In his bungalow on the Warner Bros. lot, Zack Snyder keeps a suitcase large enough to hold a rocket launcher. It doesn't. Popping open the lid reveals a set of finely crafted action figures encased in black foam: Dr. Manhattan. Rorschach. Ozymandias. Nite Owl. Silk Spectre. The Comedian. They're based on comic-book superheroes that aren't exactly household names, but if the director of the sword-and-sandals smash 300 has his way, these characters will become icons as explosive as any state-of-the-art weapon. ''In my movie, Superman doesn't care about humanity, Batman can't get it up, and the bad guy wants world peace,'' Snyder says with a smirk. ''Will Watchmen be the end of superhero movies? Probably not. But it sure will kick them in the gut.''
Watchmen won't hit theaters till March 6, 2009, but Snyder and his cast are about to face a trial by fire: On July 25, they're screening special teaser footage for thousands in San Diego at the annual summit of cult pop, Comic-Con. The movie is no kid-safe funny-book flick. It's an R-rated, $100 million adaptation of the smartest, most subversive superhero story ever created. Published by DC Comics in 1986 and routinely hailed by even mainstream critics as a literary masterpiece, Watchmen is many things a jittery expression of Cold War anxiety, a chilling meditation on human nature, an intricate murder mystery. But at its heart this sexy, violent, and politically charged 12-issue saga, written by Alan Moore (click to see our Q&A with him) and drawn by Dave Gibbons, is an epic love letter to colorfully clad superpeople and a wicked satire about them. Set in 1985, but in an alternate reality where Richard Nixon is serving his fifth term as president and costumed crime-fighting has been outlawed, the story begins with the brutal murder of a retired superhero named the Comedian. Another ex-superhero, the inkblot-masked Rorschach, believes that someone is trying to assassinate his former colleagues. Is it a serial killer at work, or is there a global conspiracy involved? A twisty plot unfolds, enveloping an array of bizarre, damaged, and bracingly human fantasy people. ''We wanted to explore simple questions with not-so-simple answers,'' Gibbons says. ''What if superheroes really existed? How would they really think? And how would they really affect the world?''
NEXT PAGE: ''The average movie audience has seen so many superhero movies. And some of this stuff is hard to take seriously. I mean, The Hulk? Come on.''