Well the totals are in, and Watchmen is nowhere near to being the box office smash many of us expected it to be.
After a solid $55 million opening weekend, Watchmen suffered a 67% second week drop-off, earning just $18 million for a total two-week domestic gross of $86 million (approx $112 million worldwide). Those earnings are far short of Watchmen‘s reported $120 million budget, not to mention the astronomical cost of a marketing campaign so intense it seemed like Rorschach was making a run for The White House.
Now that Watchmen is in real danger of being a box office flop, it’s time to ask the hard question: has Watchmen‘s underperformance killed “comic book movies?”
DEFINING THE ‘COMIC BOOK MOVIE’
There have always been two distinct approaches to comic book films. There are films like Watchmen, The Spirit, 300 and Sin City – films which adhere too closely to their comic book sources, trying to recreate those comics (sometimes panel for panel) in cinematic form. For films like Sin City and 300, this imitative style proved $uccessful; for The Spirit, not so successful. In the case of Watchmen, the verdict is still being debated, and will likely continue to be debated for years to come.
Opposite these “comic book movies” are films like The Dark Knight, Iron Man or Spider-Man, which are inspired by comic books but don’t try to BE comic books, instead opting to present the often-fantastic world of comic book superheroes in a more “realistic” cinematic fashion.
Having defined both approaches to comic book films, I ask again: has Watchmen killed the “comic book movie?” i.e., those films which try to be “living comic books,” championing style over substance; slavish fidelity to the source material over the hope of mass appeal?
Zack Snyder has said in many interviews that getting Warner Bros. to make a Watchmen film that closely adhered to Alan Moore and Dave Gibbons’ original text (the alternate 1985 universe, the adult nature of the story, a certain climax involving a giant squid) was an uphill battle. The studio (like so many other studios that had previously passed on Watchmen) wisely felt that the denseness and oddity of the comic would limit the mass appeal of the film, which, even in the pre-production stages, was already being tagged with a huge budget.
Snyder argued that to do Watchmen “right,” the source material needed to be slavishly followed–that there was no better way to tell the story other than how Moore and Gibbons had already told it. The result is a Watchmen movie which is both liberated and limited: Liberated in the sense of what big-budget films are allowed to be (wonderfully stylized, full of psychopath heroes and dangling blue junk); Limited in the sense that Snyder’s take on Watchmen never succeeds in breaking free of its comic book boundaries, in order to live and breathe as its own unique piece of art. (BTW, that’s not an opinion: that’s the split down the middle you’ve been seeing amongst critics and audiences. Those who dig the comic book for all its dense, heady weirdness tend to love the film; those that don’t, don’t. And that divided opinion is surely taking its toll at the box office.)
So the question is: Going forward, how many box office millions are studios going to be willing to risk, just to pay homage to the fanboy nation? Watchmen screenwriter David Hayter recently asked moviegoers to see the film a second time, in order to send the message to Hollywood that there is a market for “complex” comic book films. By now, however, he may be preaching to an empty choir.
DO FANBOYS RUN THE SHOW?
One thing that was very unique about the whole Watchmen experience was the level of consideration the filmmakers gave to the fanboy nation. In every interview or panel he was on, Zack Snyder went to great lengths to stress that he too was a Watchmen fanboy, and that he would not let the fanboy nation down by mucking with source material.
Now Snyder could’ve been totally B.S.’ing us all, but I don’t believe that. I believe that as far as filmmakers go, Zack Snyder really is a fanboy who was genuinely making this film for fanboys first, mass audiences second. Time will ultimately reveal the wisdom (or lack thereof) of that approach, but as of right now, it’s surely questionable.
Screen Rant’s own Rob Keyes recently wrote an article on the upcoming X-Men Origins: Wolverine movie, where he posed the question of just how much (or not) the filmmakers behind Wolverine are listening to fanboy opinions about how characters like Deadpool or Gambit get translated to the big screen. In that same vein, I find myself wondering: when it comes to comic book films, who really runs the show? Did fanboys really have that much influence before Watchmen? And now that Watchmen is coming up short, how much influence will fanboys not have going forward? Is a core fan base of comic book geeks really worth catering a big-budget film to? Or is mass appeal the bottom line every comic book filmmaker should be going for?
THE RISK OF MAKING A ‘COMIC BOOK MOVIE’
The simple truth is, some people are really into comic books while others can’t stand them. And we all know the reasons why the haters hate: The characters are too fantastic, the stories are too outlandish, the dialogue is too cheesy, etc., etc.
