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part of a small rebellion | by maryann johanson

question of the day: Why is ‘Watchmen’ crashing and burning?

The preliminary weekend box office numbers are in, and it doesn’t look good for Watchmen: after a so-so opening last weekend of $55 million, the movie dropped like a stone this weekend, taking in only an estimated $18 million… a plunge of 67 percent, which is pretty much a death knell for a flick.

I’ll cover the box office in full later today, once the actual numbers come in, but in the meantime: Am I the only one with a broken heart here? Why is Watchmen crashing and burning?

(If you have a suggestion for a QOTD, feel free to email me.)

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  • Honestly, as much as I do like the film, I don’t think it’s as great as the fans think it is (at least in its theatrical cut form). The content is all there, but I would say the second and third act get hobbled by some odd directorial choices and compressed transitions (maybe cut for time). Which is a shame because the first act is nearly flawless.

  • David

    Well it seems to me that the mainstream audience (ie those who haven’t read the novel) had expectations that were downright wrong. Most people I have talked to either saw it and hated it because they were expecting an action packed comic book extravaganza or were told not to see it from people in the first category.

    I don’t think there was any way to avoid this, how do advertisers handle a movie that is a “Comic Book Movie”(tm) and also has heavy handed symbolism and social commentary?

  • Ryan

    I enjoyed it, although I think some of the philosophical musings and slightly verbose dialogue choices worked much better in the graphical novel then on the screen…but it’s quite obvious to me why it’s not doing well at the Box Office.

    1) It’s a hard R, not PG-13. And that hard R is partly for sex, which because Americans are strange folks is more off-putting than the graphic violence. In either case, you are losing a lot of the ‘Lord of the Rings’ audience here. And rightfully so, I read the graphic novel…if I had a 14 year old kid I would take em to LotR or Batman…I wouldn’t take them to this, probably.

    2)It’s an intelligent movie that has a quirky premise and asks you to think. Judging by the numbers on ‘Taken’ asking the audience to think is a mistake.

    3)It’s 3 hours long. I’m sorry, but that has to discourage repeat viewing in theaters unless your movie is brilliant…and this movie was just quite good. I can wait for DVD to get a second crack at it, and I hope by then there will be a directors cut.

    4)The film does have problems…for example Malin Akerman is absolutely terrible. The ending doesn’t technically make sense anymore. Every scene with Richard Nixon could have been cut. Filming a sex scene to the Hallelujah score, even if you’re TRYING to be funny, sort of breaks the mood of the film. (Maybe on purpose, who knows)

    5) The obvious, which is that comic book material like Spiderman and Batman just have much larger readership than Watchmen…and so you need less word of mouth to put people into the theaters.

    A combination of all of this is the reason why the movie is suffering. The same thing happened to Firefly, which also had a devoted fan following (including me) but couldn’t quite cross over into the mainstream.

    If they are patient, they will sell a gazillion DVDs.

  • Ryan H

    I suspect that the angry parents-with-kids factor is doing big harm. I’ve seen it twice now, and both times there were a few parents/grandparents with their young kids in the theater waiting for the movie to start. A few people even approached them to make sure they were in the right theater. In each case, they had stormed out within 20 or 30 minutes of the film start. I assume most of them asked for their money back and I can’t imagine they gave a good review to their friends.

    The studio has done an awful job advertising the movie for what it is, rather than just showing the types of shots that make the advertising department hot and bothered.

  • The studio has done an awful job advertising the movie for what it is, rather than just showing the types of shots that make the advertising department hot and bothered.

    This sort of thing seems to happen a fair amount; Marketing sees a different movie than actually exists. I realize the idea is that they think people won’t “get” the concept of a film if its advertised honestly so they present it in a different (i.e. misleading) light, yet what so often seems to happen is that it backfires on them. The ads don’t draw an audience that WOULD appreciate the real movie, but instead leave a lot of those who do buy tickets disappointed from not getting what they signed up for.

