Right now, it’s the studio’s only concern. The film has been completed, the marketing has been revved up, the press has been invited and the (so far mixed) reviews are starting to pour in. Years ago, a pan from someone like Roger Ebert or Pauline Kael might have meant something. In past decades, bad buzz (or in the opposite, unstoppable hype) could have helped predict the upcoming scenario. But Warner Brothers - with a little forced legal cooperation from FOX - are now playing the waiting game. They are gauging the media, deciphering the focus group cues and messageboard clues. They are baiting geek nation and hoping that the critical clique will take the hook and run like Hell. Watchmen is poised to be the first real ‘event’ film of 2009, and its time to crunch the all-crucial numbers.
That’s right; it’s all down to numbers now. Box office returns. Butts in seats. Watchmen may be a fine entertainment, or a stunning piece of visual art (or both…hint, hint), but the bottom line is just that - the reason for the film’s existence. FOX didn’t run to their local civil courthouse to complain about aesthetics. The studio who apparently passed on the film several times wasn’t crying over spilt special effects? No, they sensed a potential cash cow and wanted to make sure to get a bit of the cream for themselves. If the movie doesn’t make back it’s budget, it will be seen as a full blown failure, no matter how it functions as cinema. If it only makes a couple of hundred million, it will stand in line along with The Incredible Hulk, X-Men, and other “not Dark Knight” successes.
So who will be there come Friday morning (or in some instances, Thursday midnight)? Fans will surely be some of the first in line, their thirst for anything Alan Moore and the Minutemen almost unquenchable. For them, this is more than niche. For them, this is the answer to a prayer long genuflected over. Surely, they will be rewarded, minor changes and all. But the truth is, the rabid lovers of the original graphic novel will not be enough to sweeten the greenback starved suits - not in this or any economy. Even if each and every lover of the book came and sat through the nearly three hour movie twice, Warners would still be waking up with a clear case of the deep in debt cold sweats. So how does Watchmen reach beyond this determined demographic? Will anyone other than the faithful show up come 6 March?
Surely, the overwhelming publicity propaganda both on and off line will draw in some of the neophytes, especially those who are already prone toward comic book adaptations. For them, Watchmen will walk a fine line between brilliant and baffling. Moore’s narrative is very much steeped in personal angst and individual alienation, not grand heroics and epic gestures of action goodwill. There’s no prancing Tony Stark substitute, no hardline post-millennial Bruce Wayne wannabe. Instead, all the characters carry the perplexing personality issues of the everyday human. They’re afraid of war. They’re concerned about their aging well being. And they are worried that someone may be trying to end their reign as the world’s mythic masked vigilantes. If they can breach Moore’s tangled web of weakness and self-deception, newbies will find themselves instantly intoxicated.
Teens, especially, will be rewarded for their rapt, text message attention. Zach Snyder, notorious for ladling on the ultra-violence with Kubrick/Burgess abandon delivers enough squishy splatter and luscious gore to make even the most seasoned blood fan cringe - if just a little. Adolescent males will cheer like soccer hooligans over Rorschach’s revenge on a nasty child killer, and the last act jail break features a power tool prototype that even Leatherface at his most Texas Chainsaw Massacre-y can’t match. This may turn off a few of the gal pals in the 15 to 21 pool (those capable of getting in to see this very hard “R” film), but there is also a romanticized lure to the material that makes it the perfect fodder for new age geek girls. After all, when was the last time your saw caped crusaders copulating while flying over a failing city? Or full frontal blue male nudity?
Adults however, will remain Watchmen‘s wild card - and Achilles heel. It’s hard to see anyone over a certain age falling for this high minded spectacle of surreality. The Dark Knight certainly drew in the over 50 crowd because of its decision to go against type. While steeped in funny book formulas, Christopher Nolan simply shifted everything over into the realm of serious crime drama and let the situations sell the stranger stuff. And it worked to the tune of a billion buckarinos. Watchmen has no such realistic core. It’s an alternate reality, a Brazil like combination of socio-political pomp and revisionist retro-raw circumstance. The opening montage may stir a few of the faithful down memory lane, but it’s hard to see a senior citizen sitting still as Silk Specter gets her face smashed by a sex-crazed Comedian - or better yet, as the narrative turns grim and very, very disturbing.
Watchmen now clearly stands on a precipice. It will either be seen as a risky, rewarding experiment or a noble failure that still fulfills the vision of both its director and its devotees. Judgment on the final effectiveness of the film may have to wait until the proposed FOUR HOUR director’s cut that Snyder has promised come DVD/Blu-ray time, and some of the missing subplots - the Black Freighter/Under the Hood angles, for example - will have to bear up to their own sense of scrutiny come release date (a separate disc arrives in stores on 24 March - a SE&L review will arrive shortly thereafter). After all the talk, after all the advertising and viral manipulation, Watchmen stands to be judged on criteria that are as callous as they are indicative of the industry. Get ready to experience the kind of backseat driving and Monday morning quarterbacking that only a potential entertainment phenomenon can create. It’s no longer about the movie. For Watchmen and Warners, it’s all about the money.