Making Watchmen: What Took So Long?

RT looks at the graphic novel's oft-delayed trip to the big screen.

by | February 13, 2009 | Comments

Last December, comics and movie fans eagerly awaiting the March 6th, 2009 release of Watchmen were shocked by the news that on Christmas Eve, Los Angeles federal judge Gary Allen Feess gave 20th Century Fox a big present. Feess ruled that Fox has rights to Watchmen, the spectacular looking and highly-anticipated movie that Warner Bros has been making, and is only a few months from releasing. Fox’s lawsuit against Warner Bros hadn’t been a secret, but few fans probably thought that anything would really come of it. After all, Watchmen was published by DC Comics, which is owned by Warner Bros, and so they clearly had the rights to make a movie based on the comic, right? Taken in that light, this is sort of like a studio suing over Warner Bros’ rights to make a Batman or Superman movie. However, the history of the road of how Watchmen became a movie is much more complicated.

Let’s begin at the beginning (the very beginning) with some comics corporate history. In 1934, Major Malcolm Wheeler-Nicholson founded a company called National Allied Publications to publish one of the first titles of a new thing called “comic books”, in response to another company that had published the first example of a year earlier. Wheeler-Nicholson’s first comic books were just reprints of strips from the Sunday funnies, but in 1937 he established a second, separate company to publish comic books comprised of original material that was mainly grittier, crime fighting stories. This new company’s first title was to be Detective Comics, and so the initials, D.C., were used for the company’s name. A year later in 1938, the company launched its fourth title, Action Comics #1 featuring a new type of character which would become known as “the superhero”, in the form of Superman. The company was a huge success in the following years, which became known as the Golden Age of Comics. In 1944, D.C. Comics merged with National Allied (although Wheeler-Nicholson himself was out of both companies by then) and was called National Comics, although the DC Comics name was still used on most of the titles. Over the next 25 years, DC/National flourished, publishing comics in nearly all genres, including popular superheroes like Batman, Superman, Wonder Woman and the Flash. Meanwhile, over in the movie business, a company called 7 Arts had bought the troubled Warner Bros movie studio in 1967 for $85 million. Two years later, partly because of the popularity of the 1960s Batman TV series, National Comics was bought by Warner Bros/7 Arts. This history establishes something very important to the Watchmen legal story: DC Comics has belonged to Warner Bros for the last 40 years.

Now, let’s speed along to the next page in this particular history book. Enter: Alan Moore. Born in England in 1953, comic book writer Alan Moore belonged to a group of writers and artists whose careers were incubated by England’s own comic book industry. The flagship title in the English comics scene was the long-running anthology series 2000 A.D., which spun off a few long-running titles, including Judge Dredd (the awesome comic, not just the crappy movie). In the 1980s, mainstream comic books began to take on a new maturity, urged on by both a growing independent comics scene and the success of edgier, darker storylines like the “Dark Phoenix Saga” in Uncanny X-Men. The edgy British writers were perfect imports for companies like DC, and so in 1983, Alan Moore, who had achieved some acclaim with his V for Vendetta, was hired to write the monster comic, Swamp Thing, which he turned into a sort of gothic/noir romantic epic. Moore’s success led to many of those other British writers, like Neil Gaiman (Sandman) and Grant Morrison (Doom Patrol) to also start writing for DC.

Next Page: Alan Moore’s inspirations for Watchmen

One of DC Comics’ competitor companies through the late 1940s to the 1970s was a smaller company called Charlton. Like DC, Charlton published a variety of genres, including superhero titles like Blue Beetle and Captain Atom. Their fortunes declined in the 70s and early 80s, and in 1983 Charlton sold its superheroes to DC Comics and saw the characters added to the hundreds of other heroes that were already part of the “DC Universe.” Editorially, the addition of the Charlton characters was just another piece of an already compicated situation. Through decades of storytelling, DC had accumulated dozens of fictional worlds, in which various versions of characters existed: multiple Batmans, Supermans, etc. This siituation became so complicated that in 1985, DC launched an ambitious title called Crisis on Infinite Earths with the goal of destroying all of the other “Earths” except one. This meant the end of “Earth Four,” the home Blue Beetle and his Charlton brethren.

