BURNABY, British Colombia – On a wintry day here last year, director Zack Snyder hunkered down in a prison cell, peered between the bars and watched inmates riot.
The smoke and screams made him smile; the fiery cellblock looked identical to the one in the hand-drawn pages of “Watchmen,” the landmark 1985 graphic novel.
Snyder 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,’ “ he said that afternoon outside Vancouver in an old paper mill that had been turned into a penitentiary for his $100-million film.
“Watchmen,” which finally reaches theaters today, arrives as the most controversial superhero film ever made.
Snyder, 43, an affable 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 riot scene, a wicked grin crossed his face.
“We’re killing the comic-book movie; we’re ending it,” he declared. “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 no less than a dozen comic-book films are in the Hollywood pipeline.
But there is an undeniable end-of-times aura that surrounds “Watchmen” and goes beyond the doomsday plot and despairing Cold War vibe.
It has endured a long, ugly slog to the screen; legal battles over the property were resolved only in recent weeks.
The author of the graphic novel, Alan Moore, has ranted against Hollywood and its evils. “I will be spitting venom all over it,” Moore vowed last year.
Comic-book fans, a notoriously strident constituency, have spent months debating whether “Watchmen” is the greatest film ever or the worst movie of all time.
“The unfilmable film” is how Snyder wearily refers to the 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 presidential 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 the modern era of superhero cinema.
Unlike Burton’s “Batman,” though, there is doubt about whether this grisly 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 a sordid spandex opera.
“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,” Morgan said.
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 industry jokes about whether Snyder is a “visionary director” (as he is labeled in the Warner Bros. ad campaign) or merely a comics fan with good eyesight.
His supporters write that off as talk by people who don’t understand that “Watchmen” is a religious scroll.
Deborah Snyder, the director’s wife and a producer of the film, said it has been “a million decisions made, and every one of them was to get the story on the screen with integrity.
“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.
“I don’t think anyone who has never heard of ‘Watchmen’ can quite know what it means to these fans,” Snyder said. “There have been a lot of battles. More than people even know. But this is worth fighting for.”
Snyder battled with studio chiefs to keep the film long, R-rated (bone-snapping fights, torrid superhero sex and that blue appendage) and devoid of A-list movie stars.
Of the latter, he said: “I wanted actors, not pop-culture names, and I got everybody I wanted.”
The cast has Billy Crudup as the godlike 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 plays the unrelenting Rorschach.
“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,” it’s also about a tribe of outsiders who find themselves dragged down by betrayal in an increasingly cynical world.
It 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.
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.”