At Comic-Con Friday, expectant crowds were watching the Watchmen. Director Zack Snyder presented several minutes of footage from his adaptation of Alan Moore's classic graphic novel, extending some scenes from the trailer, he said, "to show more of the non-PG aspects of the movie" to the 6,500 faithful who had managed to score a seat in the San Diego Convention Center. Snyder was joined onstage by several cast members and the novel's artist, Dave Gibbons.
Some of the Watchmen footage was a nearly panel-by-panel representation of the graphic novel, which is set in an alternate 1980s world where Richard Nixon is still President, cold war tensions are high, and superheroes are being murdered. Snyder's teaser showed arresting visuals of the giant blue superhero Doctor Manhattan (Billy Crudup) atomizing some Vietcong, fellow crusaders Nite Owl (Patrick Wilson) and Silk Spectre (Malin Akerman) kissing while a mushroom cloud erupts in the background and the coarse Comedian (Jeffrey Dean Morgan) plunging to his death from a window, with the blood-spattered smiley face the book's trademark tumbling after him.
Fans also got a long look at the shifting inkblots on the mask of Rorschach (Jackie Earle Haley), the unveiling of the flying Owl Ship, a 1950s photo shoot of the fresh-faced superheroes and a very realistic-looking old Nixon. Snyder, who is currently wrestling with a three-hour version of the movie, said, "We had to cut out some bits that were more actiony" to keep Watchmen from running closer to five hours.
One fan dressed as Rorschach, complete with mask, asked the panel about the evolution of comic-book films for a more mature audience. "It's just cool you're saying 'a more mature audience' with that outfit on," said Snyder. The director said he fully embraced the book's nihilist themes. "We never really thought, 'Oh, gosh, is the movie too dark? Are we gonna be plotting down this dark road so far that people slit their wrists and call it a day in the theater? You have these optimistic characters in the movie that are trying to muddle through. It is a reflection of all us."
Most of the cast said they read the graphic novel and treated it like a Bible on set. "The artwork is so informative as an actor," said Wilson. "You see [the character's] smile, see that he's fighting for it." Haley said he has relied on the novel's opinionated fans to help shape his performance. "I spent a lot of time with you guys, looking at your threads, looking at your blogs," he said. "I learned a lot from you about who Rorschach is." Crudup, whose Doctor Manhattan gained his powers after being locked inside a test chamber during a nuclear-physics experiment, said he prepared for the role by "changing my molecules, stuff that they don't teach you at drama school."
On the convention floor, visitors got a chance to take a closer look at the Owl Ship that Snyder's crew built for the Vancouver production, which came outfitted with an 8-track player and coffeemaker.
With the focus of the day on Moore's creation, all that was missing was Moore, who has sworn off Hollywood adaptations of his comics since his League of Extraordinary Gentlemen flopped as a film in 2003. "I see there is an elephant in the room," said Gibbons. "I wish Alan could feel the same excitement and joy I'm feeling. I wish he hadn't had such a bad experience in the past."
Moore may not come along for the ride, but his fans sure seem persuaded. Watchmen, with its dense story line and multitude of characters, asks a lot of its audience. But the diehards at Comic-Con can rise to a challenge. They happily viewed the footage twice.