DC Comics still wanted to do something with their Charlton acquisitions though, and a lucky coincidence was in the works. One of Alan Moore’s most lauded successes in England had been Miracleman, a darkly revisionist take on a stable of superheroes from the 1950s who had been fairly obvious Captain Marvel clones. Around the same time, Moore had come up with the idea for a superhero murder mystery tale, one which would also serve as both a deconstruction of the superhero genre as well as a commentary on 1980s global politics, and one that he hoped to be able to tell using a group of somwhat obscure characters that didn’t seme to have much of an editorial future. And so, using the title of Who Killed the Peacemaker, Alan Moore pitched his idea to DC Comics, using the Charlton characters.

DC loved the pitch, but didn’t want to see some of their recent acquisitions killed off or sullied so quickly; the company approved the pitch, but not the characters. As for the actual Charlton characters, two of them (Blue Beetle and Captain Atom) became members of the new version of Justice League, where they became quite successful. Another Charlton character known as The Question got his own series which did alright for a few years. Most of the others, like Peacemaker and Thunderbolt (the counterparts to The Comedian and Ozymandias), sort of never took off at DC. And so, Alan Moore and artist Dave Gibbons began work on their own story, which was to be a 12-issue miniseries, using characters loosely inspired by the Charlton characters instead; Blue Beetle became Nite Owl, Captain Atom became Dr. Manhattan, The Question became Rorschach, Peacemaker became The Comedian, and Thunderbold became Ozymandias. The title of the book was Watchmen, with #1 hitting the stands with the publication date of September, 1986.

Looking back, 1986 was defining year in the history of DC Comics. There are obviously other key moments, like Julius Schwartz’s decision in 1956 to bring back a new version of The Flash, effectively launching the Silver Age of Comics, and of course, all the amazing characters that were created in the 1930s-1940s and the Golden Age. But in 1986, DC Comics really changed the face of modern comics in a very short amount of time. This was the year that both Frank Miller’s The Dark Knight Returns and Watchmen launched. Both series featured dark, deconstructionist takes on the very idea of superheroes and both series are praised as being among the top stories ever written. 1986 also saw the big finish to Crisis on Infinite Earths, which enabled the writers and editors of DC Comics to totally relaunch all of their characters, including Superman, Batman, Wonder Woman and the rest of their big guns. This resulted in fresh new takes on classic characters, starting with Superman: The Man of Steel, a 6 issue mini-series that completely changed Superman’s origin and did the unthinkable: it limited Superman’s godlike powers. DC Comics was truly changing everything.

Watchmen was instantly received as a masterpiece, and readers devoured each new chapter in the 12-issue mini-series. The intricate murder mystery story concocted by writer Alan Moore was well matched by the artwork of Dave Gibbons. Gibbons filled each panel with extreme detail, and challenged the reader to notice all of the amazing symmetry between comic book panels. Some credit for the artistic detail should also be given to Alan Moore, who is well-known for his lengthy writing descriptions. Moore has been known to spend pages of copy describing a single panel, where other writers might typically just write the dialogue and very brief action notations. Adding to the series’ depth, each issue ended with a few pages of text that filled in more history of the Watchmen universe; sometimes excerpts from books from the Watchmen universe, a psychological profile of Rorschach or an excerpt from a toy catalog from Ozymandias’ corporate empire. Reading Watchmen for the first time in 1986 and 1987, the reader was challenged to wonder if there was anything in the comic that wasn’t innovative, if not completely mind-blowing.

Next Page: Hollywood takes notice of Watchmen

The impact of Watchmen wasn’t overlooked in Hollywood. Although DC Comics was a corporate cousin of Warner Bros at that time, WB did not necessarily have a corporate policy of keeping every DC Comics property in house. So 20th Century Fox quickly snatched up the movie rights to Watchmen in 1986. After five years in development, which included a script draft by Sam Hamm, who wrote Tim Burton’s Batman, 20th Century Fox put the Watchmen movie in turnaround in 1991. Turnaround is a very common practice in Hollywood, in which a studio gives up on developing a project, allowing the producer(s) to take it elsewhere, where they might have better luck. Many, many successful movies (like E.T., Forrest Gump and Speed) at one point or another were placed in turnaround. Apparently, however, something went wrong in the case of Watchmen, where some legal crossed t’s or dotted i’s weren’t handled properly. Producer Larry Gordon thought he was free to take Watchmen elsewhere, and he did. Ultimately, this is what would lead to legal problems over 20 years later, problems, that until recently, had many wondering if the Watchmen movie would be doomed by delays and a change in the way it was released.

