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Why Didn’t People Watch the Watchmen?

So, the details on the Watchmen DVD and Blu Ray are officially out. Warner Brothers is going to make us double-dip for an Ultimate Edition near Christmas, but Snyder is assuring us that it will likely be just a vanilla release – so we best get buying now! (As if Warner Brothers won’t be releasing a hideously overpriced box set.) Anyway, the real news for me was that Watchmen: The Director’s Cut is getting a limited theatrical run in the United States and the United Kingdom. I’ve emailed Cineworld to see if there will be a screening in Dublin, but I’m not holding my breath. Anyway, as Watchmen returns to the cinema, I thought I’d take the time to ponder what went ‘wrong’ during the film’s initial release?

The many many copies of Watchmen coming to you on Blu Ray and DVD...

The many many copies of Watchmen coming to you on Blu Ray and DVD...

The cinematic run of Watchmen was not a by-the-numbers disaster in the way that most media outlets have seized upon it as. $55 million isn’t be sneezed at. It beat Terminator: Salvation ($42m) and Land of the Lost ($28m), while being a niche comic book film and an adult niche comic book film at that. It was never going to compete with The Dark Knight, but it did manage to match Superman Returns ($52m), so surely matching DC’s second most popular character should count for something? Alas, with a massive budget and bucket-loads of hype, it just wasn’t enough. What went wrong? Well, Zach Snyder has some ideas:

We made $55million on our opening weekend and everybody was like, ‘Oh that’s too bad.’ And then Night at the Museum made $58million and everyone was like ‘Hey, it’s a box office bonanza!’ I was like, ‘Really? REALLY? A PG-13 movie about some kids in a frickin’ museum and they make a few million more than us and that’s awesome?’ Maybe it’s just sour grapes, but I felt like it was a little bit personal. … “Not to be snobby or anything, but I think the movie (Watchmen) asks a lot of the viewer. It’s not ‘entertaining’ in the classic sense of the word. That’s just a fact. It’s not an action film, it’s not a comedy. Dramas are not hot right now, and no one wants to see a dramatic superhero movie. It’s inherent in the material. I was kind of surprised by how excited everyone was getting at the time of release, because I always knew the movie was particular. I knew there were [only] certain people who would say ‘This is awesome.’

– Zack Snyder

Is he right? I think he’s hit a lot of the bases there. it isn’t a popcorn film, but it was marketed as such. It was never going to be embraced by the mainstream, but it was turned into a cinematic event. I don’t love the film (though it is better than I thought it would be it seems… unnecessary, for lack of a better word), but it certainly deserved better treatment than its getting. I do think that there is one element that Snyder has probably thought about, but is afraid to discuss. That was the fan reaction to the movie.

The vast majority of Star Trek fans were able to adjust to the massive changes the latest movie made to their continuity. Sure, there were complaints, but they were relatively minor. Every time a superhero comes to the screen, the fans band together for the release and wait to bicker about the film afterwards. The fans of Harry Potter embrace the movies, for the most part – despite changes it makes to the work. The mainstream doesn’t base all its assumptions upon these fanbases, but it watches them out of the corner of its eye. If fans of the work don’t want to see the movie, then why should someone with no interest. I’m not talking about legitimate debate and discussion on the movie and fair criticism – everyone is entitled to their opinion. It just got very bitter very quick. On both sides.

And, of course, those critical of the film and who think it shouldn’t have been made will claim it as a victory. I don’t pretend that the film measures up to Alan Moore’s seminal graphic novel, but what most other fandoms realise is that a rising tide lifts all franchise boats. That’s why Batman comics sell well when The Dark Knight smashes records, or why Paramount re-masters The Original Series off the back of the new movie. The Watchmen graphic novel did get a bit of publicity in the run up to the film, but the perceived failure has nipped that in the bud. I don’t think it was fair or smart for David Hayter to plead with fans to go and see the movie several times – that couldn’t have helped convince the mainstream that the Watchmen universe was worth their time. It makes me a little uneasy that the screenwriter felt he had to beg fans of the work to support it – it makes me feel even more uneasy that he was evidently right.

It wasn’t a perfect film. I doubt any release will make it a perfect film. It was a film that had ideas, albeit shrouded amid an overly stylish direction. It’s core was that of the book, despite an overly melodramatic coating applied. And fans of the book do owe Zack Snyder a debt, though some are hesitant to admit it. Imagine the movie in the hands of Brett Ratner, or using the original Sam Hamm script (which had Moore’s blessing, by the way) and tell me that the adaptation could have been any better. Unfortunately there was always going to be a movie (as Hollywood can’t let such things stand alone as perhaps they deserve to), and we got a pretty good one. It’s not perfect, but it’s a hell of a lot better than most of the other films out there.

2 Responses

  1. I’m quite surprised The Watchmen didn’t do as well as it should. The movie was well worth the $11 movie going experience…it would be sad not experience that thumping sound and stunning visual barrage.

    The DVD set will most likely be pushed pretty hard come Christmas time, and I don’t doubt it’ll be in a lot of stockings.

  2. […] These are aspects of the film which only make sense to someone who has read the novel that inspired the work. To take two recent examples, the response of those who read Revolutionary Road was staunchly different from the reaction of the general viewing public. The general public (including myself) saw a depressing and soul-destroying exploration of the numbing effect of suburbia, whereas those who read the book (including my girlfriend) saw the softened edges and the sapped potential. Our roles were reversed for Watchmen, where she saw a sodding mess of an overly-complex and self-absorbed film and I saw a flawed but noble attempt to pay homage to one of the greatest graphic novels of all time. Admittedly there were really three camps when it came to Watchmen: those who hadn’t read the book and were confused, those who read the book and appreciated the attempt to transfer it screen, and those who read the book and believed it should have stayed on the printed page. But I’ve already aired my views on that. […]

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