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?”

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.

Click to continue reading “Has Watchmen Killed ‘Comic Book Movies?’”

« 1 2»

Get our free email alerts on the topics and author of this article:

125 Comments

Post a Comment

GravatarWant to change your avatar?
Go to Gravatar.com and upload your own (we'll wait)!

 Rules: No profanity or personal attacks.
 Use a valid email address or risk being banned from commenting.


If your comment doesn't show up immediately, it may have been flagged for moderation. Please try refreshing the page first, then drop us a note and we'll retrieve it. Keep in mind that we do not allow external links in the comments.

  1. @lily

    Sorry, but while that’s sometimes a valid argument, it’s not always true. There are pleny of super-crappy movies that make a ton of money and excellent films that make very little.

    Vic

    • I agree 100%, films such as Watchmen and Sin City are great because they don’t try to be anything other than what they are, which is just a comic book turned into a movie, in some ways they are more realistic like you said, in Watchmen none of them can fly, and they all prove themselves to be human with natural human urges and weaknesses(except for Dr. Manhattan obviously). The Comedian is a great example of a human being who despite being a masked avenger is still subject to natural human weakness such as his need to bully and abuse women for his own pleasure. Even when he talks about the natural human urge to want to fight and kill each other. It was a really good story and it was unpredictable, which is one of the other great things about comic book movies that stay much more true to the comics, they tend to be more unpredictable due to the fact that we don’t have to believe that the good guys will always win, sometimes the bad guys win, and sometimes the good guys are the bad guys, but not in the way you imagined. There will always be room for these types of films, and there always should be, not everyone can relate to them or find them intriguing, and thats fine, but for those who do they prove to be great.

  2. Making a movie with fans(fanboys)in mind isn’t really the problem. The worst comic book movies we’ve seen are the ones that drastically avoid the source material. The better ones have normally stayed close to it. I agree that Watchmen was limited by it only existing in a twelve issue series as compared to the decades worth of various interpretations of other characters. Even comic book companies have to go through the pains of trial and error with what sells and what doesn’t. I just don’t want movie studios to use Watchmen as an example to say that adhering to the comics is a bad idea and they should present the characters any way they feel like. Remember the Mask-like Jack Black Green Lantern movie we almost got? Listening to the core fans has helped movies succeed more than they have hurt even though they can be very annoying.

  3. Lord Thanos X, great rant! Makes total sense of the whole deal!
    And that line from Allan Moore, haha, that made me smile but it is also quite true. Aren’t they making a Monopoly movie? Is the car and hat pieces going to be animated? Honestly.
    I wouldn’t be surprised if they make a Lucky Charms film to open on a Saint-Patty’s day weekend with one of the Hobbits as the Leprechaun. Maybe Charlie from Lost will be the guy. Honestly.

  4. @ Gary

    True, not every comic book movie has to be dark and brooding, but comic books that ARE dark and brooding shouldn’t be made into movies that aren’t, and vice versa. I’m not going to say something stupid like “Heath Ledger’s Joker was much better than Jack Nicholson’s” (I think they were both incredible renditions of the character), but truth be told, I think Heath’s was a lot closer to the original DC version of the Joker, and I loved his interpretation of it, especially when you get into what Heath was trying to portray with his Joker: that deep down, the Joker wanted to prove to himself that the rest of humanity was just as sick and twisted as he was, ergo he wasn’t alone on this planet. But that’s an analysis for another thread.

    As for Watchmen, I haven’t seen it yet, but I want to thank everyone here for changing my expectations for the movie. Based on the ads, I, too, thought of it as a superhero movie (having never read the GN), and now that I have a better idea of what it’s supposed to envision, I think I will enjoy it that much more when I go see it.

    I had the same issue when I went to see the 13th Warrior. By the ads, and the fact that Michael Crichton penned it, I figured it was going to be a supernatural and/or scifi flick. At the end, my first thought was, “So it was a bunch of ninja cannibals?!?” I hated it! When it came out on DVD, I decided to see it again, and, now knowing what to expect, absolutely loved it the second time.

    So, I think I’ll enjoy Watchmen when I do go to see it, since I know now what to expect, and thanks to all of you for that!

  5. Just wanted to say 13th Warrior was a great, much overlooked movie. The cast was perfect. I never read the book so i’m only basing my view on the movie. It’s one of the better one of that genre. I wish there were more good Viking movies.

  6. What I find most interesting of the hoi polloi’s opinions of this film is the shock expressed by Manhattan’s penis. I’ve heard dozens of folks talking about the film and that’s all they have to talk about. Like it or not, after viewing a film with a story as complex as Watchmen and having nothing to discuss other than the CGI “junk”, displays just how sophmoric and immature we are as a nation of viewers. What does that say about the viewers own hangups?

    It’s like someone seeing Michelangelo’s David for the first time and instead of marveling at the sculptor’s skill, that person only comments on the rendition of the penis, and that really, that artist should have sculpted David only from the waist up, or put shorts on him. It’s maddeningly frustrating to an art lover is it not?