In the 1990s, producer Larry Gordon brought Watchmen to the studio that always made the most sense: Warner Bros. But just like what happened at 20th Century Fox, the movie didn’t have much success at WB. As a movie, Watchmen has always been considered one of the most challenging concepts to pull off; it’s got unfamiliar superheroes, on top of a lengthy, complex story set in an alternate history (its the 80s, and Nixon is still president). After years of hit and miss efforts, the superhero movie business was starting to take off in the late 1990s, following the success of X-Men. So Gordon next took Watchmen to Universal in 2001, with the studio signing X-Men writer David Hayter to a 7-figure deal for the project. Once again, Watchmen didn’t get a greenlight at Universal either, and so Gordon and Hayter next took the project to Paramount in 2004, at which point, superheroes had become THE hot properties in town; The success of 2002’s Spider-Man showed you could put an actor in a full costume and audiences would indeed believe in it. More importantly, Spider-Man showed that superhero properties could be something Hollywood loves: dependable

Paramount was the 4th studio where Watchmen spent time, leaving only Disney and Sony as the two members of Hollywood’s major studios that never touched the title. Watchmen came closer to actually happening at Paramount than any previous studio. First, they hired director Darren Aronofsky (The Wrestler, Requiem for a Dream) to work on it, and then Aronofsky was replaced by director Paul Greengrass (Bloody Sunday, The Bourne Supremacy). Greengrass began pre-production of Watchmen at Pinewood Studios in England, but as the numbers for the budget came in, Paramount balked. There was a new edict at the studio that massive budgets had to be reined in or the movie in question would be cancelled. And that was the end of Watchmen at Paramount.

And so in December of 2005, Watchmen came full circle back to Warner Bros once more. Earlier that year, WB had massive success with Batman Begins, an ambitious attempt to reboot the Batman movie franchise after the embarassments of the movies directed by Joel Schumacher. The gamble on Batman Begins had paid off, and so WB was obviously looking for other DC superhero projects that could find similar success at the box office. And the stars were certainly aligned, as Warner Bros had in their stable a director who was working on a movie that would bring a different type of innovation to moviemaking: Zack Snyder, director of 300. Although 300 wasn’t released until early 2007, someone at Warner Bros apparently understood what the studio had in in the film. Using live actors performing almost exclusively on sets against CGI backdrops, Zack Snyder had devised a way to deliver an epic-looking action movie on a budget that was a fraction of something like Warner Bros’ own Troy (for example). Warner Bros mentioned Watchmen to Snyder, and he promptly jumped at the opportunity. In June, 2006 Zack Snyder was announced as the director of Watchmen.

At the point of that announcement, Zack Snyder was known mostly as the director of the Dawn of the Dead remake, which was generally considered as better than expected, but what exactly Snyder had in store with 300 wasn’t widely known. When the movie was released in March of 2007 to audience adoration and stellar box office, fans finally connected the dots on what Snyder’s involvement might mean for Watchmen, especially considering the exacting detail with which Snyder was able to bring the images of Frank Miller’s graphic novel to life. Could the same be done for Watchmen? Casting speculation for Watchmen went crazy in 2007, with many big names being mentioned, including Keanu Reeves as Dr. Manhattan and John Cusack as Nite Owl II. Warner Bros, however, went a different route, casting actors who weren’t necessarily matinee names, but who were capable and talented more importantly, a heck of a lot cheaper. The budget problems experienced by Paramount weren’t going to be repeated at Warner Bros.

