Has Watchmen Killed ‘Comic Book Movies?’

Published 6 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?”


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.

rorschach protesting Has Watchmen Killed Comic Book Movies?


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 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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  1. Jboogie,

    That is the funniest take on this I have heard so far.

    I am seriously LMAO right now!

    Nice one… nice one…

  2. Nice article, Kofi!

    A significant difference between “Watchmen” and the other “living comic book movies” is the budget. If “Watchmen” had the much lower budgets of “300” (60 mil) and “Sin City” (40 mil), with its current gross, it would be considered a success. So I think a studio will still take a chance at a “living comic book movie,” as long as it’s much cheaper than “Watchmen.”

  3. watchmen i felt was a total letdown and im not suprised the figures dropped like they did in the second week at the box office, people probably realised how bad this film was.

  4. I like this site. I’m glad i found it today. i saw Watchmen twice, and I’m going to see it again this coming weekend. I had never read the comic (graphic novel) before watching the film, and find it is way to deep to catch everything the first time through. I consider myself intellectually competent, and consider 95% of the rest of the US not so intellectually competent. I understand why they didn’t like it. They didn’t get it. I have probably had to explain to 10 people this past week why Watchmen is so good. Now they like it.

  5. Um, I’m pretty sure the Spirit was nothing like the comic at all. I thought it was great, but nothing like the Eisner Spirit. As for Watchmen, probably in the long run it’ll be classified as doing quite well.

  6. Good post. Makes me sorry I have so little to say for once. (lol)

    To answer your question, I hope not.

  7. @Kofi/ppnkof
    First off, great article! Second, this isn’t over.

    As we all know, Watchmen is heavy and complex and it’s because of this that it requires a second viewing for most. It doesn’t end in the euphoric way that other comic book movies do. I’ve been using a personal measure of mine to determine how a movie will do at the box office and word of mouth, it’s whether or not audiences clap at the end.

    Batman, Iron Man, Incredible Hulk, all hand clapping, Watchman not so much and that’s because it ends with an uncertain question. Whereas “The Joker Card” (Batman Begins) and “I am Iron Man” play to the masses, Rorschach’s Journal is a geekgasm and not shared by all.

  8. To answer the question in the title… No.

    and as for your comment in regards to a box office smash “many of us expected it to be.” I must say it exceeded my expectations, if you look at the film from my perspective.

    1. I have never heard of Watchmen.
    2. When I see Watchmen I see a bunch of grown adults running around in costumes playing Cops and Robbers.
    3. If it came out closer to the school holidays it might have made more money.

    If it didn’t have such a large marketing campaign it never would have made as much as it did.

  9. I like all of the people here that think they are smarter because they liked the movie. LOL

    Now don’t get me wrong, I don’t have anything against comic book movies, but sometimes people fail to realize that there’s a thing called “personal preference” and a term I like to refer to as an “opinion” which is up to the individual (Yes, I know it’s a real word). Basically, there is no right or wrong when it comes to “liking” anything. Nobody’s smarter for liking this movie or another movie.

    But I mean, if it makes you feel better to say it and think it, then by all means, it’s a free country (enjoy it while it lasts).

  10. I’ve figured out why i didn’t like watchmen! It’s a good film and obviously a great adaptation of the comic/novel.

    The thing is i doubt had i actually read the comic/novel, i would of liked it hence i don’t like watchmen 😉

    Good film non the less and if they would of put as much love and affection into X men as watchmen then we wouldn’t even have x men origins to try and redeem some credit!

  11. Jake said, “I consider myself intellectually competent, and consider 95% of the rest of the US not so intellectually competent.”


    I am sorry you had to deal with 95% of the people on this forum and their our non-intellectual posts. I hope you can forgive this humble servant and in your gracious wisdom see fit to bestow a generous portion of bread and rice so i might feed my family for yet another cycle of the moon.

  12. Keep it friendly fellas. And remember, we ALL live by one basic American creed: “You ain’t better than me.”

  13. I think it will profit. I think those who love it will see it again and again… via rentals or DVD purchase.

    Earlier in the comments, someone made a fairly decent point that I’d like to elaborate on: Theater vs. home viewing.

    For some, seeing it in the theater is, well, pretty damn cool.

    But then again, for those who love this kind of project but have a restrictive budget, it’s the In Demand or On Demand method.

    2 people can drop $20+ bucks hitting a theater. Those same 2 folk can spend 1/2 that.

    The home market (rentals and sales) is where the sales will probably pick up the slack. … We hope!

  14. I loved the movie. But I think they marketed this movie the wrong way. Most people never heard of the Watchmen before this movie came out. All they saw were trailers of a team superhero movie with cool effects. Most people you left the theatre scratching there heads and not liking it. They were all saying how it was boring and had no action. Your tipical short attention span people.

    They should’ve marketed the movie in a way to prepare the audience for the tone of the movie.

  15. Manowar,

    You think if they actually told people what the film was going to be people would’ve turned out for it in similar numbers?