    I’m only a casual observer of this rather than someone who looks at the box office returns, so if I may add in another question for those who might have more insight: Does this sort of scheme work more often than it backfires, or is Marketing just kidding themselves?

  • Bill

    Come on! Matisse and Picasso already did their “Blue Nude”(s). Do you really think a movie will improve on them?

  • cinecat

    Seconding what David and Ryan said. Also, maybe a recession isn’t the best time for a dark movie about comic book characters that nobody outside of literary/geek/comic circles is really all that aware of. The masses aren’t going to watch something challenging or new–they’d much rather watch dumb comedies or remakes.

    If you were to do a survey of the people I know who’ve seen it, you’d find that those who weren’t familiar with the comic weren’t that impressed, citing a need for more action. But of the ones who’d read the comic, you’d find the response ranges from “okay movie, but still not totally necessary” to “It is two days from now and I am seeing Watchmen again.” Pity that there’s a lot more of the former than the latter.

  • This movie is simply GREAT !!!
    Is crashing and burning simply because the audience isn’t getting it.
    It’s happened to a lot of movie in the past, like 2001: A space odissey, or Blade Runner, to name two masterpiece that went really bad at box-office at the first release.

    Here in Italy the plunge was of 50% more or less, but I wasn’t expecting anything else.

    The truth is that Watchmen is kind of a Sundance movie with superhero, or a Big Chill with people wearing odd costumes, and there’s a really little audience for this kind of movie nowadays

  • JT

    It’s only bombing in context of its budget, which is far too high. $120 million + $50 million in marketing is ridiculous for a 160 minute R-rated movie based on an underground graphic novel. Blame TPTB, not the American public. Plus, it’s a fairly awful movie so word of mouth is terrible, even among those who wanted to see this.

  • My theories:

    1. The fan base for the original wasn’t half as big as the movie’s producers thought it was. (Same problem as Serenity.)

    2. It wasn’t exactly the type of movie that made people think “gee, I gotta see that again.”

    3. The one part that was worth viewing repeatedly–the opening credits–is available online.

    4. A recession is hardly the ideal time to release a movie that tells people life is terrible.

    5. The movie is hardly as flawless as its supporters think it is. (Especially toward the end.)

    6. Its detractors outnumbered its admirers.

    7. It was too intellectual for the typical superhero crowd and not intellectual enough for the art-film crowd.

    8. Its most memorable plot twist was already used on Heroes.

    9. A lot of would-be fans honored Alan Moore’s wishes in regard to the film.

    10. MaryAnn didn’t buy enough tickets.

  • Also, maybe a recession isn’t the best time for a dark movie about comic book characters that nobody outside of literary/geek/comic circles is really all that aware of. The masses aren’t going to watch something challenging or new–they’d much rather watch dumb comedies or remakes.

    Oops! Didn’t mean to repeat cinecat. Especially since his first sentence summed my sentiment much more efficiently. Mea culpa. Mea maxima culpa.

    However, if we’re going to start talking smack about how it’s all the dumb masses’ fault for not appreciating the same things we do, it only seems fair to repeat the old Heinlein cliche about how every writer–and by extension, every screenwriter and film director–is competing with Joe for his beer money–and Joe loves his beer. Or wine. Or popcorn. Whatever.

    Granted, some feminists would argue that the director did his damnedest to woo that Joe at the expense of Josephine. So maybe that’s why the movie failed…

  • Chris

    I’m not suprised:

    1.) Split reviews. Top critics were not too sold on this movie. Now to be fair, they have never been sold on one of his movies, but just saying it doesnt hurt to have them on your side

    2.) Unlike 300, this is a very political movie. Yes there are a couple of references to politics in 300, but those are the politics of an ancient civilization. Here we are dealing with America (an alternate America). The film shows that basically if Richard Nixon was President we would end up at doomsday. Not something some people want to hear

    3.Unlike the other DC comic book hero movies there isnt one character the general public knows or will care about going into the film. That means unless those coming out of the initial screenings hype up someone, you’re dead in the water. Some folks hated Rorschach’s narration. Others didnt really care for Billy Crudups light voice or his nudity (as accurate as it is) and while there is nothing to hate about Nite Owl there really isnt much to love about him either. The rest of the characters just dont have enough screen time to do deliver this effect on the audience. 300 achieved this effect on the audience within 10 minutes of the start of the film and never lost it. People raved about certain scenes all over the internet and after that the movie blew up.

