You've read enough essays on this by now. Here's my take (seen twice) in semi-bullet list form.
SPOILERS FOLLOW. BIG ONES. I'M NOT KIDDING.
- I don't know if it's better than "Dark Knight." I FEEL that it is, but that could be shock-of-the-new. I DO know that it's "part of the problem" that the first thing to compare this to is another superhero movie instead of filmmaking in general, but that's another discussion. I CAN say with certainty that it's a more exciting, vital, interesting, "alive" film than "Knight" by leaps and bounds. Don't get me wrong, TDK still ought've been nominated for an Oscar and still ought've won in that case, but next to this it looks (even moreso) almost overly safe and - at worst - terrified of it's own shadow. It goes to dark-"ish" places for a "genre" film, but only after a methodical removal of as many 'Batman' elements as can possibly be removed while still having it BE Batman... an understandable reaction to the excesses of the Schumacher era that, none the less, can sometimes create the feeling that the film is trying to gently lead a frightened non-geek audience (and critics) safely through the darks woods ("Shh! Shh! It's okay, it's okay. You're soooo brave. See? It barely looks like a Bat costume at all. S'ok. S'ok. See? It's a crime-thriller. You're not really watching one of those awful superhero movies. That's my brave, brave boy.") "Watchmen," on the other hand, is proud as HELL of it's otherworldliness and has it's colors flying right off the damn bat: "FUCK YEAH! THAT GUY IS BLUE, NAKED AND FIFTY FEET TALL, AND WE'RE NOT EVEN GONNA TELL YOU WHY FOR ANOTHER HOUR! CAN'T WRAP YOUR HEAD AROUND THAT? TOO FUCKIN' BAD! "JONAS BROTHERS" IS PLAYIN' ACROSS THE HALL, PROBABLY MORE YOUR SPEED. THE REST OF US HAVE A MOVIE TO WATCH!" And I ADORE it for that.
- The "new-ish" ending works. Period. Not only does it fit better in a practical sense into a singular film that can't functionally follow an entire "other" whodunnit that doesn't directly involve any of the main cast, but it strengthens the characters involved by adding an extra dimension of personal betrayal - Ozy doesn't just use and hurt his former teammates in his scheme, he uses the public's already-established fear and hatred of superheroes to his advantage. It's a textbook-perfect lesson in proper adaptation: You don't fabricate from thin air, you use what's already there in a different way.
- Also regarding the ending and adaptation - it's interesting to see the way a different medium imposes different needs and expectations. It's one thing for the book's Nite Owl to simpy, give up, "sell out" and let us down by surrendering to Ozy's victory; as a drawing-and-text open to wider interpretation it's possible to view him as a pathetic, vaugely-amusing schlub for whom this final flaccid innaction is just another addition to the MOUNTAIN of evidence that he never had any real business trying to be superhero... for THAT Nite Owl to get in a cathartic "screw you!" whack at Ozy would be a betrayal. BUT as a flesh and blood (onscreen) human who's actual voice and expressions TELL US that he's a decent guy, and let us see the real pain he has trying to relate to Laurie outside of his costume? Yes. It's right and proper that THIS Nite Owl would take a shot and want to have SOME semblance of a final say.
- This is NOT an inaccessible film for non-fans or even non-geeks. Not by a longshot. You don't need to have read this comic or ANY comic to "get into" this movie. All you need is an open mind free of genre-bias and a willingness to let a film explain itself slowly and not all-at-once. It doesn't require any more familiarity with the source than any decent historical film or biography. If you could follow "Milk" without ever having been to Casto Street, you can follow this.
- It's funny, though... For all the talk of it "confusing" non-fans the only two things that I can imagine would give the uninitiated pause don't seem to bother many people, particularly the critics who're otherwise soooo sure this is for-fans-only: The film never bothers to explain how or why Rorscharch's mask works like it does, nor where the hell Ozymandias got Bubastis (the big purple kitty,) but it doesn't seem to "bug" anyone but me. I think this might be where Zack Snyder's over-criticized stylization helps out: It's a realistic film, but he bathes it in a gloss of comic book hyperrealism that I imagine innoculates it against a lot of "wait... the hell did he get THAT!?" that might be present in a more "verite" approach.
- Incidentally, i.e. Zack Snyder: It's settled. He's a genuine talent. A REAL visionary with the kind of eye for pop-art-AS-ART that we haven't seen emerge since the early films of Sam Raimi and Peter Jackson. I NEED to see him tackle an original film now - one that isn't an adaptation or remake. His vaunted skill at fidelity still betrays a real artist with a clear vision of his own - I want to see it unleashed. He's proved his mettel. That said, let's be clear: "Watchmen" is his FIRST genuinely excellent film. "Dawn of The Dead" and "300" are both fun but ultimately empty exercises - no deeper meaning, no real humanity, just money shoots and mood (especially "Dawn," the prettiest NOTHING THERE zombie movie outside of Resident Evil.)
- Also on Snyder: Guy is a diabolical GENIUS at subconscious audience-manipulation. Watch how the leering, objectifying, dehumanizing cheesecake closeups on Carla Gugino's breasts and ass give way to the leering, objectifying, dehumanizing gaze of The Comedian, who seems to be "thinkin' what we're thinkin', eh boys?"... right up until he beats her up and sexually assaults her; thus implicating the whole audience (or at least 90% of the men and 60-70% of the women) in her objectification and near-rape. That's ballsy, evil and effective. See also: EVERY shot of the NYC skyline has the (still-standing since it's 1985) WTC towers unmistakably visible - an image almost no one can see without thinking of 9-11 on some level. This happens almost a dozen times, a dozen nudging whispers of "remember that?" to the audience, all to make sure it's right up near the front of the brain for the 3rd act's "9-11 times inifinity" money-shot. Yikes. The man has chops.
- Regarding Jackie Earl Haley, aka "Rorscharch" - I FUCKIN' TOLD YOU SO. Could he have BEEN more perfect in this? At my second showing - the "regular audience" screening, NOT the fan-filled midnight show - the crowd burst into applause at "You're locked in here with ME!!!" They'll be throwing cash and "charismatic scary dude" roles at him like no actor since Anthony Hopkins post-"Silence," and he deserves it.
- Regarding Dr. Manhattan's penis: Grow up.