In order to make comic book films appeal to an audience beyond the comic store, filmmakers have to separate their adaptations from the “trappings” of their comic book sources, mining the raw essence of what made a superhero interesting or appealing in the first place, and then build a film on that foundation. People need never to have read a Batman comic to be intrigued by Bruce Wayne’s dark societal view, or a single issue of Spider-Man to relate to Peter Parker’s teenage angst. Of course, some would say that character recognition has everything to do with a comic book film’s chances at mass appeal (wide character recognition = wide film appeal). I would remind those people of the cases of Batman & Robin and V For Vendetta. Sometimes widely known doesn’t mean mass appeal, and vice versa.
One could also argue that when adapting works like Watchmen (which aren’t so widely recognized), part of a filmmakers’ job is to come up with an innovative approach to making those unfamiliar characters and stories interesting and relatable to a new audience. By taking the “living comic book” approach, a film like Watchmen immediately alienates those who never liked comic books in the first place, essentially telling that audience, “Hey, we know this isn’t your type of thing and we don’t care. You should like it. Our cheesy dialogue and outrageous plots are awesome.”
Esoteric filmmaking doesn’t sell tickets, and all a “living comic book” really does is provide a fleeting thrill to fanboys who are so familiar with the source material that they can compare every shot on the screen to every panel on the page.
So does that mean that the now-infamous Paul Haggis Watchmen script (which “reimagined” the story in modern times and was only loosely based on the source material) would’ve been a better sell at the box office? I know Paul Haggis is probably saying so…
However, one thing is irrefutable: anytime a comic book film is labeled to be “too comic bookish,” whether because of stylistic choices, script decisions, dialogue, acting, or whatever else might be contributing to that label, the film is only going to enjoy mild success, at best. To get the big bucks, comic book films have to transcend their medium. Watchmen has not changed that fact–in fact it’s probably made it truer than ever. Going forward, it’s going to be tough for lesser-known comic books like DC’s The Losers to make the jump to film while still “staying true” to their comic book roots.
Critics who said Watchmen would flop will probably claim that their predictions were based on an exact science (‘comic bookish movie’ = limited appeal). However, what about the anomalies? How about the fact that at this time in 2007, 300 was smashing the box office wide open? Yes, yes, you can argue that 300 was successful because it was (very loosely) based on a well-known historical event, or that boys loved it for the bloody battles, while girls loved it for the buff-bods shown-off by the film’s leading men. But blood and guts and good-looking half-naked bodies don’t automatically equal box office success. (If they did, every Friday The 13th film would be smash hit.)
It’s undeniable: a large part of why 300 clicked with audiences had to do with Zack Snyder’s stylistic choice to turn the film into a living graphic novel. People thought it looked cool, that it was an innovative, original take on the whole “sword-and-sandals” genre, and so they checked it out. Watchmen was supposed to be an “innovative and original” take on the superhero genre, so why was Snyder’s stylistic approach so polarizing this time?
Sin City was another “living graphic novel” film that did well at the box office, earning $74 million domestically and $158 million worldwide–enough profit to warrant a sequel to the film, which will be released in 2010. And unlike 300, there was no historical basis or partial nudity to lure audiences–just a big-name cast and a “cool style” to the film. And in that case, the combination of big names and a living graphic novel approach worked. Will Sin City 2 build off that success, or has Watchmen hampered its chances?
“INNA FINAL ANALYSIS”
Watchmen is a head-scratcher. It’s hard not to feel like we’ve arrived at some kind of decisive juncture in the level of popularity comic books have enjoyed in Hollywood over the last decade, but right now it’s hard to say what that juncture is, or what it means for the future. Good news is that there’s still a whole bunch of comic book films to look forward to, for now: more Batman, more Spider-Man, more Iron Man and Superman on the way; Green Lantern, Thor, Captain America and of course, Avengers. The comic book film genre, as a whole, is far from dead.
However, what may have been a forked path once is now beginning to look like a one-way street. In the future, when it’s a question of the Zack Snyder way or the Chris Nolan way, expect studios to go the Nolan way: “realistic” comic book films with guaranteed potential for mass appeal. At least until another 300 comes along to change the mind$ of the Hollywood suits.
As for Watchmen? Well, cult status is always better than no status, I say – and no doubt in the long run with DVD/Blu-ray sales Watchmen will be successful & acclaimed.