Directed by Zack Snyder
If the moviegoing story of the first two months of 2009 was the surprise success of the comedy Paul Blart: Mall Cop and the violent action picture Taken, the story of March 2009 is the relative failure of the year's first major release, Watchmen. A dark-complected comic-book saga, Watchmen opened on a Friday to huge box-office numbers--and then immediately entered a slow death spiral. It earned $20 million less than its studio had hoped its first weekend, and the next, its box-office take plunged by a vertiginous 67 percent.
These numbers indicate that the hordes of boys who dropped everything to see it on opening day exited the theater with a distinct lack of enthusiasm, and transmitted that lack to others in their age cohort, which meant that the male youth spending dollar in March was stuffed back in the pocket of the baggy jeans in favor of yet another ripping round of Guitar Hero or Resident Evil 5 down in the basement.
Everything should have gone right with Watchmen. But nothing did, really, and the cause of the failure is written into the movie's DNA.
Watchmen is based on a 1985 comic-book series whose explicit design was to rip the pseudo-heroic mask off the superhero and reveal the monster beneath. The superheroes are not heroes at all but chess pieces in a geopolitical game they do not understand. They are manipulated by, among other people, a president-for-life named Richard Nixon, who tricks them into doing horrific things in the mistaken belief that they are doing good.
The Watchmen series is said to be a masterpiece by those who think the words "comic book" and "masterpiece" can be used justifiably in relation to one another. It does seem to have been a landmark of a kind. And based on a quick perusal and my viewing of this movie, it was a classic--a classic in the annals of commie claptrap. What is more, Watchmen is one of the most dated pop-culture works imaginable, as the following summary (spoiler alert, should you be foolish enough to waste two hours and 40 minutes of your life on this thing) will reveal:
Both comic and movie conclude with one seemingly evil superhero named Ozymandias (un peu pretentious, non?) arranging for the destruction of 25 million American lives and pinning the blame on another superhero named Dr. Manhattan. Only it turns out that the massive death Ozymandias inflicts is entirely justified because it instantly brings about peace with the Soviet Union. Russia has, you see, felt terribly threatened by the antics of the totalitarian American president Nixon, but now unites with him against the wrongly accused Dr. Manhattan. The good doctor, in turn, decides to keep quiet for the sake of the glorious world peace that has descended on the Earth, and blasts off to another galaxy where he can be a god.
Perhaps I should detail all the ways in which the alternative reality here--with Nixon elected to term after term after term and the Soviets invading Afghanistan out of fear of American malfeasance--was not actually intended to be an alternative reality at all, but The Deepest Truth about 1985 from the point of view of Watchmen's creator, Alan Moore. I could--but I'm not going to, because the mere summary of the plot should have revealed to Zack Snyder and Warner Bros. and God knows who else that it was an act of lunacy to make this movie, no matter that it came with a built-in audience of subculture fanatics eager to see how it might be visualized.
Those people did come, but nobody else wanted to. True, there is someone out there nostalgic for a take on the 1980s in which Utopia is realized when the United States makes a complete accommodation with a Soviet regime that, in actuality, was already so decayed by its own evil that it collapsed only six years after Watchmen was published. But one ticket sold to Katrina vanden Heuvel does not a box-office bonanza make.
In the end, the cautionary lesson for Hollywood is a simple one: When you make a superhero movie, you should probably consider portraying the superheroes as heroes. That's why people go to superhero movies. They don't go to see the genre twisted and reconceived. They like the genre.
And there are a few other lessons as well. Such as: Americans still don't like it when America is portrayed as the villain. And: It's a big mistake to make movies based on the work of Alan Moore. The last movie made from an Alan Moore comic was V for Vendetta, a movie with a terrorist hero in which the bombing of the British Parliament is treated as a heroic act of liberation. From siding with the Soviet Union to siding with al Qaeda, Moore demonstrates a disgusting but strangely admirable degree of ideological consistency. What the moneymen at Warner Bros. responsible for distributing both V for Vendetta and Watchmen show, by contrast, is an inadvertently hilarious brand of moral idiocy.
They also funded The Dark Knight, which has earned $1 billion at the box office. The Dark Knight is another dark-complected comic-book movie--but this time about what it means to be a hero and the painful sacrifices a true hero is called upon to make to save humanity. The qualities that made The Dark Knight a triumph were precisely the same ones that sealed Watchmen's doom. It's kind of obvious when you think about it, but evidently not so obvious when you run a movie studio.
John Podhoretz, editor of Commentary, is THE WEEKLY STANDARD's movie critic.