What we learned from 'Watchmen'
By Robert Dixter Apr 6, 2009, 18:16 GMT
A complex, multi-layered mystery adventure, "Watchmen" is set in an alternate 1985 America in which costumed superheroes are part of the fabric of everyday society, and the Doomsday Clock--which charts the USA\'s tension with the Soviet Union--moves closer to midnight. When one of his former colleagues is murdered, the outlawed but no less determined masked vigilante Rorschach sets out to uncover a plot to kill and discredit all past and present ...more
In the mid 1980’s there were three things that revolutionized geekdom. 1) Frank Miller’s The Dark Knight Returns 2) Alan Moore’s Watchmen and 3) The water splashing down during the ‘Maniac” dance in Flashdance. Two of those three things changed the comics industry, the last one just had prepubescent boys trying to hide erections when called upon in English class. Fast forward to over 20 years later when Hollywood finally releases the film version of Watchmen, and realizes Alan Moore might have been right when he said the book was unfilmable. Rumors are now flying faster than Andre 3000 behind the wheel that Warner Bros. will no longer put out rated R comics/ superhero films.
The film cost $150 million to produce plus buckets more to market. It was supposed to be an event movie in March, and it needed to make a lot of money because the profits get cut up between Warner Bros., Paramount, Fox and Legendary Pictures. The expectations for the film were higher than Seth Rogen while watching Half Baked. The educated guess put the opening weekend at $70 million. It only did $55 million with a huge percentage drop in its second weekend. The word on the streets now (and by that I mean either the internet or things I yell at my wife from the basement) is that this film that took two decades to bring to the screen is such a big bust that Dolly Parton thought they might be related. So how was a book that most comic readers will tell you is the greatest piece of fiction ever written turned into a failure of a film?
The first question to ask is Watchmen even a good movie? That’s a trick question. The film is great…if you’ve read the book. Director Zack Snyder stayed so true to the source material that I can’t get the image of Dr. Manhattan’s blue dong out of my mind and have had to consult a psychologist. Geeks proved they were waiting for someone to film the book as is (not an updated Paul Greengrass version) when they forked over $4.5 million the Thursday night before the film opened at midnight screenings. But if you’ve read Watchmen you know the story is so dense it makes Forrest Gump look like Gary Coleman in The Kid with the 200 I.Q. There are so many things happening and so many layers as the story unfolds at it’s own pace. The fact that Zack managed to cram all that into 2 hours and forty minutes is impressive but he does skim over certain events that are more fleshed out in the book (like the Minutemen). So if you haven’t read the book before seeing the film you might get lost and not get the full Watchmen effect.
The second issue the film had to face was trying to figure out who the audience was that would show up to see it. Every year at Comic Con we hear how filmmakers are trying to court the real geeks (the difference between nerds and geeks being that nerds are also smart) and make the comic book film for them. How many times have we heard “If you read the comic you won’t be disappointed”? I’ve heard that as many times as I’ve heard “Well, if you stop rubbing it all the time it should clear up by itself”. But this film proves that you need more than just the guys who live in their mother’s basement and dream about one day seeing a real breast up close to show up to your movie if you want to make money.
That leads to the third problem. Even if you have never picked up a comic book in your life you’ve heard of Batman and Spider-Man. Unless you’ve read Watchmen you wouldn’t know a guy named Rorschach, nor would you want to since he’s dressed as a flasher in a soiled overcoat. On top of their zero recognition, the characters in Watchmen are not really heroes in the classic sense as the public understands them to be.
So add up the following, a rated R film with no stars, based on a dense comic book that only geeks are aware of with no known superheroes, a $150 million budget, various studios picking at the back end, and a 2 hour 40 minute running time, and what do you get? Watchmen unable to make back its money. Does this mean the rated R comic book is dead? Not at all, it simply means that Warner Bros misunderstood the material they were working with.
Last summer’s Wanted was rated R, based on a comic, and was a decent size hit because it was made for $75 million. If Dark Knight had been rated R it still would have grossed hundreds of millions (although not $1 billion) because everyone knows who Batman is. It probably would have done Matrix Reloaded (which was rated R) numbers ($739 million worldwide). So the big lesson learned here for Hollywood studios is that they need to bridge the comic book world and the real movie going audience. Just because a title is big with geeks doesn’t mean it will translate to a big blockbuster with a big budget.