Has Watchmen Killed ‘Comic Book Movies?’

Published 5 years ago by , Updated March 16th, 2009 at 6:29 pm,

watchmen dr manhattan disintegration Has Watchmen Killed Comic Book Movies?

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?

STUDIO BACKLASH

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.

rorschach protesting Has Watchmen Killed Comic Book Movies?

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.

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TAGS: 300, sin city 2, watchmen

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  1. I don’t think it is a question of whether or not Watchmen killed the “straight from the graphic novel” comic book film, but has Watchmen killed “Rated R” comic book films? Better yet, will studios stay further away from Rated R “blockbusters” in general, if at all possible?

    Case in point, Terminator: Salvation. McG has been begging for an “R” rating. You can bet your last sixpence that WB has now told him to go “fly a plane”.

  2. i only expected this movie to gross somewhere in 125-150 million in the US. i think it will be a good movie but it doesn’t appear to appeal to a lot of people because it different then most superhero movies.

  3. I think part of the equation has also been missed here.

    I love films, yet I rarely go to the cinema any more, why sit in a noisy, crowded uncomfortable cinema, when you can wait a few months and watch a film on your TV in comfort.

    I think more and more the true potential of a film will be realised on DVD and Blue-Ray.

    I think then the figures for Watchmen will go through the roof.

  4. @Shane

    That doesn’t explain why films like Paul Blart & Taken have done so well then. It would be across the board if that was the case and ticket sales were above 16% in March.

  5. how is this movie a flop? it is coming close to recouping the production costs within it’s first few weeks, and it’s an R rated movie with a very niche story. i’d say by the end of the month it will completely recoup all losses and possibly be profitable depending on how much was spent on advertising. considering fanboys will EAT UP collectors edition bluray packages, i’d say they are looking to gain huge profits on tangible media.

  6. The big big money pullers for theatrical releases seem to be the teens. Movies like Paul Blart pull in heavily on the teen crowd and rack in those big numbers.

    As for Watchmen, it was very odd to go to a 12 noon showing of a superhero movie and not have an array of popcorn bouncing off the back of my head from an army of pubescent teens. Me and my wife were joined by mostly late 20, early 30s parent types like ourselves. It made it a very pleasant watching experience but obviously did not help bring in the mola.

  7. I was a big comic book junky when i was a kid, but it tapered off as i got older, to the point of forgeting almost everything i had read. I am of the opinion that the comic book movies like this, 300 and Sin City, though they are visually entertaing, I would much rather see soemthing new and different done with the cahracters i love. Everything is open for interpreatation, and its always refreshing to see what some one sle sees, rather than a homage or panel to panel exactness.
    I remember back in 95 (I think) Psyco was remade in color and virtually every frame was identical to the original, Pysco bombed and failed miserably. Now i know that Pysco and comic book films are no where related, but I use as a point of reference, because typically but all historical accounts when you do a himage , rather than do your own interpretation, it does not have that appeal. The same could be said about the direction that theses type of comic book films are going, and it could end up becoming retundenbt and viewers losing interest down the road.

  8. I agree that Watchmen was a historic comic, but(I could be wrong)I don’t think it outsold X-men and Batman. The movie paralleled comics sales. Great as it was, it didn’t have as broad an appeal. Nolan’s Batman is as close to the more popular comic versions as any of the previous films. Spiderman and Iron man stayed close to the source as well. With effects technology constantly improving, films are allowed to do this. It’s not like the incredible Hulk tv show which was forced to radically change the comic version of the character and it’s world because of budget and effects limitations. The horrid tv movies illustrated this to great affect. I just don’t want Watchmen to be used as an excuse for hollywood to go back to making comic based movies any way they want. Joel Shumacher claimed to have read stacks of comics as inspiration for Batman Forever and Batman and Robin. Well, I grew up reading Batman comics and rarely remember any resembling his version. On the other hand, most of them did resemble Nolan’s.

  9. Watchmen was a phenomenon from the standpoint that it was revolutionary for the comic book industry like Miller’s DKR because it afforded the writers of comics to show that comic books with more adult orientated material could be brought into the mainstream for more well known characters like Superman, Spiderman and the like..This is in no way a reflection of how popular it actually was with respect to other characters in the comic book genre…I read Watchmen but a lot of my friends who were into comic books as well didn’t and showed no interest despite my best efforts. The movie definitely wasn’t for everybody and even I wasn’t that enamoured with it and I LOVE the source material..There was no guarentee that critical acclaim and making Time Magazine’s(Owned by Time-Warner which also owns DC & Watchmen..coincidence? I think not) 100 Best Works of Fiction since that magazine’s inception would assure success either…This was a super-hero film but for a niche market that wasn’t as broad as the other comic book adaptations like X-Men, Batman, Spiderman, etc.. I have always said that word of mouth would be the creed that this film’s success would live and die by and it’s word of mouth for a large part wasn’t that great..

    But to suggest that this will kill the super-hero movie is going a little extreme I think..WHen DVD/Blu-Ray sales are factored in and TV/Hotel/Airline revenues, Pay-Per-View and Video Rentals this movie will show a profit and probably a tidy profit for WB..not to mention SPecial Edition/Director’s Cut DVD’s & Bluy-Ray as well..The genre is fine but like a few posts from above have stated (McFly’s stands out as one) it has probably done away with the “R” rated adaptations of EXPENSIVE films of this ilk..

  10. One thing that might be hurting the film may be “word of mouth”. I saw and liked the film a lot but when I talk to other people who saw it all they can say about the movie is “floppy blue penis”. For people who have never heard or read of the novel might snub their nose up at it after hearing that.

