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The clock is ticking on “Watchmen” - finally opening in theaters Friday after more than 20 years of “To Be Continued ...”


A comic-book miniseries so ambitious, so culturally complex and so deconstructive of the superhero archetype that Time magazine in 2005 included it on its list of the 100 best English-language novels since 1923, “Watchmen” daunted such filmmakers as Terry Gilliam, Darren Aronofsky and Paul Greengrass as it wound its way through 20th Century Fox, Universal, Paramount and finally Warner Bros.


cover art

Watchmen

Director: Zack Snyder
Cast: Patrick Wilson, Jackie Earle Haley, Malin Akerman, Billy Crudup, Matthew Goode, Jeffrey Dean Morgan, Stephen McHattie, Matt Frewer, Carla Gugino

(Warner Brothers; US theatrical: 6 Mar 2009 (General release); UK theatrical: 6 Mar 2009 (General release); 2009)

Review [6.Mar.2009]

But now “300” director Zack Snyder and screenwriters David Hayter (“X-Men”) and Alex Tse, a feature-film newcomer, have made a Thermopylae-like stand against overwhelming odds.


If they pull it off - and a preview of three scenes and a background-establishing credits sequence that’s a mini-movie itself suggests they have - “Watchmen” will be watched over and over. Why? As King Leonidas might have screamed, “This ... is Snyder!!!”


Not that the genial and unassuming director himself suggests anything of the sort. “It’s been an intense, exhausting process,” says Snyder, 43. “I was happy to do it, and I couldn’t be happier with the result, but it’s the hardest thing that I’ve ever had to work on.”


And unlike many filmmakers fresh off a $245-million worldwide hit, he gives spontaneous props to his studio. “Warner Bros. understands what I’m trying to do. I think they’re the voice of reason sometimes. Ya know,” he adds, “what I’ve always wanted to do is make movies. I would do it for free.” (Note to his agent: Never show this to a studio.)


A faithful adaptation of the revered miniseries (see story on next page), the two-hour, 37-minute “Watchmen” follows the fates of several non-superpowered masked crime fighters and one genuine superhuman from 1940 to 1985, when the bulk of the story takes place. Amid an escalating Cold War, President Richard Nixon has repealed term limits and made costumed vigilantes illegal.


The Comedian (Jeffrey Dean Morgan), a sociopath who is one of two government-sanctioned heroes, is murdered by an unknown assailant. When outlawed hero Rorschach (Jackie Earle Haley), a madman-savant Ayn Randian in a trench coat, investigates, the mystery eventually ensnares hero-turned-philanthropist Ozymandias (Matthew Goode), the voluntarily vanished Nite Owl (Patrick Wilson) and Silk Spectre (Malin Akerman). She’s now the consort of the government’s other hero, the freakish Dr. Manhattan (Billy Crudup), a godlike molecular manipulator who lives unstuck in time and space.


Snyder “would work 12-, 15-hour days” to bring all this to the screen, Goode says. “He’s got hundreds of people around him needing answers to things, and there’s no wrong question - you can ask him anything. He’s never tired, he’s excited to be doing the job he’s doing - and he still takes time to play football with his kids.”


Snyder even stoically soldiered on when 20th Century Fox filed a doomsday lawsuit over ownership issues. (Fox and Warner reached a settlement in January.)


“It was a little bit scary for a while,” Snyder says. “It’s one thing to say, ‘Oh, another studio is gonna release the movie.’ It’s another thing entirely when they’re saying, ‘Oh, we’re gonna shelve it for all time.”“


The cast, which includes Matt Frewer, Stephen McHattie and Carla Gugino, was chosen less for marquee value than for acting chops. “I was very worried about my casting,” Goode says, believing that he was “not the physical type for (Ozymandias). Yet Zack was adamant and reassuring and made me feel at ease.”


Snyder, for his part, says Goode “fit the bill and did an amazing job. We were having a hard time casting (the role), because we needed someone handsome, beautiful and sophisticated, and that’s a tough combo.” Likewise, for The Comedian: “It’s hard to find a man’s man in Hollywood. It just is. And Jeffrey came in and was grumpy and cool and grizzled, and I was, like, ‘OK, Jeffrey is perfect!’”


Some fan controversy arose over Snyder choosing to forgo the “space squid” climax that worked in print but likely would have looked silly onscreen. (The ending remains intact thematically.) Others grumbled over studio ads calling Snyder “visionary” - as if “300” didn’t have a distinct vision.


That criticism riles Goode. “It may be too early to call him the next Ridley Scott,” he says of Snyder, “but visually he’s freaking extraordinary. Anybody who says he’s not, after they see the first 15 minutes, they’ll be eating their hats.”


And unless you’re Matter-Eater Lad of the Legion of Super-Heroes - the very antithesis of “Watchmen” - that just won’t do.


___


BEHIND-THE-SCENES HEROICS


DC Comics’ “Watchmen” was first published as a 12-issue miniseries in 1986 and ‘87. It was collected the latter year as a trade paperback called colloquially, if not strictly accurately, a graphic novel, and has never gone out of print - selling about 100,000 copies in 2007 alone. This year, coinciding with the movie, DC’s print run will be about 1 million.


By 1985, British author Alan Moore was an industry star, thanks to his literary-horror revamp of DC’s Swamp Thing. Then he proposed a murder mystery that would anchor a story deconstructing the superhero mythos, taking it to its logical conclusion as authoritative paternalism - of the Nietzschean, small-s superman dictating how things must be, for our own good.


Moore wanted to use existing heroes DC had acquired from the defunct publisher Charlton Comics, but managing editor Dick Giordano instead suggested Moore create new ones. Artist Dave Gibbons came aboard, and their creation became a classic that won four Eisner and seven Harvey Awards, the industry’s two highest, in 1988, and became the first comics story to win the Hugo, the Oscar of sci fi.


In addition to the film, the CGI-animated DVD “Watchmen: Tales of the Black Freighter,” adapting a comic-within-the-comic that served as counterpoint, comes out March 24. Warner Premiere’s “Watchmen Motion Comics” Webisodes, which began appearing in July, are being collected on DVD and will be released Tuesday.


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