Comic Fodder

Watching the Box Office

Great news! There will be no Watchmen sequel.

One of the most-feared consequences of a successful movie was the prospect of doing another one just like it. Studios have long since developed the strategy of releasing a movie, and then salivating over the results to rinse and repeat. Comedies tend to settle for just one sequel, but for action and sci-fi movies, the studios build in plans almost from day one for the possibility of a trilogy (to the embarrassment of the people behind Jumper, as you can tell from the behind-the-scenes portion of the DVD). Considering the furor over whether to make Watchmen into a movie in the first place, the idea of doing more with it in movie format was definitely heresy of the greatest order.

Luckily, the film is crashing and burning in theatres. Last week I went over the upper box office predictions, and $170 million seemed to be the highest. Turns out that word of mouth has taken effect, and for its second weekend, the box office haul dropped a whopping 67%. Pardon me for my ill-concealed glee; it's not that I wanted Watchmen to perform this poorly, but given Hollywood's proclivities for beating something to death as soon as it hints at profitability, I do have to applaud the demise of any sequel-talk. This ensures that the only mangling that will be done to this cool story will be restricted to the movie itself (and their attempts at "adding stuff back in" for the DVDs). This reinforces my belief that the movie was not accessible to the mainstream movie audience, who most likely expected something closer to the Dark Knight (I'll be writing more about that tomorrow).

The spin-meisters were out in full force, with Jeff Goldstein claiming that the movie would have "tremendous staying power."

Uh, no.

Jeff Goldstein is in charge of Warner Brothers' domestic distribution, and you would think he would know better than to say something like this. A movie that drops 67% in its second weekend does not have ANY staying power. My cautious prediction of $150 million for its full run has already dropped due to the updated numbers. At first, I thought I wouldn't be writing about this again until June or July, but the abrupt fall-off of receipts caused me to recalculate. We're looking at closer to $100 million for its first month in theatres; it's easy to follow what the market thinks the movie will do at HSX. For its full-length run, you're only going to add a few million onto that, meaning the max the movie can make is $120 million, a full $30 million less than my initial prediction. That's a big drop.

This is not staying power. This is, technically, a disaster. Not for the fans, mind you, and not necessarily for comics. Sales of the Watchmen graphic novel shot through the roof before the movie even came out, and it's been breaking records ever since. The positive effect has already been felt, and more people have been exposed to comics in general, and the great Watchmen story in its original format in particular. The only downside is that the poor performance of the movie indicates it did not go over well with the general population, and subsequent word of mouth might discourage the rest of the audience (who have not already rush-ordered their own copy of the book) from checking it out in the original format.

No, the disaster is that a movie that cost $150 million, marketing that cost around $50 million, and miscellaneous charges that always seem to add a million or two to the final tally, won't make its money back until after DVD sales, and the profit will not amount to much. I'm not sure what color the sky is on Jeff Goldstein's planet, but this is not a movie with any kind of staying power, and the box office verdict may actually hurt the DVD sales too. You want staying power? Try the movie Taken, which only debuted at $24.7 million, but has proven to be a sleeper hit. A great action movie with Liam Neeson, it is still in theatres seven weeks later, and it was actually the third highest grossing movie this weekend! It has pulled in almost $127 million and it still has juice. That. Mr. Goldstein, is staying power. It will definitely do better than Watchmen by the time both movies are finished with their respective theatrical runs. Contrary to the studio's official response, this was not "in line with other tent-pole movies," unless you are dwelling in the bottom of that particular pile. This is a classic case of front-loading, and there is no upside for the studio as of this weekend. Did the relatively new use of Twitter have any impact?

There is an upside to the fans, though. If Watchmen had been more successful, there would have been a serious discussions about developing the property further. Oh, there are a couple of people even now tossing the idea around, but that's just a case of 'what if.' In reality, there is no justification for a sequel, which is just the way we wanted it. So as much as we were hopeful that the film translation would do the subject justice, and as badly as comic book readers want movie treatments to do well, in this particular case we are just as happy to have things turn out this way.

