Watchmen delayed: for better, for worse.

While reading David Bordwell‘s interesting piece on the various reasons for the recent wave of superhero movies, I came across a link to this article that Ken Tucker wrote for Entertainment Weekly in 2000, shortly before the first X-Men movie came out and proved that there was life in the genre beyond the obvious, iconic household names like Superman and Batman.

It is fun to read Tucker’s list of recommendations, as he begs the studios to ditch the campiness of earlier films, etc. But I am also struck by this bit near the end, which touches on the status at that time of the long-in-development Watchmen adaptation:

The other comics-fan dream is a movie of Watchmen, the landmark 1986 DC Comics 12-issue miniseries created by writer Alan Moore and artist Dave Gibbons. An epic alternate universe teeming with non-established original heroes that worked as a rousing tale and, as Mike Richardson, publisher of Dark Horse Comics, puts it, a “deconstruction of the superhero genre,” Watchmen–first optioned by Joel Silver (The Matrix)–now lies dormant with producer Lawrence Gordon (Mystery Men).

More then 10 years ago, it was a different story. “Everyone was talking about Terry Gilliam! Terry Gilliam!” says Watchmen fan and Dogma director Kevin Smith. In the late ’80s, after Gilliam, the visionary director of Brazil, had been tapped by Silver to adapt the comic, the plug was pulled. Budget was one big factor. “The joke going around was that it was $1 million a page,” says Batman screenwriter Sam Hamm, who wrote the first Watchmen draft. “That was back when $120 million meant something.”

There was also the mission impossible of distilling Watchmen’s sprawling and intricate narrative into a two-hour flick. Says Hamm: “We felt constantly crestfallen about what we couldn’t get in.”

Both Gordon and Gilliam declined to comment on Watchmen’s past or future, but Gibbons thinks that its time may have passed: “It was most likely to happen when Batman was a big success, but then that window was lost. If this new X-Men movie is a big hit, maybe that will open up another window. But to be honest, I’m not holding my breath.”

So, did X-Men open up another window? Yes, and how!

If anything, I think the ground is a lot more fertile now for a Watchmen movie than it was back in the ’90s. And why? Because, like the man said, Watchmen is a “deconstruction of the superhero genre”, and bringing that deconstruction to the big screen would have been a whole lot dicier a few years ago, if there were only one or two big-screen superheroes to deconstruct.

I am reminded of a headline that appeared in the Associated Press back in July: “‘Watchmen’ aims to answer typical superhero films”. Exactly. Writing a comic book in response to an entire genre of comic books is fitting. Making a movie in response to a comic book begins to look like overkill. But making a movie in response to an entire genre of movies is fitting, once again.

So in a way, it is a good thing that the Watchmen movie has never been made before. No matter how good the scripts were, or how apt the directors and actors attached to the project may have been, the movie itself would arguably have been coming out at the wrong time. The movie would have lacked the context that the original comic book had. But now, that context is there.

Of course, the long development process has had its downside, too, the most recent manifestation of which is the lawsuit that Fox has brought against Warner Brothers in an effort to prevent the release of Watchmen, or at least squeeze some money out of them before the film comes out March 6. For details, see Nikki Finke, David Poland, Variety, the Hollywood Reporter, the New York Times and the lawsuit documents themselves.

Billy, the Grahams, and the grassroots.

The Guardian reports that about 50 “sneak peek” screenings of Billy: The Early Years are in the works, to help raise grassroots interest in the Billy Graham biopic before it opens October 10. The story also mentions that Graham himself, in “frail health” at 89, has not yet seen the film, but two of his children have: one, his daughter Gigi, is “publicly praising” the film and has been hired to help promote it; while the other, his son and presumptive heir Franklin, “has been too busy travelling lately to comment”, according to his spokesman. Eh? “Too busy”? Even to issue a brief statement, or to give a quick thumb up or down? Of course, Franklin’s reluctance to comment on the film may have little to do with its quality, and more to do with what the Guardian describes as his being “publicly peeved” that the Graham family was “never shown a script before the movie was made.” At any rate, apparently the film will be opening in only 20 states, at first, “most of them in the south and lower mid-west, where most evangelicals live.” The rest of the country will just have to wait.

From ancient history to modern gangster flick.

