It is the late 1980s, in a gritty world in which America won the
Vietnam War, Nixon was re-elected, and in the late 1930s, vigilante
superheroes appeared and began to make names for themselves.
One such superhero, the Comedian, is murdered in his penthouse
apartment, tossed out the window and onto the pavement far below.
Rorschach, a vigilante operating in defiance of the law,
investigates on his own and begins to develop a theory about a killer
targeting superheroes. He approaches some of his former colleagues, who
seem skeptical, uncertain about his theories at best.
The funeral of Eddie Blake, the Comedian, draws many of his former
friends and foes. Through flashbacks, it presents several important
themes: the general misery and suffering of humanity worldwide; the
futility of superheroes at battling social ills;
the failed startup of the Crimebusters, doomed by the same
pointlessness of vigilantism, and this failure’s effect on Ozymandias
(Adrian Veidt). In general, the world’s superheroes
are broken, psychologically distant, burnt out, or otherwise turned off
by the harsh reality of the world.
Global political tensions rise as the U.S. and the U.S.S.R. inch
to mutual nuclear annihilation. Laurie Juspeczyk (the second Silk
Spectre), after a fight with her lover, Dr.
Manhattan (a nigh-omnipotent superhuman working for the U.S.
and seeks out Dan Dreiberg (the second Nite Owl) for
support. Meanwhile, due to public accusations that he causes cancer in
his associates, Dr. Manhattan leaves Earth for the solitude of
Mars. Rorschach sees further evidence for his mask-killer theory, and
the Soviets up the political ante by invading Afghanistan. The world
braces for nuclear war.
On Mars, Manhattan contemplates his past, which, like all moments for
him, happens concurrently with every other moment. He relives the
accident that turned him into the superhuman he is, as
well as his life afterward, and decides to leave humanity entirely.
An assassin attempts to kill Adrian Veidt, but fails and appears to commit suicide before Veidt can question him. Rorschach sees
this as further confirmation of his theory. He threatens
ex-supervillain Moloch to get information about Eddie Blake. However, Moloch arranges a set-up and kills himself. Rorschach is
Laurie and Dan’s friendship grows; Laurie, homeless after the departure
of Dr. Manhattan, moves in with Dan. Their relationship develops as
they gain confidence with each other. Eventually, the two venture into
the streets to restart their superhero careers.
Rorschach, his identity revealed, goes through psychological
in prison, revealing his tormented past slowly to his counselor. A
prison riot provides cover, allowing Nite Owl II and Silk Spectre II
to free Rorschach. The following day, juvenile delinquents break into
the retired first Nite Owl’s home and, thinking he sprung Rorschach,
On the run from the police, the Nite Owl II, Rorschach, and Silk
Spectre II clear out Dreiberg’s house and the Owl’s Nest. Dr. Manhattan
appears in the midst of this frenzy and convinces Laurie to join him on
Mars for a conversation.
Nite Owl II and Rorschach go into hiding.
Meanwhile, on the red planet, Laurie and Dr. Manhattan debate the value
of life. Is brief human life and the suffering and violence that
attends it worth saving, or is it merely an insignificant mark in the
history of an immense universe? Laurie eventually persuades Manhattan
to return to earth to help prevent nuclear armageddon.
That same armageddon steps closer. The U.S. President and Vice
President prepare in their bunkers. Violence and paranoia increase
around the nation. Rorschach retrieves a spare costume and his journal,
which he drops in the mail for “safekeeping.”
In Antarctica, Adrian Veidt watches current events unfold, analyzing
the subtexts of human emotion and activity as expressed on television.Following their mask-killer theory further, Nite Owl II and Rorschach
discover a trail of deception that leads all the way back to Veidt
himself. The two race to Veidt’s stronghold to confront him.
When Rorschach and Nite Owl II attack Veidt, he disarms them and, in
answer to Nite Owl II’s questions, explains his plan and motives. Evil
cannot be fought merely by fighting criminals, the symptoms of social
ill. The problem must be transcended just as Alexander the Great did
with the Gordian Knot. To do that, Veidt plotted to shock and terrify
the whole world, faking an extradimensional invasion and tricking
everyone into mutual cooperation and peace. Veidt having executed his
plan before the two arrived, Rorschach and Nite Owl II have little to
do but disbelieve.
Dr. Manhattan and Laurie Juspeczyk teleport to New York arriving late
due to tachyon interference (generated by satellites of Veidt’s), and
then to Antarctica to find the source of the interference. They join
the confrontation with Veidt. However, initial televised reports of the
engineered disaster and its consequences—disarmament, lowering
hostilities, and the beginnings of international cooperation—leave the
“heroes” little choice but to stand down. Rorschach refuses and Dr.
Manhattan kills him.
With Rorschach dead, Manhattan leaves for another galaxy. Dan and
Laurie take up new identities and hint at continuing their
“adventuring” careers. The world seems to be at peace for once, and we
are left with this feeling of accord, disturbed only by the vision of
Rorschach’s journal uncovered in the mail stack of the extremist
newspaper The New Frontiersman.