Before the weekend, a Wired article put out the idea that Watchmen's "cult status" (as if we were part of some cult over this), plus the increased comic sales might help propel it towards profitability. Wired must have put out two dozen articles on Watchmen over the past month, so their objectivity is in doubt. It's hard to remember what subject they have covered more in such a short time frame. As a matter of fact, they actually cite the hype of the marketing as something else that could inflate box office receipts, as if oblivious to the fact that they are a full partner in the hype themselves. Someone needs to inform them that the very definition of a "cult movie" is a movie that does not do well at the box office, but develops a small, loyal following anyway. Cult movies tend to do well on DVD, but not in the theatre itself. See the X-Files or Harold and Kumar sequels for recent examples. Treating comic fans as one big cult does not lend itself to a movie translation, and the writer is mixing his terms between the two formats.

Anyway, no matter what the compromised websites hyping the movie declare, no matter how the studio heads try to twist the facts until they can make a rosy statement, the fact is this movie is doing the equivalent of a crash-and-burn. The Wired comparison should not be the latest Batman movie, but rather the first Hulk movie. They even try to call Race to Witch Mountain a lightweight, but guess what? That lightweight was the number one movie this weekend.

There have been a large number of comments from people who loved the movie, and from people who detested the movie. The comments to which I have paid attention concern the reviewers who tried to treat the movie like the traditional comic book idea, and the non-comics audience that did not "get it." Even worse, I am losing track of the number of times someone online tries to claim that this movie is a good example of how comics have "grown up," and how this might pave the way for more "adult" features involving superheroes. Please.

One, the reviewers who complain about how lame the heroes are compared to what they expected have no clue. They do not understand that the entire point of Nite Owl II was to emphasize that he is dumpy and out of shape, and not necessrily a hero one would want to emulate. Tons of reviewers were awake enough to realize that these characters did not look or act in the exact same way as what they have seen before, but they chose to seize upon that fact as what they thought would be a valid criticism, instead of understanding that these people were portrayed this way for a reason, and there might be something worthy of examination there.

Two, regular movie-goers had trouble following every aspect of the plot, or following every detail, and they made sure to tell people that after the movie. I had to explain a few things to others during and after the movie. This simple fact may have had the biggest effect on the
movie's drop-off. It also serves as notice that perhaps there were significant enough problems in translating this work from comic to movie, proving that a film treatment was always going to have inherent limits. Alan Moore's position may be more readily understood now, that the work was designed as a comic for a reason, and a movie is just not the place for it, and you can't even fully explain it in the format, not entirely, and the whole boondoggle was just a way to make people more money.

Three, the original intent of Watchmen was not to make people graft "adult" themes onto comic book characters in an attempt to make them relevant or substantive enough to take their place alongside books, movies, and Broadway. The original intent of Watchmen was to showcase the possiblities of the comic art form, to inspire people to think about doing more with the format, and the story content was designed to warn against the desirabilitiy of anyone ever doing stuff like this in real life by highlighting the negative aspects of each one. I mean really, did anyone read Watchmen and want to become the Comedian, shooting pregnant women? Did anyone subscribe to the beliefs of Ozymandias, and agree that nuking an entire city could be rationalized as "for the greater good?" Did anyone feel jealous of Nite Owl for his inability to perform, and his flabby stomach? Did anyone really want to take Rorschach's place, as an uncompromising, morally questionable, slightly insane crusader whose dedication to his belief system would cost him his life? The story was supposed to make you stop and think, and question the prospect of what life could be like if aspects of it spilled over into real life (for a similar theme, check out the excellent Wild Card book series). It was a commentary that was supposed to emphasize how undesirable all of this could be.

That final fact does not necessarily mean anything. Watchmen has been misunderstood by most of the world anway, primarily in the comic world where it has lived. The plethora of "dark" comics that came out immediately after Watchmen and The Dark Knight Returns served to illustrate exactly how backwards comic publishers, writers and artists, took the meaning of the stories. Is it really any wonder that the popcorn movie audience did not grasp the meaning in this arguably inappropriate format? Considering how poorly the land of comics books understood the meaning, I could easily conclude that the movie-goers actually had no chance.

In light of the misunderstanding from the start, and the inability of the film version to properly convey its most essential elements, one might be tempted to conclude this has all been a failure. Quite the contrary. True, the film is dropping fast, and executives are busy pretending it's all good news. In the long run, though, the film will recoup its costs and make a tiny profit; more people will be reading Watchmen;

...and there will definitely be no sequel. Watch me being content.
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Tpull is Travis Pullen. He started reading comics at 5 years old, and he can't seem to stop.

