(Entertainment Weekly) -- They have come to glimpse the miracle. They have come to witness the revolution. They have come for "Watchmen" -- the allegedly unfilmable superhero movie, the long-awaited adaptation of the comic book that changed the face of comic books forever.
Billy Crudup plays Dr. Manhattan, a powerful superhero in "Watchmen."
On this warm July morning, over 5,000 fans attending the annual geek pop summit known as Comic-Con have assembled inside the San Diego Convention Center for a first look. Many spent the night on the sidewalk. Some have come in costumes. Behind the stage, indie-movie icon Kevin Smith parks himself in front of a closed-circuit TV, a happy grin on his bearded mug.
"You have to understand, I've been waiting for this moment for years," says Smith. "This is it, man. This is the pinnacle."
All this, for a violent, ironic superhero epic that doesn't like superheroes in the first place. Directed by "300's" Zack Snyder, "Watchmen" presents a set of familiar superhero archetypes -- and then subverts them completely. Rorschach (Jackie Earl Haley) is like the Spirit ... except he's a joyless, hard-line misanthrope. The Comedian (Jeffrey Dean Morgan) is like Captain America ... but loyal only to sadistic thrills and a corrupt worldview. Nite Owl (Patrick Wilson) is part Batman, part Iron Man ... except he's also a schlubby, impotent coward. Ozymandias (Matthew Goode) is the resident genius ... who's built an empire on superhero toys. (You see what we mean by irony.)
Says Billy Crudup, whose blue, naked Dr. Manhattan is an almighty Superman dangerously detached from his own humanity: " 'Watchmen' is a kind of thrilling thought experiment. What would people who dress up in costumes to fight crime actually be like? Well, they'd probably be fetishists who lived on the fringes of society. They'd all be a bunch of freaking lunatics."
Yet for all its self-awareness and cynicism, "Watchmen" isn't some cheap-and-silly "Scary Movie" parody. Adapted faithfully, if not completely, from the celebrated 1986 comic-book series, Snyder's film is visually and intellectually ambitious, filled with heady ruminations about savior figures, pop culture, and the politics of fear. At a time when superhero stories are commonplace and our shaken country is pinning its recovery on an idealistic new president, "Watchmen's" director believes his movie can serve as a bracing blast of healthy skepticism.
"Someone asked me if I thought that because Barack Obama had been elected president, the movie was no longer relevant. I said, 'Wow, that's a very optimistic view of the future!' " says Snyder. "The movie, like the comic, says, 'These superhero stories you've been feasting on? What if we took them seriously?' ... That's the fun."
But fun for whom? When "Watchmen" hits theaters on March 6, the comic-book cognoscenti will be there in droves -- although some are already sweating the heresy of dramatic changes. EW: What didn't make it?
And, for mainstream moviegoers, such talk of "subverting superhero archetypes" is liable to elicit a great big "Huh?" EW: A "Watchmen" primer
"Watchmen's" financial backers are clearly hoping the success of "The Dark Knight" has primed the market for sophisticated superhero films -- especially one that's two hours and 41 minutes long. But where "The Dark Knight" transcended genre conventions, "Watchmen" wallows in them. Violently.
Created by writer Alan Moore and artist Dave Gibbons, "Watchmen" is most often praised as the comic book that brought respect and maturity to a medium long dismissed as juvenile. It was the fanboys' "Catcher in the Rye" -- and maybe their first Playboy, too.
"I was 13 when I read 'Watchmen,' and it came to represent my coming of age," says "Lost" co-creator Damon Lindelof. "I felt like 'Watchmen' was this very, very bad thing that I shouldn't be reading, and if my mom caught me with it I'd be f---ing doomed."
Hollywood was similarly struck by "Watchmen," but has been much less successful at avoiding the doom.
In 1986, Twentieth Century Fox acquired the comic's rights for producer Larry Gordon, but could never get an adaptation rolling. Over the next decade, "Watchmen" bounced among many studios and between many before finding what appeared to be a happy ending at Paramount. But in 2005, with helmer Paul Greengrass deep into preproduction, a Paramount regime change killed the project.
Certainly, it's a hard project to get your head around. "Watchmen" is set in the year 1985. The U.S. and the Soviet Union are on the brink of nuclear war, and the president is Richard Nixon, whose success at ending the Vietnam War (he asked Dr. Manhattan to blow up the Vietcong) has earned him five terms of office from a grateful nation. Conservative politics are popular, as are Indian fast food and pirate comics. But costumed heroes, once all the rage, are now outlawed.
When the Comedian gets murdered, Rorschach tries to round up his old allies to investigate. They eventually uncover an insidious conspiracy hatched by an unlikely villain, one whose grand ambition isn't world domination but something else altogether. iReport.com: Will you watch 'Watchmen'?
And that's only half the comic. Hence, "Watchmen's" rep as the Unfilmable Graphic Novel. But tides changed in late 2005 when Warner Bros. acquired the property from Paramount (or at least they thought they did) with the hope of rolling on "Watchmen" ASAP. (Warner Bros. is a unit of Time Warner, as is CNN and Entertainment Weekly.)
The studio turned to Snyder. At that point, the director had only done stylish TV commercials and the 2003 zombie remake "Dawn of the Dead." But he was also deep in the middle of shooting the studio's action epic "300," another adaptation of a brilliantly brutal comic, and the execs liked what they were seeing.
Snyder's approach was simple: He would remain religiously faithful to the comic.
"We treated that thing like a freakin' illuminated text," says the director, who embraced all the peculiar idiosyncrasies, from the Nixonian alternative America to the deep-dive digressions into character origin stories. (None of this faithfulness can please Moore, who feels that no adaptation can do his work justice and has taken his name off the film.)
The director also believed that an "adult" superhero epic needed to be explicit about its "adult" content. He wanted to hear the characters' philosophical musings. He wanted to see the blood spurt. And instead of the chaste kisses of most superhero movie romances, he wanted to see some naked getting-it-on.
"I wanted to make sure everyone understood: This is not a kid movie," says Snyder. "Violence has consequences. And doing that with a PG-13 just dilutes that message."
And then there was the worry that all that effort was all for naught. Last February, Twentieth Century Fox sought to stop Warner Bros. from moving forward with "Watchmen's" release, claiming via lawsuit that Warner Bros. had not properly acquired the distribution rights. The dispute exploded in the media last August when a judge declared that Fox's lawsuit had merit.
"How do you not know whether or not you have the right to make a movie?" says Crudup. "Hilarious."
But after months of intense press coverage that put "Watchmen" in the mainstream eye, the two studios reached a settlement. (Warner Bros. and Fox both declined to comment. As for producer Gordon: "It was unfortunate," he says simply.)
Now Team "Watchmen" waits to see if any of that notoriety can help make them some money. With a $100 million-plus budget and a running time of 161 minutes, "Watchmen" will need to launch with a big opening weekend and strong reviews.
So, will geek love -- and geek dollars -- be enough? Snyder hopes so. He says he made the film for that crowd. "I don't think there ever has been a movie more custom-made for them. Not at this scale," he says. "And now they have an opportunity to really influence pop culture in a serious way, just as the comic influenced comics. They can say: 'These stories can be used to say something about the world. Give us more of them.' "
This is an edited version of Entertainment Weekly's cover story on "Watchmen." For the complete story, click here.
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