    Someone above wrote that if it was a blue breast there would be no complaints. I tend to agree. I submit the Zemeckis Beowulf film, CGI rendered Angelina Jolie in the buff throughout and it got a PG-13. Speaking of that film, during the dramatic fight between Beowulf and Grendel, I heard howls of laughter because Beowulf was submitted to the ‘Austin Powers’ treatment of a conveniently placed bowl or bottle, rather than showing the character nude. I understand they were going for a PG-13 and I felt that Zemeckis should have place Beowulf in a loincloth rather than submit the dramatic fight to comedic fits from the mob.

    For what it’s worth (extremely little, I suspect), I actually prefer that Snyder chose to display Doc’s bait and tackle, rather than giving us the Austin Powers treatment.

  7. Watchmen’s performance has been a disappointment. Sure there was a great novel about it, but that would have only appealed to a particular group of people. There is a much larger audience of people who have not read the book, did not see any subsequent comic books, and had no inkling of what the movie is all about. This gaping hole was not filled in by the movie’s advertisements, and so there are a lot of people who just did not care to see this movie.

    If anything Watchmen is a failure in marketing. The film was destined to be a cult film from the get-go. Audiences aren’t familiar with the characters and it’s not a serialized story. By focusing on the story instead of the visuals, Warner Bros. could have served the film better by slowly building up word of mouth rather than trying to make it an event film on par with Iron Man and The Dark Knight.

    Watchmen does not have the appeal that Spider-Man, Batman, Iron Man, and so forth have. That’s why it failed. It looks weird, and the trailers don’t tell you what the movie is about. It just shows flashy stuff and then says “WATCHMEN” with cool music.

  8. @ Prototype

    I see your point, but if you look at the post again, the section “The Risks of making a ‘comic book movie’” you’ll see that I address…the risks of making (or MARKETING) a ‘comic book movie.’

    I’m not sure honest marketing would’ve helped. In fact, I’m going to go so far as to say it would have LOWERED first week numbers. The “event movie” angle played.

  9. Not trying to be rude @ Prototype but the movie was a failure . How was it a failure explain to me please A valid reason. So this is what I get from your message. WELL UMMM WATCHMEN SUCKED TO ME BECAUSE IT WASN’T LIKE SPIDER-MAN BATMAN OR IRON-MAN. Well 1st of all are you a little slow…. I mean I read two issues of watchmen and saw the movie. But I understood the movie. So clearly you don’t know how to follow a Story. And also Honestly speaking if you can’t pay attention u shouldn’t go to the movies. The character’s in this movie were as real as it gets. I mean can you say that if you where a hero you would save everyone … even the baddest of the baddest of people. Example Rorschach let a lot of bad people go a lot, until that rapist guy killed the little girl chopped her up and feed her to the dogs. then Rorschach snapped. He lost it. If it was spiderman he would have just took him back to jail.. until he got loose again. I love spiderman dont get me wrong. but sometime you would think in certain situations someone would be pushed to the edge. The Character’s in this film where pushed beyond that point, especially Dr. Manhattan, The Comedian , and the Rich guy. The Comedian looked at people no differently than how some people look at each other now, that guy really didn’t care. But you have your right to your opinion but have to come with something better than the marketing crap. you must have like feel on the steps of the theater and went unconscious and thought you saw the film

  10. To all the people who say that “if there were blue breasts in the movie, nobody would be talking about it.” Well, I bet if there were women with giant blue breasts that hung down to their waists, I bet alot of people would’ve been talking about it. Regardless, you can’t compare breasts to penis’.

  11. @ ppnkof

    Yes, I see what you’re saying, but Watchmen was hugely unlikely to be a success form the get-go. Other films such as The Dark Knight and Iron Man don’t even need to bother to explain their stories in the trailers because pretty much everyone knows the characters. Watchmen on the other hand is not well-known at all and the trailers and the marketing needed to explain what the film was about a whole lot more which they failed to do. Yes, more honesty probably wouldn’t have helped it but then again it may have spared some of WB’s massive marketing dollars which appears to have been wasted.

    @ LordThanos X

    Not trying to be rude, indeed. Where on earth in my post did I state that Watchmen was a failure because it was not Spider Man or Batman? Where in my post did I speak of the complexities of the characters being a factor in Watchmen’s dismal box office performance?I also fail to see how my opinion is invalid but you childish tirade is. I too have read the graphic novel and consider it to be the most groundbreaking and important graphic novel ever published so I had no problem following the story which adhered well to the source. Unlike your assumption, I liked the film and perhaps appreciated it far more than most people who quickly wrote it off. My post was addressing why Watchmen failed at the box office and I believe that came down to marketing, not the story itself. It’s interesting how you quickly disregard the marketing for the film when it is crucial to any film’s success. Most people not familiar with the graphic novel went in expecting one thing and came out with another. WB built the film up to be an action film of sorts and people went in expecting that but they quickly realized it was far from an action film.

  12. @ LordThanos X

    Where on earth in my post did I state that Watchmen was SUCKED because it was not Spider Man or Batman?

