Let’s talk about the WATCHMEN movie, since nobody is anymore. And while we’re at it, let’s talk about the 20th CENTURY BOYS movie trilogy. Why? Because there might be something instructive to be learned here.
It’s fitting that movies of both WATCHMEN and 20th CENTURY BOYS should come out in the same time period. Their original comics were also published in the tail-end of the 20th Century as part of the post-modernist trend of deconstructing pop genres. Both works deal with popular genres that kids in the Sixties and Seventies grew up on and deconstruct their conventions and the grip they have on our imaginations even after we grow up. With WATCHMEN, it’s superheroes. With 20th CENTURY BOYS, it’s pulp Science Fiction stories involving giant robots and doomsday weapons. WATCHMEN is about a group of middle-aged superheroes investigating a conspiracy that might be killing them to stop them from averting Armageddon. 20th CENTURY BOYS is about a group of middle-aged childhood friends investigating a conspiracy launched by a doomsday cult that’s using the script fo the game they played as kids as its scenario to bring about Armageddon. WATCHMEN is a seminal work in Western comics that got press coverage, won awards, and cemented the reputation of its creators Alan Moore and Dave Gibbons as masters of their craft. 20th CENTURY BOYS is a seminal work in Japanese comics that got press coverage, won awards, and cemented the reputation of its creator Naoki Urusawa as a master of his craft. Both comics addressed the deeper themes of their own genres, and at the same time in history.
The movies of both WATCHMEN and 20th CENTURY BOYS recreate images and entire panel compositions from the original comics. Actors were cast and costumed to look just like the characters in the comics.
And yes, they do have differences: WATCHMEN ran 12 issues and was collected into a single book. 20th CENTURY BOYS was serialized, then collected into 24 paperbacks that only ended last year, totaling over 4,000 pages of story. WATCHMEN: THE MOVIE had to be compressed into a running time of less than three hours for theatrical release. 20th CENTURY BOYS: THE MOVIE had to be compressed and split into a trilogy of movies running more than two hours each.
There’s also another big difference between them:
WATCHMEN: THE MOVIE is a flop at the box office.
20th CENTURY BOYS: THE MOVIE, on the other hand, has been a hit in Japan and Asia.
Remember how DARK KNIGHT continued as a topic of conversation with endless trailers still running throughout its time in the theatres as it became a certi fied hit? Now compare that to WATCHMEN, whose trailers vanished three weeks after its first weekend when it became increasingly apparent that it was bombing and the media just quickly forgot about it. The studios are treating it like a disastrous love affair with a weird-looking girl it now desperately wants to forget. Failures areembarrassing in Hollywood. They give off a bad smell. Done and done, onto the next shiny thing that will hopefully be a hit. 20th CENTURY BOYS, on the other hand was filmed as a trilogy whose total budget was half of WATCHMEN’s. The first part premiered in Japan last December, the second part this past Spring and the conclusion scheduled for the end of this year. The pre-sold audience is on-track to see the whole trilogy the way the LORD OF THE RINGS trilogy primed its audience to follow all three parts.
So why did WATCHMEN fail while 20th CENTURY BOYS succeed? Was it that WATCHMEN was a movie inaccessible to people who haven’t read the comic? WATCHMEN’s heroes were psychotics, sociopaths and sexual deviants who dressed funny. The majority of the movie-going public might have a hard time relating to those personality types. Niche products do not appeal to everyone. 20TH CENTURY BOYS’ heroes were ordinary working class people who find themselves in a situation much bigger than them. 20TH CENTURY BOYS was shot on real locations with integrated CGI effects to create a world like ours, with people we instantly recognised. WATCHMEN had the overcooked feel of a movie that, with its elaborate, painterly, claustrophobic sets and CGI effects, become a mausoleum that entombed its story and characters. It became a Fabergé Egg to be admired from the outside. Could it be that it was too much an attempt at an auteur movie? The marketing was schizophrenic: was it a masterpiece by a “visionary” director? A pointless adaptation of an unadaptable book? A wham-bam superhero movie? Audiences seemed to think being all three was problematic . 20th CENTURY BOYS didn’t put up that much of a fuss – it was made by a dependable and stylish TV director who just wanted to get on with telling the story without trying to impose a “visionary” stamp on it, and the marketing of the film let the story speak for itself? These are questions worth asking.
Alas, Americans won’t get to see 20th CENTURY BOYS anytime soon as it hasn’t been picked up for release in the US. It has been released in the UK and Europe, however, and Brits can check it out on DVD. Americans will just have to depend on bootlegs and illegal download sites.
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