  11. @ bobsagget and wes

    Dudes…stay outta my head.. :)

  12. @bobsagget

    I’m sure the studio was looking for more than barely break even at the box office. And I don’t recall the exact rule of thumb, but it’s something like a movie needs to make double it’s production cost before it’s REALLY considered profitable. I do agree that in the LONG run it will be considered profitable (I compare it to “Blade Runner”).

    @greenknight

    Kofi was referring to a very specific movie making style, not comic book movies in general.

    Vic

  13. Its hard to compare Watchmen with characters like Batman or Spiderman. The avg person on the street never heard of Watchmen before this film. Hollywood wants viable superhero that will attract the mainstream. WHile I really liked Watchmen I never really though of it as a comic book film when I watched it because I wasn’t familiar with these characters like a Batman. While I admire WB for making the film as is, the one mistake they did make was over marketing it. There was no reason to spend THAT much money promoting it. It was just too much. Still Certain franchise will thrive(like Batman, Spiderman and Iron Man) while others ( Like Thor) will be a big gamble. Watchmen in the long run will recoup its investment and the studio will have a film in its library that will get rediscovered down the road.

    chuck

  14. @ Vic

    Studios tend to get 60% of domestic grosses and 50% of international grosses

    ergo :)

    If Watchemn cost 150 million to produce with another 30-40 million for P+A then it would have to make

    180/.6=300 to 190/.6= 320 million to show a profit domestically from box office receipts..it will be lucky if it makes half that amount..extremely lucky..

    Makes me wonder how much will they trim the budget for Green Lantern now that Watchmen has struggled?

  15. I think that watchman was extremely well done and pulled it off way better than expected. I mean what did people expect it was exactly the same aside from the ending and held very strongly to the tones of the graphic novel. Movie sales will be going down anyway people are cutting back and trying to save their money and the first things to go are non essentials. I would expect more people to be renting it.

  16. Watchmen can certainly qualify as the final frontier of what comic book and superhero genre films can achieve. I wouldn’t go so far to say it has done anything unforgivable. But I have to admit it’s not the kind of genre film that would particularly appeal to me.

  17. First off, the movie, cinematically, was very realistic in it’s own sense (very little cencorship or PC scenes), and very well made. Just because the movie is a “box office flop,” doesn’t mean it is a bad movie, a HUGE mistake most people make today, since they consider the almighty dollar, most important of all.

    The problem is, is that most people aren’t intelligent enough to see how good this movie is, and rating an “r,” turned many families away.

    OVERHYPING of movies, by all concerned, is what kills movies, not making them “too good,” or “too close to source material.”

  18. Told ya it wouldn’t do well, bud.

  19. Agree with previous points about it being a lot tougher to get the punters in for Watchmen, rather than Supes or Spidey, especially when R rated.

    Maybe after all the big superhero movies from last year, this was one too far? For your average movie goer anyway.

    As for fanboys running the movie industry, no way. We’re just the latest marketing target.
    Unfortunately they have yet to realise how crazy we are. :D

  20. Oh, good article by the way, and fair play for linking to your article about it doing well. ;)

  21. There could be one good side effect from this.
    Maybe WWB will get over this “Superhero movies have to be dark ” attitude they have had since TDK broke records.

  22. Maybe now we can get a family friendly
    Shazam!/Captain Marvel film.
    Always the optimist!

  23. Again, as I said in another post … somewhere … out there, while they did promote this movie A LOT, they portrayed it as a true superhero movie which it is not. At least the graphic novel wasn’t.

    I am seeing it tomorrow night so I’ll help with the third week totals.

  24. Watchmen hasnt killed anything. flicks like Iron Man 2, Spider-Man 4, Batman 3 will still make boatloads of cash.

    Watchmen’s R rating, running time and poor marketing campaign are what killed it at the B.O.

  25. I just don’t think Watchmen was that good. It wa kind of slow, had few characters I even liked, let alone could have empathy with, and had an ending that to me was pulled out of thin air.

  26. I think that Watchmen won’t kill comic book movies. It’s still nowhere as bad as The Spirit. The real reason that this film isn’t the smash it should be is because most people are immature. People don’t go to films to think. Us Americans are so dumb that we can’t imagine going to a film to think. Mix that with a film that shows blue genetalia and we have a film that most people will laugh at and say “what is this?” I think that the film will pick up again, but it won’t explode. Watchmen is a thriller both in action and psychologically. Sadly, people don’t want a superhero film they have to think about. I think fanboys in a way ruin films like this. Their constant complaints to the non-fanboys puts people off. They think “well, if so-and-so doesn’t like it and they’re a comic book nerd, this movie sucks”. Watchmen is a great film and I feel it is already severly underrated. Snyder isn’t to blame either. Changing the story would have pissed people off even more. That would be like a Batman film where Batman doesn’t wear a mask, or a Superman film where he doesn’t fly. Snyder knows, just like Rorschach “never compromise”. This film will certantly not flop, but it won’t be as big as many thought. Let’s look at this movie as what it really is, a movie for the fans.

  27. who knows mabe it’ll suck at the box office, then (Like the ’04 punisher) DVD sales Fly High.

    im still looking
    fwrd 2 the director’s cut.
    of watchmen.

  28. I left my personal opinion out of the post, but I’m free to express it here: I liked Watchmen. I think that seeing it once is to just barely scratch the surface of the film’s complexity. I can’t wait for the director’s cut and everything else related to the film.

    I hope it hasn’t killed the whole “living comic book” sub-genre either, because I love those flicks!

    SIN CITY 2, baby!

  29. It didn’t kill comic book movies it killed comic book movies tailored to fanboys. Average moviegoers probably bought tickets expecting to see another spider man or iron man and instead were treated to 2 and a half hours of not understanding anything thats going on.