These are heady times for the fans of comic book movies, with The Dark Knight not only rated one of the most commercially successful films ever made (like Titanic, it has sold over US$1 billion worth of tickets worldwide) but also earning a degree of critical praise and the public's overwhelming acclaim. Christopher Nolan's film is a masterpiece in the eyes of a young audience who've fastened on to its grim action sequenes and the delighted nihilism of Heath Ledger's undeniably compelling Joker.
The Dark Knight is overrated: it loses track of Christian Bale's Batman for large swathes of the overly long narrative, several fight scenes are over-edited to within an inch of their masked life, Maggie Gyllenhaal is surprisingly ineffective at the apex of a love triangle and it ends as T.S. Eliot forecast, with a whimper not a bang.
Nonetheless it's the benchmark when it comes to superheroes and comic book adaptations. There is a young generation now who view these movies not just as escapism, but serious drama. Raised on cheap comedies and random YouTube clips, they're drawn to the guarded loners who populate these violent debates about the morality of trying to make a difference. They see a world where there is a time to brood and then a time to literally kick arse (they may discover, when they mature, that getting your arse metaphorically kicked and then brooding is more the norm).
It's not surprising that given such an audience so many of these films fixate on father figures and other surrogates, be they supportive or disapproving. In Sam Raimi's Spider-Man, the 2002 blockbuster that started the genre's current march after the ludicrous farce that was 1997's Batman & Robin mothballed expectations, it is the loss of his gentle, wisdom offering Uncle Ben (Cliff Robertson) that sets Tobey Maguire's Peter Parker on his way, while it's Willem Defoe's stern father who condemns Peter's best friend Harry Osborn (James Franco) to embrace villainy as a way of making paternal amends.
2005's Batman Begins offered up father figures for Bale's Bruce Wayne at every turn: Liam Neeson, Michael Caine, Morgan Freeman and Gary Oldman all took turns schooling the young billionaire – Gotham City was one vast Big Brother Little Brother program. Even in last year's Iron Man, where Robert Downey Jr. turned in a jazzy, masterfully offhand performance as a seemingly adult industrial magnate, he eventually realised that his real foe was the man who'd helped raise and advise him.
These films toy with psychological dictates, but they're essentially adolescent. It raises the question of how the genre's vast audience will respond to Watchmen, the March 5 release that is being promoted as the ultimate comic book adaptation. As a text, Alan Moore and Dave Gibbons' 12 issue series, which was originally published in 1986 and 1987, is considered the Holy Grail of comic books. It is the work that put an end to the idea that comic books were for kids.
But now comic book movies are for kids, so what they'll make of the involved storyline is uncertain. Watchmen is a deconstruction of their superhero fantasies. In an alternate history it is 1985 and the once high flying masked vigilantes are ageing exiles, banned by the government and rendered obsolescent by the rise of a true super being, the otherworldly Dr Manhattan, a former U.S. government scientist whose entire body has been remade by accidental exposure to experimental procedures.
The brooding here is of the middle-aged variety; some the Watchmen are retired, others operate illegally. The plot is set in motion by the murder of one of their number, an act that suggests they're being picked off by a far stronger force. These are superheroes struggling to be super, with inspiration drawn from the caped canon. Night Owl, for example, is clearly a rewrite of Batman.
Even the original comic book's structure is a retort to the established order. As well as the panels, set on a three by three grid each page, there are reproductions of vintage documents, interview transcripts and other sardonic asides. That's why Watchmen has long been in the too hard basket, whether the hopeful director was Terry Gilliam or Paul Greengrass, it's too complex both in terms of plot and emotion.
Director Zach Snyder has already enjoyed great success with a comic book adaptation, turning Frank Miller's 1998 series 300 into a blood soaked epic that used a studio setting and CGI to create a fantasy version of the battle of Thermopylae in 480BC. Snyder's favourite tactic, stylised slow-motion, is sure to feature in Watchmen. The filmmaker has argued loudly that he's making as close a tribute to the original text as possible, but does he really know what he's delivering? For Watchmen to truly work as a film, it must disavow the many successes and their eager fans that paved the way for it.