    4.It’s three hours. And there are parts where it drags. You dont remember how great the first 15 minutes of a movie are if the next 30 minutes seem like a never ending death march. This movie had that effect at times.

    5. It’s R-Rated. Anytime you have an R-Rated film it’s an added risk. Original and second Matrix do great, third one makes half there amounts. It’s an added risk and its why Batman, Superman, and Spidey alway are PG-13

    6. It’s a really dark movie. Dark movies are harder to sell. You need to beleive that these characters have a chance and that the side of good will prevail. 300 is dark and gritty but there is always a light of belief that these guys can pull it out and that Sparta can be saved. In this movie it looks like doom is coming and with the way the majority of the heroes of have acted, can you blame Dr. Manhattan for not wanting to save it?

    I think all things considered Watchmen has actually done a pretty decent job. It will make more than V for Vendetta and possibly Ghost Rider. Thats not bad especially for a comic such as this. At least this movie didnt have a scene where a young boy sings to cows to prevent them from running off a cliff….

  • JT, it is hardly an underground comic. It is published by the mainstream comic giant DC. Plus it made Time’s 100 all time greatest novels list in 2005, and Entertainment Weekly’s best 50 novels of the past 25 years (note, that both of these is “novels” not “graphic-novels”) It has never been out of print – admittedly a choice DC has made to keep it as their property, but it still means they continue to sell enough annually to never let it drop from their catalog.

    I firmly lay the blame in two areas. The recession, as has been stated. This film has been in development since the late ’80s (I’ve had the script since ’89) and finally being released was a big deal – but it’s hard to predict an economic climate that is unfavorable for this kind of film until it happens. The other, as has also been mentioned, is marketing. There have been far too many films that have been completely mismarketed, and Watchmen is just another in the long line. If studios would only realize that tricking the public into seeing a movie will not help. The only people to benefit from this is the theatres, as they will still get the snack bar revenues even when the public demand their ticket refund. If it had been marketed correctly, there would not have been this backlash against the film. There might have been a higher female to male ratio (especially in the blue-dork admiring demographic.) Of course, if the movie going public would do a little research before they go – like “Why is it R rated?”, “What’s the story about?” and “How long is it” (and we’re not talking about Dr. Manhattan again…) – then there might not be mismarketing would not be a problem.

  • Jim Mann

    I liked it a lot, but I also think that there are a few parts that are more violent than they need to be (and more violent than the graphic novel). A few examples:

    1. The attempting mugging of Night Owl and Silk Spectre in civilian garb. It goes on too long and is very graphic, spending too much time on gory parts.

    2. Rorschach’s sudden killing of the child predator. It was handled much better in the novel.

    3. Many scenes where the sound of people being slammed into walls, floors, tables, etc. was amped up in a way to be violent and jarring.

    I realize Watchmen has to be violent to make its point, but the director seemed to, at times, really like the violence a bit too much.


  • Alli

    I think Ryan pretty much nailed it. Also, I think it’s safe to say that 13 to 15 year olds make the movie world go round these days. Young teens can’t see this film, and therefore they can’t go back over and over again.

