At this point I’ve seen about 45 or 50 minutes of Watchmen; I kind of wish I’d just get a chance to see the whole thing already, because viewing it piecemeal like this is giving me a Jon Osterman colored set of balls. The latest chunk of footage I saw was at Butt-Numb-A-Thon this weekend; while some people were bummed that the full film didn’t play I understood the reasoning behind the scenes (even though I think showing an unfinished cut to that crowd would allow for serious positive buzz in the fan community, which is just waiting to turn on this picture).

Instead of the feature we got the first 22 minutes, introduced by Rorschach himself, Jackie Earl Haley. I had already seen the opening of the film through the credits, but what came after was new to me. It’s also, I believe, the most important stuff I’ve seen yet, as I think it gives an idea of what the meat of this movie will look and feel like.

It will look and feel like a real movie.

That’s a weird thing to say, but there are lots of people out there who, having only seen the trailers released to the public, are jumping to the conclusion that Zack Snyder has made a Watchmen filled with speed ramping and flashy money shots. From what I’ve seen this isn’t even remotely true at all. The footage is stylish – well shot, with rich visuals and dynamic compositions – but it looked more like a modern take on a noir film than anything else. What I saw was moody, sometimes muted. Snyder allows his takes to be long, eschewing a quick cut style that many seem to think would rule the day in this film. The 22 minutes I saw didn’t feel like an action film at all (except, of course, for the opening fight scene, which I’ve already described to you).

It was an interesting choice to show this footage and not just recycle what had been shown to the press. We got money shots in that presentation – The Comedian’s death, the prison riot, Jon’s origin – while the BNAT crowd got a more realistic representation of what the film would be like. It felt like a calculated decision to convince the fans that Watchmen is not 300 with superheroes.

So here’s what I saw, starting after the credits:

The police stare out the broken window of the Comedian’s apartment, discussing the crime. 30 stories below a figure holding a sign that reads “The End is Nigh” walks through the puddle of blood that is being sprayed off the sidewalk. The camera zooms away from the building, showing the alternate New York City of the story, filled with zeppelins and a huge Gunga Diner balloon.

Rorschach’s narration begins, very faithful to the book. He rappels up the side of the building into the Comedian’s apartment. Poking around, he discovers the Comedian’s weapons cache and costume. The camera focuses in on a photo of The Minutemen, and then pulls out again, but this time the picture is hanging in Hollis Mason’s apartment. We see other photos and newspaper headlines hanging on the wall, and a copy of Beneath the Hood, Mason’s memoirs, on the table.

Mason is spinning stories of his days as the Nite Owl to Dan Dreiberg, the second Nite Owl. It’s after midnight and Dan gets up to leave; they stop on the porch for a moment as rain falls outside and Hollis asks Dan if he ever misses the good old days. Dan says no, but it seems like he’s lying. He leaves Hollis behind, and the camera lingers a moment on the sign for Hollis’ auto body shop: Obsolete Models a Speciality. Much of the dialogue in this scene comes straight from the comic.

Dan walks home in the rain, and discovers that his front door has been kicked in. He walks into his brownstone cautiously, only to find Rorschach, mask up, eating cold canned beans at his kitchen table. When Rorschach tells him that the Comedian has been killed (the ‘It’s human bean juice’ joke remains intact), they go down to the basement to talk more.

Again, this scene plays out pretty much the way it does in the book, with Dan and Rorschach discussing who might have killed the Comedian. Dan dismisses Rorschach’s claim that it’s a mask killer, and here was one of the deviations that might leave fans up in arms: Dan says to Rorschach ‘Watchmen are over.’

You may remember there was some controversy when that line, and a Rorschach line about one of the Watchmen being killed turned up in the trailer. The Rorschach line is not delivered in the film the way it is in the trailer – ie, there’s no mention of ‘Watchmen’ – but Dan’s line is. Later in the Q&A Haley called the second, brief superhero team The Crimebusters, which leads me to believe means that ‘Watchmen’ is a phrase used in the film in place of superheroes or alternatively with vigilantes.

As Rorschach walks down the subway tunnel beneath Dan’s house, Dan asks him whatever happened to the old days. “You quit,” Rorschach responds. Dan sits before the display case of costumes and looks at the Comedian’s blood-stained smiley face pin.

That was what we saw. The pace of these scenes were deliberate but not slow; Snyder isn’t rushing the introductions of these characters. He’s playing it like a drama. Still, I wonder if this stuff will be this way in the finished film – 22 minutes just took us to page 13 of the first issue (although some of Rorschach’s voice over in the apartment search comes from his journal entries on page 14). Watching this footage helps you understand why the opening fight scene has been expanded – there’s no more real action for some time in the story, and Snyder needs a way to hook virginal viewers into this story, especially because the first half hour is going to be a lot of exposition and background material. Between the credits and Hollis telling his stories there’s a solid ten minutes of history; there’s more history slipped into the Dan/Rorschach conversation.

The film is packed with details. Every frame seems to have something that lends depth to the world or background to the characters; there were elements in the opening scene that I missed the first time around and only caught here. This is definitely a movie that will have a high replay value, both for the uninitiated and the hardcore fan.

Finally, the performances seemed right on. Maybe it’s because I’ve been seeing more and more of this footage over time, but both Patrick Wilson and Haley seem perfect in their roles. My first look at Stephen McHattie as Hollis Mason was a good one; he gets across a certain air of wistfulness without forcing it. He’s also instantly likable, a trait that’s key since he’ll only be in a few short scenes in the film and his character needs to have an emotional pay off.

Even as a champion of the film I was surprised at how subdued some of this footage was. People who think they have a handle on who Zack Snyder is as a filmmaker are in for a big surprise when they finally get a chance to see Watchmen; neither Dawn of the Dead or 300 define who this guy is.