‘Tis the season for modernizing stories from ancient history, it seems. NBC is already developing Kings, a series based on the relationship between the biblical monarchs Saul and David. And now, says the Hollywood Reporter, Mandalay Pictures has picked up the film rights to Julius, a graphic novel by Antony Johnston and Brett Weldele that re-imagines Julius Caesar as “a London crime king who is beloved like royalty by the public. His generals, however, conspire against him.” F. Gary Gray is attached to direct the film, and one of Mandalay’s executives told Variety that Gray “has a vision for this adaptation that will satirize obsessive consumerism while providing a thrilling ride for audiences.” Glad to hear they’ve got that covered. Interestingly, this graphic novel is not based directly on ancient history, but on Shakespeare’s version of the story. So there are several layers of interpretation here: Shakespeare’s adaptation of history, the graphic novel’s adaptation of Shakespeare, and the movie’s adaptation of the graphic novel. Got all that?

Canadian box-office stats — August 17

Here are the figures for the past weekend, arranged from those that owe the highest percentage of their take to the Canadian box office to those that owe the lowest.

The Sisterhood of the Traveling Pants 2 — CDN $4,010,000 — N.AM $32,147,000 — 12.5%
Mamma Mia! — CDN $13,430,000 — N.AM $116,415,000 — 11.5%
Journey to the Center of the Earth — CDN $9,650,000 — N.AM $88,110,000 — 11.0%

Step Brothers — CDN $9,600,000 — N.AM $90,888,000 — 10.6%
The Dark Knight — CDN $42,790,000 — N.AM $471,493,000 — 9.1%

Pineapple Express — CDN $5,440,000 — N.AM $62,932,000 — 8.6%
The Mummy: Tomb of the Dragon Emperor — CDN $7,450,000 — N.AM $86,649,000 — 8.6%
Tropic Thunder — CDN $3,060,000 — N.AM $37,033,000 — 8.3%
Mirrors — CDN $617,292 — N.AM $11,125,000 — 5.5%
Star Wars: The Clone Wars — CDN $833,493 — N.AM $15,505,000 — 5.4%

A couple of discrepancies: Journey to the Center of the Earth was #10 on the Canadian chart (it was #11 in North America as a whole), while Vicky Cristina Barcelona was #10 on the North American chart (it was #11 in Canada).

Star Wars slips back down the charts.

Given all the prequels, sequels and merchandising it has engendered, it is sometimes a bit strange to realize that Star Wars (1977) has been the #2 movie of all time, rather than the #1 movie of all time, for most of its existence. And today, it will lose even that distinction, as it becomes the latest film to fall behind The Dark Knight‘s record-setting run at the box office.

A bit of history:

At the time Star Wars came out, the #1 movie of all time was Jaws (1975), directed only a couple years earlier by George Lucas’s friend, Steven Spielberg. Jaws is now estimated to have earned about $260 million, but Star Wars quickly passed that amount, grossing about $323 million over its first five years; not only was it a smash in its initial release, but it kept drawing audiences as the sequels came out and the original film was re-issued to keep the back-story fresh in audiences’ minds. (This was before home video had really taken off; Star Wars itself did not come out on VHS until 1982.)

Star Wars was itself surpassed only a few years later, though, by another Spielberg film, E.T. the Extra-terrestrial (1982), which grossed $359 million in its initial release and another $40 million when it was re-issued in 1985. (That film did not come out on VHS until 1988.)

For the next decade or so, that was how things remained at the top of the chart: E.T. at #1, Star Wars at #2.

Then, in the 1990s, a couple films came between them. First, Jurassic Park (1993), also directed by Spielberg, gave audiences their first taste of sustained digital creature animation, and grossed a handy $357 million as a result. Then, Forrest Gump (1994) — directed by a former protege of Spielberg’s named Robert Zemeckis — inserted Tom Hanks into archival news footage and rode a wave of Baby Boomer nostalgia to $329 million.

So now Star Wars was down at #4. But in January 1997, it rebounded. After more than a decade without any new Star Wars films, and after an entire generation had grown up watching the original trilogy on the small screen, Lucas spiffed up the special effects and re-issued the original trilogy on the big screen. The “special edition” of Star Wars alone grossed $138 million, making it the 8th-biggest hit of 1997; and, combined with the film’s earlier earnings, the new earnings gave the film a new total of $461 million, vaulting it right back to the top of the list.

