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Video: ‘Watchmen’: March 6, 2009

By
msnbc.com contributor
updated 7/22/2008 2:00:22 PM ET 2008-07-22T18:00:22

The Watchmen are coming. But who will watch the Watchmen?

When it soared through 4,366 theaters during its record-breaking opening weekend, “The Dark Knight” also delivered the first wide-screen peek at a live-action superhero movie that even diehard comic fans worry is too eccentric, unwieldy or dense for the big screen. Based on the Hugo award-winning graphic novel “Watchmen” by Alan Moore and artist Dave Gibbons (with help from Neil Gaiman), the film by director Zack Snyder (“300”) will be released on March 6, 2009.

The “Watchmen” trailer treated viewers to a deliberately paced montage of sizzling lightning, hushed rain, an owl-shaped ship emerging from a river, a raven-haired woman in a skin-tight yellow and black costume descending a staircase and a glowing blue man.

For fans, the question is: Can the movie fulfill the novel's vision and entertain a wider audience? Other moviegoers are asking: What the heck was that?

Internet traffic about the “Watchmen” movie increased eightfold during “The Dark Knight’s” opening weekend, according to Google Trends. But whether that’s a growing fan club or a perplexed audience looking for answers is unclear.

Certain superheroes, like Spider-Man or Superman, need no introduction thanks to decades of TV shows, coloring books, Halloween costumes and, yes, even underwear. But Moore wanted the Watchmen to be something else, a superhero story for grown-ups with serious literary heft.

The series won the 1988 Hugo Award — the first graphic novel to win the highest honor in science fiction, joining “Fahrenheit 451” by Ray Bradbury, “Dune” by Frank Herbert and “Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire” by J. K. Rowling. Time put “Watchmen” on its list of the top 100 novels in English since 1923, with classics written by Faulkner, Hemingway, Orwell and Steinbeck.

“I wouldn't care if it was done with Crayons,” said Avril Dannenbaum, 52, a lifelong comic book fan in New York. “This is such a significant part of comic book history, not to mention the roller coaster of getting it produced — I’d go see it no matter what. As I told my 11-year-old son, without ‘Watchmen’ you wouldn't have had the movie ‘Hancock.’”

A story rooted in the Cold War
In an alternative 1985 America, the “Watchmen” superheroes are real, but almost all lack superpowers and have retired. The United States and the Soviet Union are in a nuclear standoff, and a conspiracy is at work to stop or discredit the masked heroes and start World War III. The masked adventurers wrestle with their personal and moral issues as often as the so-called villains. Time is running out. Their mission is to watch over humanity … but who is watching the Watchmen?

The movie “seems moody and atmospheric, which can be a point in its favor if they live up to it,” said Rhiannon Held, 23, a comics fan in Seattle. “The graphic novel seemed dated. I’m much younger. The world politics stuff didn’t speak to me.”

But 20 years later, “Watchmen” sales are still going strong. If you set aside Japanese-style Manga comics, “Batman: The Killing Joke,” also written by Moore and fueled by Batman fever, and “Watchmen” were the No. 1 and No. 2  selling American graphic novels between April 6 and July 13. From 2001 to July 13, 2008, bookstores and online retailers sold about 173,000 copies, according to Nielsen BookScan.

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Sven Patrick Larsen, chief operating officer at Teshkeel Comics, has no doubt the film will be successful with a mainstream audience if given a chance.

“If you look at the track record for the ‘Watchmen’ … in Amazon and other places then it has to be considered one of the most mainstream graphic novels ever published,” Larsen said by e-mail. “… That being said, I have no idea how one film will be able to completely encompass Alan Moore and Dave Gibbons’ incredibly complex vision.”

The novel’s gritty, realistic interpretation of superheroes, multilayered storytelling, ensemble cast, cinematic-style art and explorations of themes including authority, responsibility, optimism and nihilism continue to inspire writers and artists. The book directly or indirectly influenced many of today’s pop culture hits: “Buffy the Vampire Slayer,” “Heroes,” “The Incredibles,” “Lost” and Neil Gaiman’s comic book series “The Sandman.”

Fans can get ready for the movie
For now, people can watch “Watchmen” in other ways. The first of 12 animated chapters of the original book and the song in the trailer (“The Beginning Is the End Is the Beginning” by Smashing Pumpkins) are on iTunes.

On YouTube, fan-created commercials for Veidt Enterprises (part of the story), hand-picked by the director and now quite possibly part of the film, are posted. For print lovers, Gibbons, along with Chip Kidd and Mike Essel, is releasing “Watching the Watchmen,” a hardcover art-book companion to the original graphic novel, on Oct. 21, in which Gibbons shares his account of the “Watchmen” genesis: never-published pages, original character designs, sketches and rare portfolio art.

“The success of ‘Watchmen’ in print form (and the reason it’s taught in college classes around the world) is that it is a novel, complete with fully fleshed out characters, detailed themes and subplots, and even a comic book version of a ‘play within a play,’” Larsen wrote. “How all that can be adapted into a two-hour film is the big question.”

For more info on ‘Watchmen,’ visit: http://watchmenmovie.warnerbros.com/.

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