They have come to glimpse the miracle. They have come to witness the revolution. They have come for Watchmen the allegedly unfilmable superhero movie, the long-awaited adaptation of the comic book that changed the face of comic books forever. On this warm July morning, over 5,000 fans attending the annual geek pop summit known as Comic-Con have assembled inside the San Diego Convention Center for a first look. Many spent the night on the sidewalk. Some have come in costumes most modeled after Rorschach, a vigilante with an inkblot mask and a pitiless brand of justice that makes Batman look like Bambi. Behind the stage, indie-movie icon Kevin Smith, a.k.a. the Most Famous Fanboy in the World, parks himself in front of a closed-circuit TV, a happy grin on his bearded mug. ''You have to understand, I've been waiting for this moment for years,'' says Smith. ''This is it, man. This is the pinnacle. You have no idea how f---ing pumped I am.''
All this, for a violent, ironic superhero epic that doesn't like superheroes in the first place. Directed by 300's Zack Snyder, Watchmen presents a set of familiar superhero archetypes and then subverts them completely, turning them into criminals, jerks, narcissists, megalomaniacs, and plain ol' whiny wusses. Rorschach (Jackie Earl Haley) is like the Spirit...except he's a joyless, hard-line misanthrope. The Comedian (Jeffrey Dean Morgan) is like Captain America...but loyal only to sadistic thrills and a corrupt worldview. Nite Owl (Patrick Wilson) is part Batman, part Iron Man...except he's also a schlubby, impotent coward. Ozymandias (Matthew Goode) is the resident genius...who's built an empire on superhero toys. (You see what we mean by irony.) Says Billy Crudup, whose blue, naked Dr. Manhattan is an almighty Superman dangerously detached from his own humanity: ''Watchmen is a kind of thrilling thought experiment. What would people who dress up in costumes to fight crime actually be like? Well, they'd probably be fetishists who lived on the fringes of society. They'd all be a bunch of freaking lunatics.''
Yet for all its self-awareness and cynicism, Watchmen isn't some cheap-and-silly Scary Movie parody. Adapted faithfully, if not completely, from the celebrated 1986 comic-book series, Snyder's film is visually and intellectually ambitious, filled with heady ruminations about savior figures, pop culture, and the politics of fear. At a time when superhero stories are commonplace and our shaken country is pinning its recovery on an idealistic new president, Watchmen's director believes his movie can serve as a bracing blast of healthy skepticism. ''Someone asked me if I thought that because Barack Obama had been elected president, the movie was no longer relevant. I said, 'Wow, that's a very optimistic view of the future!''' says Snyder. ''The movie, like the comic, says, 'These superhero stories you've been feasting on? What if we took them seriously? What if we thought through the consequences? Where do they get us?' That's the fun.''
NEXT PAGE: ''I felt like Watchmen was this very, very bad thing that I shouldn't be reading, and if my mom caught me with it I'd be f---ing doomed.''