  • Paul

    I know that lousy marketing was why I didn’t see “Fight Club” until a friend of mine insisted we watch the DVD. I thought it would just be about a bunch of guys beating each other up, but it was so much more. All the reasons why people aren’t seeing “Watchmen” sound like good reasons to see it, actually, except for the three hour part. ;)

  • bitchen frizzy

    My 2c as a moviegoer who isn’t much of a comic book reader:

    1) The “Watchmen” comics are underground, to the broader movie audience who isn’t that interested in graphic novels – i.e., most people. I’ve heard of Superman, I’ve heard of Batman. Watchmen? Never heard of ’em. It may be the best graphic novel ever written, it may be sublime literature destined to supplant Shakespeare in centuries to come, but it’s still relatively unknown. Name recognition was NOT going to carry this film.

    2) I, Joe moviegoer, did not feel like this movie was being marketed to me. Batman movies were marketed to me. Superman movies were marketed to me. This one wasn’t. It wasn’t advertised as having mass appeal, no effort was made to explain to the masses who the fuck the Watchmen were and why we should care, and the whole advertising campaign had a sort of almost intangible “insider” angle that left people not in the know cold.

  • Mo

    Total Watchmen n00b here. I just saw the movie. I liked it. Would I watch it again? Probably not. Why? Violence. I can handle a lot but not quite that much.

    Based on my friends responses, I’d say it’s a pretty common reaction. If 3 or 4 out of five in my group had a problem, and if that ratio holds to the general public, that’s a lot of return visits that aren’t going to happen.

    Plotwise it works for someone completely unfamiliar, but I think a lot of the ideas fans talk about got lost in translation, so it’s a movie that makes you work to think about it, but doesn’t actually have enough to dwell on to be rewarding. It makes me wonder if I missed the point, and where the climax was. It makes me want to read the comic to find out what I’m missing, but not see the movie again. Again, lost return business.

    And I agree the publicity campaign was terrible. I went to see it because of all the geek fans who were excited, not because of any promos, which were just confusing and unfocused. The problem is that the geeks can’t make up their mind about it. If they had all been raving, I would have been more excited. Instead if you ask the die-hard fans what they thought, most of them will metaphorically stroke their beards and go “well,…” before dissecting it.

    Now when the Fellowship of the Ring came out, I had a million and one plot issues with it, it was very long (like Watchmen), it was violent (it could easily have been just as violent as Watchmen), it had a lumpy, chopped up plot (like Watchmen), and it was a difficult concept (get the idea yet?) but it was such a great movie that none of that mattered. I was ecstatic. I told everyone to go see it. If they asked me to geek out about the details and what I didn’t like then I would, but I would still emphasize how great a movie it was. A lot of my previously clueless friends are now Rings fans because of it.

    I’m not getting that reaction off of the Watchmen fans. I think there are enough of them so that they could have overcome some of the crappy marketing if they were into it enough, but they seem to think it’s a good movie not a great one. If it isn’t good enough for them to make up their minds, and it’s enough of an insider project that it can only really be appreciated by them, then why is anyone else going to get excited?

  • Mischief Maker

    I know some people who read the comic that say the movie is a godsend. I did not read the comic and found it merely okay.

    To be honest, with the exception of Rorschach, all the characters in this movie were undeveloped and dull. Also, the movie is full of

    Why is Dr. Manhattan losing touch with humanity now when he was cheating on his wife years ago? Why is a crowd protesting the replacement of police with masked vigilantes busy throwing molotovs and smashing cars? What’s so damned special about Silk Spectre that Dr. Manhattan compares her to a molecule of oxygen turning into gold? Why does Nixon launch the nukes when his trump card has fled to Mars? Why does Ozymandous (sp?) arrange for Manhattan to leave the planet and set off a nuclear war when the entire point of his plan is to prevent that nuclear war in the first place? And why is he better in a fight than every single other member of the Watchmen combined?

    I’ll be charitable and assume that these questions are all answered in the comic book. But frankly, as someone who didn’t grow up on comics, the central message of this movie -that comic book heroes wouldn’t function well in the real world- just isn’t that amazing a concept to me.

  • Why is Dr. Manhattan losing touch with humanity now when he was cheating on his wife years ago?

