinging door, and we see water and blood running on the floor after Rorschach leaves.
Back in Daniel's basement lair, Night Owl and Laurie revel in the fun of their evening. Dr. Manhattan appears and zaps Laurie to Mars with him. As he says how beautiful it is, she doubles over and throws up.
Night Owl and Rorschach go out again and find out that Janie Slater, who worked for Pyramid, hired Adrian Veidt's assassin. They decide to "follow the money".
Sally calls Hollis, and Hollis tells her that the news is reporting Night Owl and Silk Spectre's rescue of the people trapped in the burning building. They revel in the joy of their proteges. Immediately afterwards, young thugs, knowing that Hollis was the original Night Owl, break into his apartment. He fights valiantly, but they kill him.
Rorschach and Night Owl argue, but Rorschach offers his hand in friendship, and they agree to go out in costume looking for the person who tried to kill Adrian. They hear on the TV news that Hollis has been murdered, and Night Owl badly beats up a gang member, even though he is not sure who killed Hollis.
On Mars, Manhattan tells Laurie what she is going to tell him, and she observes that "the most powerful thing in the universe" is "just going through the motions." She apologizes for sleeping with Dan, and remarkably, Manhattan seems unaware. He explains that "My red world here means more than your blue one," as his machine emerges behind them.
In the War Room, Nixon orders Def Con 1 to send the bombers.
Rorschach and Night Owl break into Adrian's office. Night Owl guesses that the password to Adrian's computer is "RamesesII" and they find out that Pyramid is owned by Adrian's company, Veidt International.
In Antarctica, at Karnac, a group of scientists raise a toast to Manhattan's energy reactor, which is now online. Adrian, dressed as Ozymandias, compares the scientists to the Egyptian servants who were buried with their pharaoh, as he steps over their poisoned bodies. A moment later he has them disintegrated in a manner similar to Jon Osterman's accident. Back in NYC, Rorschach records his suspicions in his journal, which he drops through mail slot in the door of the "New Frontier" newspaper.
On Mars, Laurie pleads for help for the Earth. Manhattan says that "The universe will not even notice" and that "Life is overrated". He wonders how things are better with another oil pipeline or shopping mall. She tells him to send her back to Earth to be "fried" with her mother and Daniel. She challenges Manhattan to "do that thing you do" and confront her with details of her life that she doesn't want to remember. Probing her memories, Manhattan reveals to her that her mother eventually had a romantic relationship with the Comedian, despite his previous attempted rape of her. Blake is revealed to be her biological father, and she is distraught, saying "My life is just one big joke." She smashes Manhattan's watch-like machine; Manhattan generates a protective field around them both, sheltering them from the debris. Manhattan tells her that he was wrong about undervaluing miracles. He notes that against "unfathomable odds" Laurie came from the coupling of Sally and the Comedian, "a miracle". The view pulls back from Mars, revealing that they are standing in a giant smiley face on the planet's surface.
Rorschach and Nite Owl fly south to Karnac (in Antarctica) where Archie, having been underwater in New York for many hours, freezes from the water still in it & is suddenly rendered unpilotable, crash lands. Jimi Hendrix's "All Along the Watchtower" plays as Ozymandias watches Rorschach and Nite Owl hiking in the snow towards Karnac on one of dozens of televisions that are arrayed before him. Other televisions display newscasts and other information from around the globe. Rorschach and Nite Owl sneak in, thinking that he is unaware of their arrival. In fact, he is fully aware.
They confront Ozymandias, attempting to subdue him in hand-to-hand combat, however, he easily defeats them both. Veidt confirms he is the mastermind behind the Comedian's murder, because he was "cracking badly" and had uncovered Ozymandias' plan. He also spent $2 billion to manipulate Manhattan into not seeing the future and leaving the Earth, arranged the framing of Rorschach, and also staged his own assassination attempt to place himself above suspicion.
He explains that his plan is to unify the United States and Soviet Union and prevent nuclear war by "killing millions" in several of the world's largest cities, "to save billions." Veidt intends to use devices with Dr. Manhattan's unique energy signature to destroy the cities. The world will think Dr. Manhattan is behind all the deaths and will unite against him, thereby stopping the impending nuclear war. Rorschach and Nite Owl attempt to stop him, but Ozymandias tells them that he would only tell them his plan if they couldn't possibly prevent it. In fact, he had started the destruction 35 minutes earlier. On TV monitors, they see that the cities are being destroyed. Henry Kissinger tells Nixon that the energy signatures are not nuclear devices launched from the Soviet Union, they are from Dr. Manhattan.
Laurie and Manhattan arrive at the ruins of New York City and see the results of Ozymandias's plan. Manhattan observes that the destruction was "made to look like I did it." They teleport to Karnak to confront Ozymandias. Ozymandias appears to obliterate Manhattan, and Laurie pulls out a gun and shoots him. He falls down the stairs, but then realizes that he caught the bullet and is completely unharmed.
In a first surprise for Ozymandias, Manhattan reappears, telling Veidt that he was able to more easily and quickly reassemble himself, having learned how to do so from the first accident that claimed his life. "The world's smartest man poses no more threat to me than does its smartest termite."
Ozymandias reveals a TV remote control, and all of the televisions are switched to a broadcast of Nixon blaming Manhattan for the destruction. After President Nixon states that the US and Soviets have allied, Dr. Manhattan realizes Ozymandias' plan is logical and revealing the conspiracy would only break the peace and lead again to nuclear destruction.
Rorschach is unwilling to remain silent and angrily turns to leave, steadfastly believing that a crime has been committed and that the world must know about it.
Manhattan says that he understands, "without condoning or condemning", how Adrian feels about killing millions of innocents to save the planet. Outside Rorschach is confronted by Manhattan. In despair, Rorschach takes off his mask, and he demands that Manhattan kill him; Manhattan finally obliges, leaving only a bloody outline in the snow. Daniel is a witness and cries out in anguish.
Manhattan shares a final kiss with Laurie and departs for another galaxy that is "a little less complicated. Maybe I'll create some life there".
After watching Manhattan kill Rorschach, Daniel comes back into the building and attacks Adrian, telling him that he has "deformed" mankind. Adrian takes the blows without emotion. Daniel and Laurie fly away in Archie.
We hear the beginning of an episode of The Outer Limits as Laurie talks with her mother. She tells her mother that she knows the Comedian was her father, and they make amends. Daniel appears and says that Archie is all updated and ready.
Daniel observes that "As long as people think that Jon is still watching, we'll be okay."
Outside, life goes on.
A newspaper editor in New York complains of nothing worthwhile to print because of the world-wide peace. He tells a young reporter, Seymour, that it's like living in a world-wide hippie commune where the only hamburgers available have a Russian variation: borscht. The reporter says that they could write a story about Ronald Reagan who may run for president. The editor dismisses this; "Americans don't want a cowboy in the White House." Instead, he tells Seymour he should print whatever he likes from a collection of crank mailings. The camera focuses on the mail basket containing Rorschach's journal.