Next Page: Cameras finally roll on Watchmen

Filming of Watchmen started in Vancouver in September, 2007, roughly 20 years after the comic was originally published. Over the next several months, tiny details were leaked out as official publicity stills, and Watchmen seemed to be doing the impossible: living up to the standards of Alan Moore’s and Dave Gibbon’s original work. But in February of 2008, the same month in which principal photography of Watchmen wrapped, that old turnaround deal at 20th Century Fox reared its ugly head. 20 years after 20th Century Fox had put Watchmen in turnaround, the studio brought a lawsuit against Warner Bros over the filming of Watchmen, claiming that Fox had the sole right to the property. At the time, however, not much attention was given to Fox’s lawsuit. The movie was still over a year from release, and it seemed likely that nothing much would come of the lawsuit. After all, Warner Bros owned DC, which had to mean that WB maintained the movie rights to any DC properties (or so most people assumed).

July of 2008 was the month that Watchmen first exploded into their moviegoing consciousness. First, there was a fantastic trailer that was attached to The Dark Knight, Christopher Nolan’s highly-acclaimed follow-up to Batman Begins. Mainstream audiences unfamiliar with Watchmen were alternately confused by the trailer or excited by it, but either way, more people were now aware of Watchmen that ever before. Later that same month, the Warner Bros showcase was the place to be at San Diego Comic Con, as more footage was unveiled, and the director and his cast were on hand to answer questions. Watchmen was all of a sudden the movie that everyone was talking about, both online and in the real world.

The anticipation for the Watchmen movie grew throughout the fall of 2008, aided by monthly video previews on the official site. But on Christmas Eve, there came the shocking announcement that the nearly-forgotten lawsuit had been ruled in favor of 20th Century Fox, against Warner Bros. Comics and movies fans had a very sad Christmas day as people tried to piece together what exactly this meant for the future of Watchmen. Would the movie be shelved, delayed or changed in any way by Fox? Warner Bros obviously didn’t want any of those options to become reality, and so for the next few weeks, WB desparately tried to find a way out of the problem. The answer finally came on January 15th, 2009, when a deal was settled upon in which 20th Century Fox would receive a 8.5% participation in the box office receipts, comparable to what a major movie star might receive for starring in a movie (as well as some other back end participation points). Watchmen ended up costing Warner Bros a bit more than they had anticipated, but the movie that Zack Snyder is crafting now seems to be guaranteed to continue without delays or changes.

The one man that seems to be ignoring every part of this story, however, is Watchmen creator Alan Moore. Moore has consistently maintained his lack of interest or support in Watchmen, just as he has with past adaptations of his comics, which have ranged from the painfully awful (LXG) to an ambitious but mixed bag of a thriller (From Hell) to a rather awesome and intelligent action movie (V for Vendetta). Artist Dave Gibbons on the other hand, has heaped praise on the production, and stands behind Snyder’s efforts. One known element of Watchmen that many fans feel could possibly support Moore’s stance are the much-discussed third act changes. Without getting into spoilers, let’s just say that the comics ended one way, and the movie will simply (if all reports and rumors on this subject are accurate) end in a very, very different way. If Watchmen ends up disappointing fans, this change will no doubt be pointed to as Snyder’s downfall (and will vindicate Moore’s criticisms). But if this new version of the ending works, Snyder stands to reap much praise for doing what many have considered impossible: bringing Watchmen to the big screen.

Now that an agreement has been reached with 20th Century Fox, Warner Bros’ rollout to the release of Watchmen has been designed to stoke the fires of anticipation leading up to both the movie’s opening day, as well as a variety of post-release events such as DVD and video game releases. On the 6th of each month new video previews have been released on the official Watchmen site, as well as viral videos of things like a 1970s newscast and a government educational video. On iTunes, Warner Bros has been slowly rolling out a “motion comic” that is a fully-voiced adaptation of every single panel of Watchmen. In March, as tie-ins to the movie’s release, there will be both an pisodic video game (360, PS3 and PC) called Watchmen: The End is Nigh and the DVD release of Watchmen: Tales of the Black Freighter, the comic-within-a-comic story that couldn’t fit in the theatrical release, as well as a documentary version of Under the Hood. The results of the anticipation can be seen quite obviously online, as both comics fans and general moviegoers have swamped any website coverage of Watchmen with comments and discussion. And so, the epic, decades-long tale of how the Watchmen movie came to be is finally coming to a close on March 6th, 2009.

For all things Watchmen, including trailers, clips, photos and more, take a trip to RT’s Watchmen Headquarters.