LOS ANGELES (Reuters) - The creators of "Watchmen" call it a new, psychologically complex version of the superhero movie, but they are banking on it to conquer the box office the way conventional comic book movies have done.
To do that, "Watchmen", which opens around the world this week, must attract those who have never heard of characters like Rorschach, Dr. Manhattan and Silk Spectre, and who want a thrilling joyride, box-office watchers said.
For years, filming a movie based on the sprawling 1980s "Watchmen" comic books by Alan Moore and Dave Gibbons was considered impossible due to its multiple characters, violence, digressions and abundance of dialogue.
"It's difficult material. You can't put it on the head of a pin," producer Larry Gordon told reporters.
But fellow producer Lloyd Levin said audiences are getting more sophisticated.
"The movie audience of today has caught up with the comic book audience of the 1980s, and superheroes are the absolute mainstream and I think there is the opportunity to push things a little bit further," Levin said.
"Watchmen", which cost about $120 million to make and runs for 2 hours 43 minutes, is set in 1985 amid the specter of nuclear war between the United States and the Soviet Union.
The only superhero with real powers is a freak of science called Dr. Manhattan who is nearly omnipotent but escapes to Mars because he cannot understand humans and women in particular. Billy Crudup plays the often nude Dr. Manhattan, who was given a computer generated blue glow.
In the meantime, a masked vigilante named Rorschach (James Earle Haley) is tracking the killer of fellow superhero the Comedian (Jeffrey Dean Morgan). Retired superheroes Silk Spectre (Malin Akerman) and Night Owl (Patrick Wilson) join him and unravel a plot with dangerous implications for mankind.
The comic book series at the heart of the film from Time Warner Inc's Warner Bros. studio presents its greatest challenge, but also its greatest strength.
The comic books have a passionate base of "fanboys," many of whom are eager to see the story on film. And the series has a literary pedigree, having been named by Time Magazine as one of the top 100 English-language novels since 1923.
Director Zack Snyder, whose 2007 movie adaptation of comic book series "300" made more than $456 million worldwide, has sought to reassure avid readers of "Watchmen" that he was faithful to the source material.
Snyder said a book-bound copy of the comic series was always on the film set, like a Bible, and the actors say they thumbed through it more than the script.
"Has there ever been a movie, a mainstream Hollywood movie that is made for fanboys as much as this movie? Probably not," Snyder said.
But box office analysts say the film faces challenges to reach a mainstream audience. Unlike 2008 top grossing Batman movie "The Dark Knight," the film was given a U.S. rating that requires those under 17 to be accompanied by an adult.
The film is also based on characters less familiar than Batman and Spider-Man, said Paul Dergarabedian, president of box office tracking firm Media by Numbers.
Movie experts believe the movie, which cost about $120 million, could still make more than $50 million its opening weekend. Rival studios have stepped aside for "Watchmen."
"This is pretty much the only new movie to go out this weekend, and it's certainly the most spectacular of the year so far in terms of the look and feel of the picture," said Brandon Gray, president of research company Box Office Mojo.
Editing by Jill Serjeant and Patricia Reaney