On a wintry day here last year, Zack Snyder hunkered down in a dank prison cell, peered between the bars and watched bloodthirsty inmates run riot. All the smoke and screams only made him smile; the fiery cellblock he saw before him looked nearly identical to the one in the hand-drawn pages of " Watchmen," the landmark 1985 graphic novel. The director didn't have to rely on memory -- he had a rolled-up copy of the comic book on the set with him.
"Every day I think, 'I can't believe I get to make this come alive,' " said Snyder, who was a prisoner of the page long before that chilly afternoon outside Vancouver in an old paper mill that had been turned into a penitentiary for the director's $100-million film. "Watchmen" finally reaches theaters Friday and will arrive as the most controversial superhero film ever made. Snyder, an affable, 43-year-old father of six, has been the picture of patience in the face of private setbacks and public challenges to the film, but while filming that bloody riot last year he let a wicked grin cross his face.
"We're killing the comic-book movie, we're ending it," Snyder said. "This movie is the last comic-book movie, for good or bad."
It was a playful pledge, of course ("The Dark Knight" has hit $1 billion in worldwide box office and there are no less than a dozen comic-book films in the Hollywood pipeline), but there is a undeniable End of Times aura that surrounds "Watchmen" and goes beyond the doomsday plot and despairing Cold War vibe. "Watchmen" has endured a long, ugly slog to the screen (the assorted legal battles over the property, in fact, were resolved only in recent weeks) and the author of the graphic novel, Alan Moore, has ranted against Hollywood and its evils like some wild-eyed prophet ("I will be spitting venom all over it," he vowed to The Times last year).
More than that, comic-book fans, a notoriously strident constituency, have already spent months debating whether "Watchmen" is the greatest film ever or in fact the worst movie of all time.
"The un-filmable film" is how Snyder wearily refers to "Watchmen," a superhero movie that will try to pull in a mass audience of nonbelievers with a 161-minute running time, no big-name stars, a hard R-rating and a hard-to-explain plot that takes place in an alternate version of Earth where Richard M. Nixon is in his fifth term but the most powerful man on the planet is Dr. Manhattan, a glowing superhero who spends much of his screen time showing off his iridescent blue penis.
For fanboys, this is the most eagerly anticipated and debated film opening since Tim Burton's first excursion into Gotham City in 1989, which signaled the beginning of this modern era of superhero cinema. Unlike Burton's " Batman," though, there is a swirl of doubt about whether this grisly and challenging film will become a box-office hit.
Even the people involved in the film seem uncertain whether they have delivered a game-changing epic or just a sordid spandex opera that makes the fashion blunder of wearing its cape to the arthouse.
"I just can't wait to see what people think of it, and I have no idea how it will be received," said Jeffrey Dean Morgan (known to "Grey's Anatomy" fans as dead Denny Duquette), who portrays the Comedian, a masked brute who murders for his government masters. "I will tell you this: It's not a movie people have seen before. It's truly ambitious, and it's great to be part of that no matter what happens."
Snyder came into the film after the resounding success of "300," the 2007 hyper-reality sword tale (adapted from Frank Miller's Dark Horse comics) that blindsided Hollywood with its record box office for a March release.
That movie, like Robert Rodriguez's take on Miller's "Sin City," was zealously faithful to the original comics, almost panel for panel at some points, and "Watchmen" has a similar allegiance. That's led to some industry jokes about whether Snyder is a "visionary director" (as he is boldly labeled in the Warner Bros. ad campaign for "Watchmen") or simply a comics fan with good eyesight.
Supporters of Snyder, though, write that off as talk by people who don't understand that "Watchmen" is a religious scroll of sorts. Deborah Snyder, the director's wife and a producer of "Watchmen," said this film has been "a million decisions made, and every one of them was to get the story on the screen with integrity." Strolling down the outdoor New York street set that was created for the movie, she said her team was not going to go down in history as the people who found the Holy Grail and then dropped it.
"We feel," she said, "a great responsibility." This weekend, the Snyders are scheduled to be in San Francisco for a comic-book convention, one more stop to win the hearts and minds of fans. The director, who celebrates his 43rd birthday today, knows the modern fan appetite for both connection and conflict, and watching him promote "Watchmen" for more than a year has been like following a political candidate. Whether he was carefully paying respect to Moore ("We respect his opinions, and I hope someday he does watch the film") or dealing with the kerfuffle about the lone major change from the graphic novel (no spoilers here, but the film has, uh, fewer tentacles than the book), Snyder has been the even-keeled explainer.
"I don't think anyone who has never heard of 'Watchmen' can quite know what it means to these fans," Snyder said last year on the set. "There have been a lot of battles. More than people even know. But this is worth fighting for."
True to his vision
Snyder battled with studio chiefs to keep the film long, R-rated (earned not only by bone-snapping fights and some torrid superhero sex but by that unforgettable blue penis) and, oddly, devoid of A-list movie stars. On the latter, he said: "I wanted actors, not pop-culture names, and I got everybody I wanted." The cast has Billy Crudup as the god-like Dr. Manhattan, Patrick Wilson as the self-doubting Nite Owl, Malin Akerman as the wild-child Silk Spectre II and Matthew Goode as aloof genius Ozymandias. Jackie Earle Haley, who plays the unrelenting Rorschach, marveled at the ensemble and its work during the 91-day shoot.
"This is a movie that people are going to talk about for a long time," said Haley, whose scabby misanthrope is the conscience of the movie. "This is a comic book that changed things when it came out, and I think this movie will be something that people will think about after they walk out of the theater."
The film is a murder mystery that opens into a conspiracy tale, but like "GoodFellas," the movie is about a larger-than-life tribe of outsiders who find themselves dragged down by betrayal in an increasingly cynical world. The movie also has a "Forrest Gump" quality to it, with appearances by actors playing Fidel Castro, Mick Jagger, Leonid Brezhnev and Andy Warhol, not to mention an opening montage with Bob Dylan's "The Times They Are A-Changin' " as the soundtrack.
While "The Dark Knight" was director Nolan's attempt to put comic-book characters amid real-world textures (he cited "The French Connection" as a compass point), this year's big cape affair goes in the opposite direction, cramming the real world into a comic book -- to the point where the JFK assassination is reenacted with a masked hero firing the fatal shot.
Snyder said it's advantageous that "Watchmen" didn't get made sooner. Only now, with the superhero cinema truly alive, is the genre ripe for snuffing.
"Twenty years ago my parents wouldn't know who the X-Men were, and now everybody knows that stuff," Snyder said. "It means that deconstruction of the superhero is something you can do. All those movies have led to a point where we can finally have 'Watchmen' with a Superman character who doesn't want to save the world and a Batman who has trouble in bed. Essentially, I want to kill the superhero movie because now we can."