It didn’t stay at the top for long, though. At the end of the year, James Cameron released Titanic (1997), which didn’t have a particularly strong opening weekend, but it did stay at the top of the weekly box-office charts for a whopping fifteen weeks, and when all was said and done, the film had grossed an unprecedented $600 million. And so Star Wars was back down at #2.

And there it has stayed — until now.

Can Star Wars rise to the top again some day? I’m not so sure.

The 20th anniversary re-issue in 1997 was fueled, in part, by a hunger for the franchise which was, itself, motivated by the fact that Star Wars had been relatively inaccessible for so long. Yes, everyone had the original trilogy on VHS, but home-entertainment systems weren’t very impressive in those days. Plus, of course, there was an entire generation of Echo Boomers — the people who made Home Alone (1990) a hit when they were kids, the people who made Scream (1996) and Titanic hits when they were teens — who had never experienced these movies on the big screen in the first place.

But the potential, I suspect, just isn’t there for anything similar to happen for, say, the film’s 40th anniversary in 2017, and not just because the demographics and the home-video options have changed so dramatically in the intervening years. Over the past decade, Lucas has released four new Star Wars movies — including this weekend’s widely-panned The Clone Wars — and he has tampered with the original trilogy repeatedly. What’s more, he has promised to keep on releasing new material on TV, and the overall effect of all this revisionism and overexposure has been to drain Star Wars fans of their enthusiasm for the franchise.

So, Star Wars has slipped back down to #3. And it will probably not rise back up the chart this time.

Still, who could have imagined that the day would come when neither of the top two films of all time would have Lucas or Spielberg at the helm? Star Wars is now down at #3, E.T. is down at #5 (despite earning an extra $35 million when it was re-issued in 2002; otherwise it would be down at #8), Jurassic Park is down at #13, Forrest Gump is down at #17, and Jaws is down at #42. Life goes on, ticket prices rise, and milestones that once seemed impressive are now just better business than usual.

Incidentally, all of these figures relate to the domestic chart, and none of them take inflation into account.

When you look at the worldwide chart, Star Wars: Episode I – The Phantom Menace (1999) is Lucas’s biggest hit of all time, at #8, and Jurassic Park is Spielberg’s biggest hit, at #10. The rest of the worldwide top ten is occupied by two Lord of the Rings films, two Harry Potter films, two Pirates of the Caribbean sequels, Shrek 2 and Titanic.

And when you adjust the domestic chart for inflation, Star Wars is #2 again — behind Gone with the Wind (1939).

DC Comics and the movies, redux.

Variety has another article up tonight on Warner Brothers’ plans to go ahead with a series of movies based on the DC Comics superheroes — or, rather, as one of their bloggers puts it, Warner has “plans to make plans.”

The phenomenal success of The Dark Knight, after a summer that had already seemed to be glutted with comic-book movies from Marvel and others, has apparently convinced the folks at Warner that they really need to do something with the rest of the DC stable, which is owned by Time-Warner.

But, paradoxically, the phenomenal success of The Dark Knight also means that Warner dare not go ahead with that rumoured Justice League movie — which would have included Batman among its many characters — for fear of offending the people who are currently responsible for the Batman franchise and have not yet decided whether to go ahead with a third movie.

So what should Warner do? Start cultivating other superheroes, perhaps, and stop worrying about how to team them up, for now.

To that end, reported this week that it had landed a copy of Greg Berlanti’s script for Green Lantern, and their review of it sure seems to indicate that Berlanti “gets” what that series is all about. One slight problem: “in scale it’s big, VERY big, and we are hearing rumors that it may be too big for the director currently attached, Greg Berlanti.” So naturally, the newest rumour is that Warner might hand the film over to George Miller, as a consolation prize for pulling the plug on Justice League.

On a related note, MTV Splash Page has asked a few comic-book writers how the Superman franchise might be rebooted — and some of the things they discuss, regarding the origins of the character and whether it was appropriate to focus on the “weakness” of this “American Christ figure” in Superman Returns (2006), rather than on his ability to fight, are very interesting.

Incidentally, in my previous posts on DC Comics and the movies thereof, I neglected to mention that Nikki Finke claimed back in June that DC Comics itself might be facing some major changes in the near future. I haven’t collected comics in over a decade, so I’m out of the loop on the latest comings and goings, but apparently it’s not only the movie studio that can’t get a handle on these characters, or on what to do with them.