    Yes, no human being would cheat on his wife like that. ;)

  • Ryan

    “Why is Dr. Manhattan losing touch with humanity now when he was cheating on his wife years ago? Why is a crowd protesting the replacement of police with masked vigilantes busy throwing molotovs and smashing cars? What’s so damned special about Silk Spectre that Dr. Manhattan compares her to a molecule of oxygen turning into gold? Why does Nixon launch the nukes when his trump card has fled to Mars? Why does Ozymandous (sp?) arrange for Manhattan to leave the planet and set off a nuclear war when the entire point of his plan is to prevent that nuclear war in the first place? And why is he better in a fight than every single other member of the Watchmen combined?”

    Many of your questions are just wrong here. Manhatten abandoned humanity because he was hurt by the accusation that he caused cancer, and he was annoyed that people would turn on him when he was trying to help. He wanted solitude, and then found he preferred it.

    Nothing about Silk Spectre herself was important (other than that he brought her there) it’s the act of human reproduction he found miraculous…making a distinct consciousness from two very different ones.

    Nixon didn’t launch the nukes, either in the comic or the movie.

    Ozymandais doesn’t arrange a nuclear war. His plan was sort of stupid in the movie though, in the comic he (SPOILER) had the world band together against an alien threat.

    I assume Ozymandais is better in a fight because of his quickness of though and his physical speed…but that is open to interpretation.

  • I don’t know, the movie left me with the need of knowing more, by reading the novel or watching it again, which it’s not so far to happen, I think.

    But when I turned to my wife or my friend, they said definitely no to another three hours of philosophic speculation, politics commmentary and too much graphic violence.

    For me, I liked very much this characters, even if I didn’t know them before, as most people did, because I think that Watchmen -the graphic novel- is for the comics like Ulysses of James Joyce or A la Recherche du temps Perdu of Marcel Proust for literature , masterpiece that no one care to read, because they’re way too complex and boring and demanding for the average reader/audience.

    For the advertising, I think that the trailers were misleading in many ways, but for example the clip I saw were really clear about the content of the movie.
    Of course you have to listen closely to the dialogues, and not just watch it, as most people do.

  • Ryan

    The movie was made for the fans and advertised to woo the fans of the original graphic novel.

    So it did NOT do a good job crossing over to those who were not original fans of the graphic novel. And even some of those people were shied away because of Alan Moore’s dislike of the film.

    As a Watchmen virgin, I saw it and sorta liked it. The length and the “heaviness” of it all dragged down the movie for me. And again this is coming from a person who saw and liked Revolutionary Road. So that’s saying something. Then again Silk Spectre is no April Wheeler.

  • Joy

    OK. I have never read a graphic novel, yet graphic novel movies tend to be my favorite genre, if I had to pick. I don’ know why. I had no idea Watchmen would be so ‘heavy’–but I didn’t expect that either when I watched Road to Perdition (ok, maybe some idea there) and V for Vendetta (no clue it was so political).

    I happen to think Watchmen is a GREAT movie, but it fails because it requires intelligence to understand the plot. A teacher friend of mine took her 13 year old son and all his friends to it and she thought it was the worst thing ever and said she fell asleep. She was telling everyone to not watch it. I turned around and said to everyone–go watch it, but pay attention! Lots of things to think about there.

    I consider any film compelling enough for a second viewing if it makes me think about it and have conversations about it days and maybe even weeks later. I have had these sorts of conversations several times so far with other people who have seen it, so I consider it a success. Will I rent it on BluRay? yes, possibly even own it.

    I think Rorschach is one of the more interesting characters to come around in a long time. Just thought I’d add that bit.


  • jolly

    Y’know, when the Browncoats asked a similar question about “Serenity,” at least there was a sequel at stake. What wondrous future productions are hinging on the commercial success of the Watchmen? Playing along, as others have noted above in some form or other: R-rated comic book movie with unknown characters based on obscure Carleton Comics that received less than glowing reviews from the critics.

