Thursday, October 9, 2008

Will America Watch Watchmen?

This is an interesting article about The Watchmen movie, posted in by Jeff Otto.
Will America Watch Watchmen?

Director Zack Snyder unveiled nearly half an hour of footage from his upcoming epic film Watchmen earlier this month. While fans and journalists--including SCI FI Wire--raved about the preview, our writer Jeff Otto wonders: Will mainstream audiences watch the Watchmen?

Rumors began circulating two decades ago about a film adaptation of Watchmen, Alan Moore and Dave Gibbons' comics magnum opus, which was first published by DC Comics in 1986. Moore, whose contributions to the graphic-novel medium include The Killing Joke, V for Vendetta and From Hell, had delivered the genre's first masterpiece. The deeply layered epic was filled with visuals that seemed perfectly suited to cinema. But filmmakers puzzled at how to adapt it: Such a project would be costly, and the book itself lacked major action sequences, was unevenly paced and told a story at odds with film's traditional plot structure.

Filmmakers as varied as Terry Gilliam, Paul Greengrass and Darren Aronofsky were attached at different points during Watchmen's extensive "development hell" process, but all eventually opted out to pursue other projects.

For his part, the famously prickly and anti-Hollywood Moore never saw Watchmen as a fit subject for cinematic adaptation, no matter the director.

"There are things that we did with Watchmen that could only work in a comic," the notoriously private Moore recently told Entertainment Weekly in a rare interview. He added that the book was "designed to show off things that other media can't."

But one director persisted. Zack Snyder previously delivered fan faves Dawn of the Dead and 300. He ultimately won the right to make a Watchmen movie. The question now: Has he succeeded in adapting Watchmen as a movie audiences will want to see?

Considering the first footage screened at Comic-Con International and in previews in Los Angeles and New York this month, Snyder's Watchmen movie is clearly taking its look and feel from the frames of Moore's novel.

But that in itself may pose a problem. Can an adaptation be too faithful to its source material? It's clear fans of the graphic novel will likely love Snyder's adaption, but will a mainstream audience unfamiliar with the book get it?

Here are 10 reasons I think mainstream audiences will ignore Watchmen.

1. It's an alternate-history Cold War period piece. Considering that a large portion of the core moviegoing audience was in diapers in 1986 and is still too young to understand the political climate of the time, will the setting really resonate? Like it or not, younger audiences rely largely on television and movies for their historical perspective, meaning that they may be familiar with Vietnam and World War II, but not with the Cold War, which might sound like something Ian Fleming dreamt up for James Bond's adventures.

On top of that, this isn't the Cold War of the history books, but rather an alternate history in which superheroes such as Dr. Manhattan (Billy Crudup) help the United States win the Vietnam War and which makes Richard Nixon, perhaps history's most maligned president, a hero. In the book, Nixon is serving an unprecedented fifth term in office after successfully pushing for repeal of the 23rd amendment.

2. Ridiculous-looking costumes. If there's one thing director Christopher Nolan has proven with his two Batman movies, it's that audiences respond to superhero movies in as realistic a setting as possible. Aside from the ears and bat symbol, Nolan's superhero is a vigilante in a dark costume. Watchmen's Ozymandias (Matthew Goode), on the other hand, looks like a flamboyant tennis star in his cape and gold headband. Nite Owl II (Patrick Wilson) is, well, an owl that looks vaguely like a gold Batman. Rorschach (Jackie Earle Haley) is pretty cool, but Laurie Juspeczyk's (Malin Akerman) Silk Spectre II costume looks like a reject from X-Men. And Dr. Manhattan looks kind of like a blue Mr. Clean. Did I mention he's also naked, bits and pieces flopping in the wind?

3. Old Folks. To be fair, Watchmen's first generation of crimefighters is only a part of the storyline. Still, nothing sends that desirable target demographic running for the exits quicker than old people. Senior citizens drove Cocoon, Driving Miss Daisy and The Bucket List to box-office success but are unlikely to buoy a comic-book movie.

4. Zack Snyder. Call me a cynic, but a remake of Dawn of the Dead and an adaptation of Frank Miller's 300 don't exactly qualify you as the man to adapt what is arguably the greatest work in the history of the graphic novel. Directors with stronger pedigrees passed, and I'm still a bit underwhelmed with the choice of Snyder. Don't get me wrong: His movies are good popcorn flicks. But I think Snyder has a way to go as a filmmaker before he's making movies on the level of Christopher Nolan, Peter Jackson or Sam Raimi.

5. Flashbacks and Allegories. Moore's story skips around almost constantly, which could prove quite confusing for audiences. The Comedian (Jeffrey Dean Morgan) goes from rapist to Vietnam hero to modern-day murder victim. Sally Jupiter (Carla Gugino) goes from nubile pin-up to nursing-home resident. Hollis Mason (Stephen McHattie), the original Nite Owl, goes from crimefighter to rambling old coot. Moore's puzzle of an altered history comes together beautifully as the story weaves itself into coherence, but it remains to be seen whether Snyder can weave the complicated tapestry as adeptly for the screen as Moore did for the printed page.

And if the constant time shifts aren't enough, Moore also interwove into Watchmen's narrative a completely separate story, the comic-within-a-comic Tales of the Black Freighter. The allegorical Freighter tells the story of a pirate who journeys home on a raft of human corpses to warn his town of an impending pirate attack. Freighter's significance is confusing enough on the page and should probably be cut from the film, but Snyder has promised that he is committed to including Tales of the Black Freighter in his Watchmen movie at some point.

6. Lack of Familiarity. While Superman, Batman, Spider-Man and the X-Men have been absorbed into the pop culture for decades, Watchmen's characters are known mainly to its core fan base. News of the impending film intrigued some non-comic aficionados to pick up a copy, as did Time's choice of the graphic novel for its list of the "100 Greatest American Novels." Still, the percentage of moviegoers possessing even a vague familiarity with Watchmen is small by comparison to those who know Peter Parker's alter ego.

7. Lack of Star Power. The casting of the accomplished actors Wilson, Akerman, Crudup, Gugino, Morgan and Haley excited comic and film geeks alike. But not one of these esteemed thespians has much box-office drawing power. For a movie already struggling to appeal to non-fans, that may be one obstacle too many on a growing list.

8. Length. Snyder announced last week that he is aiming for a film that runs two hours and 43 minutes. If the trailer's dazzling visuals succeed in sparking the interest of the mainstream to give Watchmen a chance, its running time may be enough to dampen that curiosity.

9. A Lot of Exposition. Unlike most comic movies, Watchmen isn't simply the setup for a ton of sequels. Moore's original novel comprises 12 densely packed issues with enough subtext to rival J.R.R. Tolkien's Lord of the Rings trilogy. But Peter Jackson had three movies to adapt Lord of the Rings. Snyder has only a single film to re-create Moore's entire epic.

With a massive cast of characters nobody's ever heard of, the film could take as much as a third of its running time setting up origin stories before viewers have even the faintest clue what's going on.

10. The Ending. If there is a weak element in Moore's almost-flawless epic, it is the ending. It was a letdown when it came out, and it seems even cheesier 20-plus years later. Snyder has revealed that he's changing the ending. Now when you take into account the fact that Moore is not involved in the project in any form, do we really believe Snyder and screenwriters David Hayter and Alex Tse have the chops to deliver the fitting end that Moore couldn't?

Watchmen opens March 6, 2009.

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