My Answer: Rorschach and Dr. Manhattan
Let's start with Rorshach, played by Little Children Oscar nominee Jackie Earle Haley in what is clearly the movie's best and ballsiest performance. Born Walter Kovacs, the son of a single mom who turned to prostitution, he is one bitter dude. In the graphic novel, written by Alan Moore and illustrated by Dave Gibbons, Walter utters only one word when he finds out that his mom has been killed by her pimp: "Good." Walter's interest in becoming a vigilante is sparked by the 1964 rape and murder of Kitty Genovese, a crime witnessed by neighbors who did nothing to help. It's material from Kitty's dress that Walter wears as a hood. As his face moves underneath, a series of shifting ink blots form on the material like a Rorschach test. Haley brings all the pain laid out in the comic book to his performance. As Rorschach, he is driven to fight crime even when he and the other Watchmen are outlawed and forced underground. The scene in which Rorschach murders a child molester is easily the film's most brutal. But even in a mask, Haley provides a glimpse into the character's haunted soul. Later, in prison and aching to escape (a great breakout scene), Rorschach is no longer allowed to hide behind the mask. Haley's face, raw with agony, marks the movie and your nightmares. His portrayal, harshly true to the novel's darkness, will keep you up nights.
And what of Dr. Manhattan, the only one of the Watchmen with superpowers? He's blue. He glows. And most of the time he walks around naked swinging an impressive blue, glowing dick. All of which should have made the role impossible for an actor to play. That Billy Crudup does play him and with surprising, even touching gravity, deserves a glowing commendation. A lesser actor would have pushed the campy elements or buckled under while the campy elements pushed him. I mean, how do you handle the scene where Dr. Manhattan, distracted by the metaphysical and trips to Mars, creates two clones to deal with the sexual needs of his lady love, Silk Spectre II (Malin Akerman)? Crudup handles it by never losing sight of the man who is slowly losing touch with his humanity. A lab accident had changed him from physicist Jon Osterman to a figure of god-like powers. His very name, Dr. Manhattan, rings with atomic associations to the Manhattan Project. Crudup uses the softest voice, almost a whisper, to suggest the moral battles raging in the Doc's blue skull. Through Crudup something comes across that the comic book had but the movie otherwise doesn't: a tragic dimension.
OK, that's my take. Got a problem with that? Speak up. Maybe you think the romance between Silk Spectre II and Nite Owl II (Patrick Wilson) kills. I think it damn near kills the movie. On with the debate.