Monday, July 20, 2009

Who Watched Watchmen?

Watchmen (2009), the film directed by Zack Snyder based on the groundbreaking and critically acclaimed graphic novel of the same name, will be released on DVD and Blu-ray tomorrow, July 21, but will anyone buy it?
Upon its theatrical release the film was a hit, but only barely. It grossed $107 million at the US box office, which considering the pre-existing fan base, the size of the marketing campaign, and the success of Snyder's previous film 300 (2006) could only be considered disappointing at best. Everything seemed to be in the film's favor, so why did it fail to connect with the public? Let's take a closer look.

Watchmen was released on March 6, 2009, and it initially did very well, taking in a solid $55 million during its opening weekend. The next week it pulled in a respectable $30 million, but after that the people stopped coming. During its third week in release it made only $13 million and only $5 million the week after. What this says to me is that Watchmen didn't have a strong "word of mouth" effect. In other words, the first wave of people who saw the film didn't tell their friends to go see it, and thus the sharp decline in the numbers. But what didn't people like about the film that would cause this to happen? There are several possibilities.

For one, it was long, with the running time clocking in at 2 hours and 42 minutes, and American audiences have always had a hard time sitting through anything over 2 hours. Secondly, despite the fact that it's about superheroes it was not a pure action film, and those who were unfamiliar with the source material were probably disappointed by the lack of fight scenes. And lastly, (this is where I get to the point) it's a cerebral film, a satire of American culture. It's about our obsession with superheroes, the struggle between safety and civil rights, and whether or not the ends justify the means. The film examines what might take place in the psyche of a superhero if one were to really exist. These are not things people expect to have to think about when they go see a movie with a big blue man that can blow things up by pointing at them. People expect simple, fun, action. Ultimately, that's why a movie that appeals to our base sensibilities, like Synder's previous film, 300, made $210 million, nearly twice as much as Watchmen.

However, Warner Bros., the studio that produced Watchmen, should be commended for hiring Snyder to direct. Darren Aronofsky was also considered for the gig, but when Warner Bros. heard he wanted to update the story to be set in the present day and refer to terrorism and the Iraq War rather than Communism and Vietnam they backed out and hired Snyder who was fresh from directing 300. Warner Bros. and Synder were brave for leaving the story as is; moral, ethical, and political complexity included. But they paid the price at the box office for their bravery to produce a serious, intellectual comic book film, because right now the mainstream American audience simply isn't ready to look beyond the surface when they hit the cineplex.

Watchmen (2009) 9/10

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