Watchmen and the problem with superheroes

Watchmen will be heading out of theaters soon, leaving on a quieter note than comic fans had hoped.  Its opening weekend, not quiet the number one movie ever, was very impressive.  But it quickly declined, and less than a month after it came out, it still hasn’t recouped its filming budget.  Why couldn’t Watchmen, one of the most loved superhero stories of all time, rake in the numbers that Dark Knight did?  It reveals a sad truth about the future of the superhero movie genre.

The story of Watchmen, published 1986-1987, is set in concrete.  Fandom would never accept anything less than the full rendition of the story.  From the tales I’ve read of Snyder’s road to keeping the script true to the story, this movie dodged a dozen bullets to get is this close to the original tale.  But a 12 issue series is a very complex lattice of story telling that no one will sit through for the full telling, scaring away all but the most rabid of fans.  Threads peripheral to the main story get left out, details leading to that are then removed, and fans are then disappointed that something they remember is left out of the original book.  The Watchmen craze filled bookstores with what now appears to be fodder for near-future firesales of graphic novels.  To those of us who have collected comics for some time, the story is very well known as evidenced by the dog-eared copy of the graphic novel we’re re-read many times.  I am willing to bet that most of those copies snatched up by the public, were quickly read part of the way through prior to the opening weekend, only to now lay forgotten and unfinished on a pile, where the final triumph of what is essentially Rorschach’s story will not be tasted.  They know nothing of the many layers of the graphic novel and its deeply woven threads.

To most people, Watchmen was something new, something most people would not know how to deal with.  The heroes don’t win, at least not in the way of every superhero story that has hit the screen.  In  fact, the ending may be morally distasteful.  The characters are not the brave, clean shaven, masterminds that we see in our other heroes.  The Watchmen are what the real world would produce in a person who would throw on a costume and run around in public while beating up other people: a sadistic killer and rapist, a megalomaniac, a violent psychopath, a coward, a recluse, a sexual masochist.  These were not your grandfathers’ heroes, which the film touches nicely on in the alternate history painted in the opening credits.  The first generation heroes of the Minutemen were as close as you come to the original costumed crime fighters of the golden age of comics and they pass the torch on to the next wave of heroes, the Crimebusters.  The fact they changed the name of the team for the movie highlights from the start that this story was something most people would not get.  These are all humans with human issues, the sons of New York, rather than the last sons of Krypton.

After that amazing opening credits crawl, the film itself takes about an hour to get to the Comedian’s funeral, flashing back to each remaining character’s interactions with the Comedian over the years.    This is too long to get to the point, but without giving some backstory, the public has no knowledge of who these people really are.  Spiderman and Superman have the benefit of decades of familiarity to bootstrap their movies.  There is no need to tell anyone that Clark Kent is Superman – we go into the theater knowing this and the director doesn’t spend a lot of time on this.  Most of our superhero movies these days consist of that first origin story, followed years later by a deeper story later on that usually draws less money.  The Watchmen had to hit the highlights of origins, entire careers, and basically the end of the superhero all in one sitting.  The story does benefit from the fact that only Dr Manhattan, as the only true superhero of the story, really had an origin story to tell.  Similar to Batman, everyone else’s origin story starts and ends with throwing on some tights.  And the average ticket holder had no freakin idea why that violent guy’s face shifted around under his hat.  In fact for today’s young audience there is a whole other series of questions that crop up: What was so special about 1985?  What the heck is a Soviet?  Who is Nixon?  This was a niche story – I love that they picked this story.  But I also know that this is a big hurdle to get over and the fact that it made $100mil so far is a great accomplishment for the makers of this film.

The ugly truth of all this is that the entertainment industry has fallen short of ideas, and after cranking out one too many sequels of its own old tales, can no longer regurgitate anythiing in a new form.  So they have settled on retelling our old comic stories, sometimes remixing them in ways they were not meant to.  They do not realize the rich tales that can be told by just Sandman or just Venom, so they mash them together with the Hobgoblin to give us an OK Spiderman movie with hardly any story that somehow turns out to be a blockbuster.  But that can be excused because the character is on loan to Sony Pictures from Marvel and is not driving at the same meta story that Marvel is aiming for.  Marvel is now working on producing movies for a number of well known characters, and then making the genius move of tying them together into a single Avengers movie.  This all hinges on getting the writing perfect for each movie, but as evidenced by Iron Man and Hulk, Marvel is not accepting any script without really scrutinizing it.  DC Comics on the other hand, also holding a rich stable of characters, has not yet coordinated its plans which I suspect will likewise culminate in a Justice League film.  These are all great characters that will provide profitable movies for years to come.

Once you get past the very well known heroes, the rest are niche characters like the Watchmen that essentially play supporting roles in the annals of comics.  And unless we are ready for the movie industry to produce an Aunt May film, we’ll have to settle for Iron Man 10 which will hopefully not be preceded by 7 or 8 terrible scripts.   The well of the superhero genre is quite deep, having lasted decades.  But the comic industry itself has gone through booms and busts during that time and the story arcs worth combining into a feature film are few if action is the only measure of a film’s success.  I believe Watchmen was as deep as we are going to get – I’m glad it was made at this time rather than earlier with meager effects.  But with it’s subpar earnings, the likelihood of another superhero story being produced on its literary merits is pretty slim.  There are actually very many comic stories from independent publishers that really deserve to be made into movies.  The trick will be not marketing them as superhero movies, but as a human story that can hopefully hold its own while still hosting some action.  And once all the good comic book stories are told, it is my hope that the movie industry is inspired to start creating again.  Maybe just in time before they decide to remake the Matrix series.

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3 thoughts on “Watchmen and the problem with superheroes

  1. This is quite interesting, just keep posts like this one coming, you rock totally!

  2. As the most celebrated graphic novel, it's a feat that's difficult to bring to the big screen. I must admit I was really excited when I saw the trailer, but after hearing reviews of the movie I was less than eager to spend money watching it.

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