Is Watchmen the Next Dark Knight?

The brilliant graphic novel has a cult following. The director is coming off a surprise blockbuster. But just how high can this super-noir superhero movie fly?

Warner Bros. / Everett Collection

Beware the follow-up to a blockbuster. Institutionally risk-averse, Hollywood studios fall over themselves to grab the next project after a hot movie director delivers a surprise smash. But that’s exactly when they should exercise extreme caution. Zack Snyder’s Watchmen, based on Alan Moore’s 1986 meta-superhero comic-book series, is yet another case of a studio willing to overlook the big-budget rulebook in order to get in bed with a filmmaker fresh off a global moneymaker. “Whenever you have a big hit with somebody,” says producer James Jacks ( The Mummy), “you don’t want to let them go. The studio is going to throw out their usual due diligence.”

Directors never have more freedom to take ambitious risks than after a blockbuster. And studios, it seems, just can’t say no. They indulge directors such as Michael Cimino—after the Oscar-winning Deer Hunter, his big-budget western “Heaven’s Gate” literally brought down United Artists. After the blockbuster Lord of the Rings trilogy, Universal gave Peter Jackson $20 million against 20 percent of the gross to co-write, direct, co-produce, and deliver effects for King Kong; the three-hour epic cost $202 million, and the studio barely came out ahead. And after the Matrix movies, the Wachowskis, who directed, stumbled with their own Alan Moore project, producing the disappointing V for Vendetta—and then wrote and directed the disastrous Speed Racer.

Watchmen is R-rated, not only for its bone-crunching violence, but for Dr. Manhattan’s frontal nudity and hot sex scenes between Patrick Wilson’s Nite Owl (who can’t get an erection unless he’s wearing his costume).

Warners jumped into the Moore universe again with Watchmen because two years ago, Snyder’s $60 million blue-screen action epic 300, based on Frank Miller’s graphic novel about the Battle of Thermopylae, opened to $70 million and grossed an astonishing $456 million worldwide. Wanting to line up Snyder’s next movie, studio executives Alan Horn and Jeff Robinov greenlit Watchmen, even after years of development hell at two studios and false starts from the likes of Darren Aronofsky and Paul Greengrass. (Twentieth Century Fox and Warners finally settled their court battle over the rights a few months ago.)

While Warner Bros. allowed Snyder to go for an R-rating and cast relative unknowns, after the director handed in a three-hour rough cut, the studio thought Watchmen was "too long, too sexy, and too violent," Snyder said during San Diego’s virally powerful Comic-Con convention. For him, "that's a reason to go. That's the why. If you take that out you take out the why.” Snyder didn’t want to deliver a "watered down version of Watchmen,” he said. “Then you might as well make another superhero movie. There are a million characters out there you could do instead."

In the end, Warner Bros. got 161 minutes and very few trims. (Accommodations were made on both sides, according to sources close to the studio.) And Snyder got his faithful, violent, sexy, operatic movie—complete with Philip Glass on the soundtrack.

There’s good reason why Alan Moore has long insisted that his intellectual, referential, flashback-ridden graphic novels—which have inspired passionate followers for decades, not to mention narrative groundbreakers such as Quentin Tarantino and Lost creator J.J. Abrams—should not be simplified into filmed action fare. He’s 0 for 3 in Hollywood: So far V for Vendetta, From Hell and The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen all got lost in translation to film.

Warners’ financial partner Legendary Pictures and foreign distributor Paramount are banking that Watchmen could break Moore’s losing streak. Produced at a cost of more than $120 million (plus some $100 million in global marketing costs), Watchmen opens today in 3,611 theaters in North America, more than any other R-rated movie in history.

The movie is expected to open big this weekend, perhaps between $60 and $70 million. The question that makes Warner Bros. nervous: Will it continue to play? By slavishly honoring the comic (which devoted 12 chapters to 12 “superheroes” in an alternative 1980s universe), Snyder departed radically from studio comic-movie conventions. First, Watchmen, unlike iconic superheroes such as Batman, Superman, Spider-man, even the X-Men, is not a widely recognized pop-culture brand. It’s a cult phenomenon. However, in the nine months since the trailer broke to rave reactions at Comic-Con, Snyder recently noted that the book has sold more than 2 million copies: The $20 paperback currently tops the New York Times’ new graphic novel bestseller list. That’s a serious sign of crossover potential. But the book has gone over best in North America and the UK. Foreign markets are less primed for the title.

Beyond that, Watchmen is no Iron Man. While that Marvel comic wasn’t familiar to every moviegoer, the film was an accessible origin myth introducing globe-trotting arms dealer Tony Stark, who was easy to embrace. That movie grossed $582 million worldwide because it was entertaining and emotionally rewarding fun. Plus, it had the enormously charismatic Robert Downey, Jr., and the eminently bankable Gwyneth Paltrow and Jeff Bridges.

Watchmen, on the other hand, stars a non-marquee-name cast in movie that lacks a traditional action through-line. It is set in a noirish ‘80s alternative universe where world history has been changed by the existence of superheroes. Big blue Dr. Manhattan (Billy Crudup) is the Watchmen’s only super-human being. He and the other vigilantes are flawed, even sociopathic or insane, and often engaged in outlaw activities. The US government led by Richard Nixon, still engaged in the Cold War with Russia, deploys Dr. Manhattan to win the Vietnam War. The Comedian (Jeffrey Dean Morgan) is an amoral mercenary who assassinates John F. Kennedy and rapes Silk Spectre (Carla Gugino). Rorschach (Jackie Earle Haley) is another lawless, ruthless killer. Are audiences ready, right now, for a dark movie that says that the only way for the world to get better is to destroy society and then rebuild it?

Finally, unlike the PG-13 Iron Man, Watchmen is R-rated, not only for its bone-crunching violence—extreme enough to repel most potential female viewers—but for Dr. Manhattan’s frontal nudity and hot sex scenes between Patrick Wilson’s Nite Owl (who can’t get an erection unless he’s wearing his costume) and Malin Akerman’s Silk Spectre II (she’s I’s daughter).

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The truth is, Moore’s novel might have best been served by an HBO miniseries that would play at greater length and complexity to a sophisticated crowd inured to Sopranos-style violence and moral ambiguity.

For now, Watchman is tracking strongly—awareness and want-to-see is high, even if it skews older and male—and selling out many of its 1,600 midnight shows. Warners’ concern is that after a massive opening, Watchmen, lacking definite interest from both older women and younger males, will fall to earth on its second weekend. The proof will be in just who is watching the Watchmen.

Anne Thompson launched the daily ThompsononHollywood blog in March 2007, when she joined Variety as a columnist. Previously, she was deputy film editor of The Hollywood Reporter, where she wrote the weekly syndicated column Risky Business and the Riskybizblog. She has also served as West Coast editor of Premiere and Film Comment, and senior writer at Entertainment Weekly.