  16. I guess we’ll never know now. More people would’ve probably left the theatre thinking, ok, yeah, I see what they were talking about… I get it. Instead of WTF was that!! God that movie was boring and retarded…

  17. Appealing it the “fanboy” nation is the single worse thing a studio can do! It should all be left up to the director and his vision of this property. Afterall, it is his take on the material! Greatest example, Transformers. Read the title, it clearly states: Michael Bay’s Transformers! Listening to fanboys is just wrong because they/we make such a small margin of the audience. It is either you believe in the director’s vision or not. If the director wanted to make a “living comic book” or not, that is his say. That should be the final say and it is up to us to accept it or deny it.

    Kofi, you make some great points in the article, but in the end, I totally disagree. I have typed before that Watchmen is going to be this generation’s Blade Runner, and thanks Vic for pointing that out. Watchmen is a complex entity to judge you know. Maybe it will do well overseas, maybe they will “get it”. Who knows, but it will be intersting to track this film and how it does. What really irks me are these fanboys who complain about the movie that it is not like the comic book, son, get a life! Are you not happy that Snyder at least tried to recapture this amazing piece of work? Even panel-for-panel? Huh, losers!

    Lastly is about 300. 300 succeeded because, yes it had amazing visuals, but also a great marketing campaign and that is was simple! Here are the good guys, here are the bad guys, voila. They touched on some of the politics but did it really matter? Shame they use my homey McNulty as the traitor in the senate, but again, 300 succeeded because it was simple enough to take.

  18. @Kofi

    Sorry, I’ll do better. :)

  19. With films such as Watchmen, they come from a graphic novel. Other stories such as Batman and Spider Man come from ongoing continuities. Because of this, Watchmen has relatively little leeway for creative interpretation whereas other ongoing series have large amounts of freedom for artistic licence.
    I find that most people who really enjoyed Watchmen read the graphic novel while most people who hated it didn’t. I think this is where the problem is. Watchmen was made too much for the fans and neglected general audiences. There was one trailer which explained the film’s premise but the rest of them told absolutely nothing about the story. This is why many people who hadn’t read the graphic novel lost interest because they didn’t understand what it was about. The marketing also made it look like an action movie which disappointed many as Watchmen is a highly dialogue-driven story.
    I don’t think that comic book films should cater to “fanboys” or as I more accurately call them, fans. That market is the film’s base but it is a very small one. I prefer the director to inject his own vision into the film and create a story of his own. Every once in a while, a comic book film will have a hokey inside joke or a self-reference to throw at the fans but the film is still intended for mass appeal.
    All in all, Watchmen is a severe disappointment but I don’t think it’s killed “comic book movies”.

  20. @SK47

    Some films do much better overseas but Watchmen isn’t one of them. It’s doing about half of US box office in foreign markets.


  21. @SK47

    Dude, see my comment all the way at the top. This post isn’t so much my personal opinion as a devil’s advocate piece.

    I like Watchmen and am going to be obsessing of the 3.5 hour cut and the Hollis Mason Mockumentary and all of that stuff for years to come.

    However, I am re-reading the graphic novel right now, and I have to say: in a way, the movie has messed it up for me. Has anyone else tried to re-read since seeing the flick?

  22. so okay i am not a fan boy i really didnt like the movie. i am not stupid,i read the book but i didnt really see the WOW factor in the book. so i guess what i am asking is for someone to tell me just what the movie was about then? i understand that the basic idea is that to save millions many more have to die? correct? and that ozzymandis did this to make millions, so not out of personal or any care of humanity but rather as a buisness transaction. so can those people out there who really understood the
    ” depth” that is in this movie? would be great. thanks

  23. I would like to point out some VERY important differences between the book and the movie:

    1° Adrian Veidt was portrayed as an androgynous( or homossexual? Maybe someone was trying to relate it to the evidences that Alexander was a homo) character, I guess the actor selected wasn’t even close to someone with Greek looks, like the comic character and the lack of a detailed description of his passion for self improvement, for perfection, as in the Greek ideal, not only that, the interpretation itself couldn’t convince that that man could be the smartest or most intelligent man in the world. Well, I’m not a comic purist, but this differences jeopardized the whole thing, he’ll be seen as a gay villain, will be the subject of a comedy movie at any time, and couldn’t show the nuances, the perspectives, the delusions that led him to take such a dramatic decision.

  24. 2° They didn’t show what Rorschach did to the prison shrink, making him reflect upon the reality that a lot of us usually ignore, that he had ignored before, or if not ignored, at least convinced himself that that was a normal characteristic of the human existence in society. The shrink had a fight with his wife, he himself started seeing the rorschac test differently, well let’s just say that Rorschach made him see the world a little different. Where was that?

  25. DANIEL

    The funny part is: Watchmen was the ultimate “non-fanboy” story. It takes everything comic lovers loved (the campy fantastic stories and heroes) and said, “Really? This is your escape? If these people were real, living in real society, in a real world, this is what it would be like.”

    The Ozymandias ending is ironic in that it succeeds by all accounts. He really is “the hero” for “saving the world from itself,” you could reasonably argue.

    Oh no, you got me started…

    Dude, it’s just a dense, layered, thought-provoking piece of work. It’s not for play.

  26. The obvious answer is that word of mouth about the blue naked bits turned people away from the movie. At some point they should have said “okay, we’ve established that Dr. Manhattan is naked. Let’s frame the rest of the shots waist-up.” I’ve read the Graphic Novel, and knew he was going to be naked, but I was still distracted by it. Especially since it was shown center screen far too often.