  13. @ prototype

    Did you post saying anything about liking it. and I don’t think the marketing was the issue

  14. Then we agree to disagree.

  15. ok

  16. I disagree with the premise that fanboys of the book tend to love the movie. As such a fanboy, knowing what could have been just made me more disgusted with the stiff acting, the poor pacing, and the lousy billboard dialogue of this expensive, glowing blue lump. Regardless of the R-rating, the familiarity or unfamiliarity with the graphic novel, or for chrissakes the blue willy (really?), the box office dived because Watchmen is a bad movie.

  17. You obviously have never read The Spirit if you think that film followed the source material closely or faithfully.

    Watchmen was the unfilmable graphic novel and this was proven in the awful photocopy job they attempted in the film.

    Honestly, Hollywood can stay out of the comic book film business forever. The saying is always, “the book is always better”. It is true of novels and short stories and it is true with the comics.

  18. I can’t speak for sin city, but to me the difference between 300 and watchmen is obvious. Watchmen is nearly 400 pages long, while 300 is less than 100.
    That means when adapting 300, there was room to include everything from the comic plus padding to make it work better as a movie.
    A true watchmen ‘comic book film’ would be like 8 hours long. The version we were given was almost 3 hours long and still left out half the source material. So ironically, by trying to be so faithful he has stripped the comic down to a hollow shell of what it was. It looked like watchmen, but it didn’t feel like watchmen. It was missing the spirit of the comic, because we didn’t have enough information and time to absorb all the characters and events that shaped the watchmen world. Most importantly, we didn’t get to absorb the politically charged climate. It didn’t have that sense of impending doom that was so important to the source. Basically what I’m saying is, watchmen can’t me made into a shot for shot adaptation because it’s way too long. Snyder tried anyway, and what we got was half a film.
    To adapt watchmen successfully, it would have to be rewritten, ala V for Vendetta. That movie worked because it took the basic plot, characters, and ideas of the comic and wrote a movie around them. So as different as the film was, it still had the spirit of the comic. I had all the same reactions and emotions while watching as I did while reading. And the ending was just as satisfying, if not more.

    Also it should be noted that neither watchmen nor v for vendetta had narration like 300, which greatly eases the transfer from novel to film. Another thing to consider is pacing. Scenes that play perfectly in panels can often seem long and drawn out on film. That’s why its so important to rewrite an adaptation like watchmen. You have to play to the strengths of your medium, so when that medium changes, so must the story.

    For what its worth, I think watchmen would have worked great as a 12 part HBO miniseries, provided it had the budget. Then they could make a true shot for shot adaptation with no changes or omissions, and retain the feel of a serial stroy.

  19. Watchmen has moments of brilliance, but succumbs to mediocrity too often and this becomes frustrating for the audience. It entangles the viewers with strong characters but fails to deliver a strong conclusion. The movie is nearly 3 hours long but it did not have 3 hours worth of material. It could have, but Snyder decided it was more important to spend nearly a minute zooming out from a tombstone. In the end, I think Alan Moore was right. A graphic novel by its very nature is able to do things which can not be translated onto the big screen, or they can if you want unintended comedic or implausible moments. On paper, Watchmen is brilliant, on film, it’s just another comic book movie.

  20. Firstly I don’t think Watchmen has killed the Comic Book Movie wave or even the R-Rated comic book movie for that matter. I can honestly say that if they make Terminator Salvation PG-13 it will be a let down on some level. I’ve never read the graphic novel of Watchmen so I went as a “newbie” if you will when I watched it, but I did read a quick overview on Wikipedia (yes I know this is not the same as reading the whole graphic novel), so I wasn’t completely blind by events of the film, but I must admit when I first saw the trailer I was interested because it appeared to be an R-rated super hero movie, and because it looked cool. I thought the plot was good, and direction, but it was still lacking. I don’t really agree that films should be made specifically for fanboys that are going to be released to the general public, and Im glad for the most part they are not, because lets face it most of the revenue is coming from the the general movie watcher public as far as films are concerned.

  21. i actually thought watchmen was a good movie. i dont know what people are on about saying that its a crap movie.

  22. ummmm…. isnt this film about the Rolex watch company?

  23. The movie was awesome. I have yet to see another movie that came close to it. The dark knight was also close, but watchmen blew me away. If you disagree, than you should not watch movies.

  24. The movie was awesome. I have yet to see another movie that came close to it. The dark knight was also close, but watchmen blew me away. If you disagree, than you should not watch movies.

  25. Never before have I seen such painstaking adherence to the original comic as here. The opening scene was just like the comic. Perhaps Hollywood is beginning to use the comic medium and test market before spending millions in production. The recent advent of Motion Comics that can be bought on iTunes for $1.99 shows that if anything Hollywood in the future will rely increasingly on the integrity of the comic styled storyboard, but will seek to control this medium too. Already a vital part of preproduction is the act of publishing the printed comic. It’s no coincidence that DC Comics, for example, share the same parent as Warner Films. In the futue comics will be moulded in Hollywood’s image, and will be the precursor to the film.