With less than two weeks to go before Watchmen opens, anticipation for the movie is at fever pitch... which only makes us wonder what will happen if the movie isn't what everyone is waiting for.
Don't get me wrong; I don't actually want the movie to fail, and actually expect it not to, at least in the short term. If nothing else, the ridiculous success of The Dark Knight has definitively proven that a mainstream audience exists for what, for want of a better term, could be called "Arthouse Superhero" movies (Something that had been hinted at before; I tend to think of Tim Burton's Batman Returns and Sam Raimi's last two Spider-Man movies - in particular Spider-Man 3, with its jazz interludes and weird uneven tone - as earlier examples of superhero auteurism), and Watchmen's intense, endless marketing campaign is definitely aiming for that level of gravity, with mentions of a "visionary director" adapting "the most celebrated graphic novel of all time." What I'm worried about, though, is what the marketing isn't saying, and what effect that could have on the Arthouse Superhero genre moving forward.
From what we've seen of Watchmen so far - and I write this as someone who hasn't seen the movie, although I've talked to people who have - we know that they're trying to be faithful to the look of the book, at least; the trailers show glossy CGI-massaged scenes that we recognize from Dave Gibbons' original drawings, and many comparisons have been made between movie stills and comic panels. It seems, at times, that this is the drive of the entire marketing for the movie: Look how much it resembles the comic! Look at how much detail we have copied over, even down to the dedication on the Comedian's gun! The trailers, in fact, are much less about the story of the film than a collection of fan-familiar images meant to make the faithful fans get excited with recognition and warm with the glow of nostalgia. But the problem with that is, in many ways, the visuals are the least important thing about Watchmen the book.
For all of the claims that Watchmen the book was unfilmable, very few of them centered around the kind of special effects needed to make us believe a man could explode and then re-create himself as a glowing blue naked go (In fact, shitty special effects may even have been more in tune with the arch-knowingness of the original book that both acknowledged and transcended its pulpy, ridiculous roots). No, what would make Watchmen unfilmable - and what the trailers and the arcade game-style web extras and the released scenes with too much slow-mo and the black and white portraits od actors and everything we've seen from the film so far have failed to show us is in evidence in the movie - is the deftness of Alan Moore's writing, which manages to balance a formal exploration of the comic medium with a complex, flawed humanity that looks "behind the hood" of the characters to make them into real people who would look ridiculous in those outfits... and not as Batman Begins-esque as the movie's Nite Owl. Of these two things, one is literally impossible to translate to another medium, and the other would seem to be nearly impossible to fit within a three-hour movie, no matter what you may feel about Zack Snyder's talents as a director.
I can't help but feel that it's this potential misdirection - that the truly important elements of Watchmen the book have been ignored or lost, and instead we're seeing the movie being sold on how much it looks like the comic - that will be the downfall of the movie, ultimately. It strikes me as foolish to try and promote the movie to fans on how faithful it is visually, when the heart of the book will be missing, and to non-fans, the mainstream audience that made Dark Knight such a massive hit, the faithfulness will have no meaning without the original context; all they're seeing are a bunch of colorful characters and explosions and being told it's a big deal.
It's that mainstream audience that all of the hype should have been geared towards; the very idea of a Watchmen movie would be enough to anger and excite the hardcore fanbase in and of itself, and while all of the promotional pandering has been welcomed, it won't change the final outcome, which is that Watchmen the movie will almost definitely disappoint them. That's not a comment on the quality of the final movie, but on the expectations those fans have for it; after almost a year of hype and previewed footage and interviews and seeing the Owlship at San Diego Comic-Con, there is almost no way in the world that any movie can live up to the one that they've created in their minds (A movie that will, undoubtedly, include the squid at the end). You can almost taste the backlash now. Better to have spent the time, and the money, selling everyone else on the movie, and hope that they understand and embrace whatever it turns out to be.
And what happens if it DOES fail? In one sense, very little; more mainstream superhero movies like Thor and Avengers will most likely be unaffected in terms of box office, although they may find more snark thrown their way by critics stung by wanting to fall for Watchmen more than they actually did, perhaps. I think that, if audiences don't love the movie to Dark Knight levels, then that won't affect their desire to see Robert Downey Jr. wisecrack his way through another 90 minutes while wearing armor; they may not even see any real connection between the two movies. But what I'm worried about is what it'll mean for movies that aren't summer blockbusters based on well-known comic book franchises. Will The Dark Knight start to be looked at, not as a sign of things to come, but a fluke that shows that audiences only really want to watch self-important superheroes when they grew up with them? Will movie producers shy away from projects that aim for epic grandeur and high budgets, because Watchmen suggests that that kind of thing scares people away? Will Billy Crudup's career survive?
Okay, maybe I don't really care about that last one so much. Sorry, Billy.
There's a lot resting on the success of Watchmen, I think; not just Fox's ability to point at Warners and laugh and say that they were right in the first place to pass on the project (and then, you know, sue just in case), but in a strange sense, it's managed - through force of marketing as much as anything - to become the First Post-Dark Knight-Era Important Superhero Movie. If it succeeds, then the door may be open to more and more ambitious science fiction movies (whether based on comics or not). But if it fails, then maybe we'll end up with a movie industry that thinks that Transformers and X-Men Origins: Wolverine is all that genre movies should aspire to... And that's a much greater tragedy than losing a giant alien squid for your climax.