  • hoptoad

    not to talk about the 8-inch blue elephant in the room, but Dr. Manhatten’s man-goodies waving around on screen elicited A LOT of groans from the packed theatre i saw it in. I LOVED the graphic novel, and really enjoyed the film, but the subject matter here is dark and mature. And too “graphic” (its like a pun, see!) for Judy soccer mom being dragged in by her 12 year old. If this had been released when i was 12, My mom would stormed out, Burned my copy of the comic and told all my friends parents to never let their kids see this.

    the point is the film crosses a lot of lines. just as it should, that was the point of the graphic novel. Sadly, the gossip train isn’t ready to cross those lines with it.

  • Joy

    This was on youtube…a conversation between Dr. Manhattan and Wolverine. It fits perfectly with these comments:


  • drew ryce

    Thank you Joy. That was hilarious. I agree, says it all.

    Next perhaps we’ll have something like this but with Batman consoling Rorschach:


  • Misleading advertising and intellectual density aside, I think that the main problem with the movie may be that the story just isn’t as compelling to people who grew up after the cold war ended.

    Watchmen is the story of Batman confronting nuclear holocaust, and finding himself (literally) impotent in the face of it. Watchmen is the story of the smartest man in the world confronting the world’s hardest problem and making what he deems to be a horribly necessary choice.

    But, only a few years after the book was written, the cold war ended all by itself. MAD worked, Nuclear Armageddon, the thing we most feared from the 50s through the 80s, never happened. No mentally unstable super-geniuses required to fix it.

    There are still all sorts of interesting things in the movie. The interweaving of patriotism and conservatism and institutional violence, the cruel face and bloody consequences of Rorschach’s brand of morality, the world-saving consequences of the others’ hypocrisy … but these are all hung around the central narrative of a looming nuclear war, and that isn’t the central narrative of our world anymore.

    Global Warming is a “eat your veggies or someday you might get cancer” sort of threat — scary, but the consequences are still a few decades off. Domestic terrorism is more immediately scary to people, but it’s something that vigilante underwear perverts could conceivably handle. Batman can beat up the terrorists lurking in your basement; they aren’t nearly as overwhelming and important a problem as total species annihilation.

    You could write a hundred incisive stories about the sad consequences of our security paranoia, of our modern Witch hunts, and about the difficulty our species has confronting long-term threats like Global Warming, and you could write those stories in the context of our culture’s obsession with underwear perverts. But Watchmen isn’t that story. Not anymore.

  • hdj

    Its the Alien Illuminati, they dont wont people seeing movies like this, its got little tabs that can uncover their mind controlling ways.

  • Paul

    I think the consequences of Global Warming are here right now, with the hurricanes becoming more common and stronger, and the steadily warming annual averages. Sure, Florida, Holland, and Shanghai won’t be underwater for another decade, if that’s what you mean by long term consequences, but New Orleans isn’t long term. It’s here and gone. I suspect that’s why there so little reconstruction effort. It’s like building a sand castle on the beach.

    But your (as in Patch’s) greater point, that a movie about Superman flying around putting Bat-anti-smog devices on factories wouldn’t be much of a movie, I do agree with.

  • Jacob

    I’ve been a fan of the graphic novel for years, and I loved the movie (looking forward to the directors cut!). Granted, I didn’t think it was perfect, but no movie is. In fact, I’d like to see it again very much, but I won’t because:

    1. I have to drive a good half hour to get to a theater, and,
    2. When I get there, I have to pay $7.50.

    The other issue is that with any movie that’s become this controversial, it’s going to lead to splits in opinions even among friends. I do know people who liked it; but I also have close friends who hated it (some for the violence, some because they were expecting a movie more along the lines of The Dark Knight, and some because they couldn’t pay attention long enough to follow the plot). Ultimately, Watchmen just wasn’t made for the masses; no wonder they aren’t supporting it.

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