Watchmen, however, presents challenges far greater than wearing tights. It is, without question, the weirdest, most cerebral, and unconventional take on the genre to date—essentially a deconstruction of the entire idea of superheroes. Set in a dystopic iteration of eighties New York (Nixon is in his fifth term and the world teeters on the brink of all-out nuclear war), the Watchmen of the title are six masked avengers who, aside from Dr. Manhattan, have no real powers in the X-Men sense; they’re just people in costumes who kick butt. Forced into early retirement by the government, they spend more time questioning their purpose in life than saving the lives of innocent people. And with no clear villain until the final minutes of the movie, the story sidesteps the question that propels even the most artful of comic-book movies (will good prevail over evil?) in favor of a morally ambiguous dilemma (can a little evil do a lot of good?). Along the way, there are plenty of gaudy action sequences, of course, but the entertainment comes less from watching buildings blow up than from learning how the people feel about what they’re doing.
Deborah Snyder, one of the film’s producers, says she and her husband, Watchmen director Zack Snyder (300), went after Wilson for his deft ability to convey that inner angst. “He was the first person we cast,” she says. “He’s incredibly handsome, obviously. But it was really what he did with Little Children—that accessibility, which is a rare quality in Hollywood—that let us know he was right.”
To allow his character’s existential fog to take precedence over those matinee-idol looks, Wilson packed on 25 pounds, seemingly all in his gut (he is, after all, a retired superhero gone to seed). It was a bold move given his long and awesomely stylized sex scene with Silk Spectre II (Malin Akerman). “I saw the movie for the first time a week ago,” says Wilson. “I watched it with my wife”—the actress Dagmara Dominczyk—“and after that scene, she congratulated me. That never happens, let me tell you. When she saw Little Children”—in which his character spends every third scene having sex—“she understood that it was necessary, but it was also a little weird. With Watchmen, she told me she was just pulling so hard for the characters that when they got together—even though it was me and another woman—she was excited.” He laughs. “After that, I was pretty confident that I ended up doing something right with this one.”