The sad reality is, this may tank other comic book movies coming out of the DC pages anytime soon, and that would be sad.

-- Posted by: Matches Malone at March 17, 2009 11:27 AM

Possibly. After all, the WB studio execs are as nervous as a bunch of cats and seem to always draw the wrong conclusions based on evidence available.

I think its more likely that they'll point to a recent hit like Dark Knight and say "okay, Dark Knight adult themes and 'dark' is as far as we can go. Let us stick to what we know for our next film. This Green Lantern fellow seems to not be too complicated..."

Superhero movies have been too much of a cash cow to think that there's no profit in them. Its just got to stick within a certain realm of audience expectation which Watchmen was never going to do.

-- Posted by: Ryan at March 17, 2009 12:41 PM

I have been saying publicly for years -- literally for years -- that Watchmen shouldn't be made into a movie. Some works exist in a perfect medium and simply shouldn't be translated into a different medium. In fact, some can't be.

There's literally no way to capture the brilliance of Charlie Chaplin or Jackie Chan on the page. You have to see them move in order for their art to be understood. Watchmen is the same way: as a tale deconstructing comic books, its perfect medium has always been the comic book. By making it into a movie, no matter how faithful that movie might be, you lose an entire layer of meaning that makes the story a classic.

Combine that with the fact that this is, at best, a niche property, and it's difficult to see how this could be either a popular smash or a critical darling. Which, as it turns out, is exactly what's happened.

-- Posted by: Trike at March 17, 2009 9:54 PM

I think the Watchmen film was nearly the best possible feature adaptation that could have been made given the source material, and I take my hat off to Zach Snyder for that. Whether the film should or should not have been made is another issue, but that question is almost irrelevant. A Watchmen film was going to be made, one way or another, and I think fans should be appreciative of what Snyder did with the material. After all, it could have been handed over to someone who didn't care or understand the novel in the first place. I don't see Snyder as an uncaring exploiter, but rather a caring fan of the source who was willing to take some criticism in order to protect something he loved from those who don't care about it, and would turn it into something far worse than him. As for commercial success, the novel had the advantage that nobody knew what it was when it came out; it wasn't hyped up to be the greatest thing since sliced bread, it was just another comic, there to be discovered. Secondly, a film critical of superheros loses some of its relevance in the face of TDK. It's easy to lose sight of exactly what Watchmen is being critical of when it isn't compared to the likes of Fantastic Four Rise of the Silver Surfer or Spiderman 3. Audiences instead compare its criticalness to Dark Knight, another film heavily laced with a pathological view of heroes and villains, which raises similar questions about the nature of good and evil, the pitfalls of heroism, and the place of establishment and individuals in combating societies problems. It's hard to understand from that context what Watchmen is being critical of in superhero films; or even why it needs to be critical of it in the first place. Third, moviegoers don't go to superhero films looking for art. For that matter, I can't think of a single film off the top of my head with a strongly nonlinear narrative structure that has been very commercially successful in any genre. It takes too much attention and thought, and heaven forbid you might need to see it more than once to really get it. Obviously if a film goes over the viewers head it must be the films fault, and not the short sightedness of viewer. There's many more kinds of success than box office sales and critical success. If critics understood what makes good films so well, they'd be filmmakers and not critics. Most critics who have given negative reviews have essentially stated it was too much like to graphic novel. This must be bad as opposed to what exactly? NOT being like the novel, one of the most significant pieces of 20th century American literature, that your film is based on? Even including the context of ticket sales and critical response, I think Watchmen still marked many more successes than failures, and I think in time, Watchmen's regard will go up amongst viewers in the wake of Spiderman 4, fantastic four 3, ghost rider 2, green lantern and Thor when those films fail to attract the regard of TDK. In the grand scheme, the time was right in American cinema for a film critical of conventions and concepts of superhero films, just as the novel was critical of comics. Unfortunately for Snyder and co, I think that film was Dark Knight. Watchmen came in a day late and a dollar short.

-- Posted by: Charles at March 18, 2009 10:00 PM