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Casualties Mount for World War Watchmen

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As you’ve no doubt heard, Watchmen fans got a huge lump of coal in their stockings over the holidays in the form of a court ruling that grants 20th Century Fox distribution rights and possibly more to the hotly anticipated Warner Bros. movie. Simply put, producer Lawrence Gordon and Fox optioned Alan Moore and Dave Gibbons’ acclaimed graphic novel way back in 1986, but could never get it made. Now that Warner Bros. has taken care of that for them — in what looks like spectacular fashion — Fox has decided to swoop in with a little reminder that it actually owns the darn thing. With the hearing over whether Warner can release Watchmen on March 6th scheduled for later this month, the faithful are left chewing their nails, wondering what the verdict will mean for their chances of ever seeing the movie. Let’s take a look at the possible fallout from the war over Watchmen.

Watchmen: The hot movie of… 2011?
If Fox and Warner Bros. can’t reach an agreement before mid-January, the judge will issue an injunction to prevent the movie’s release in March. Should Warner Bros. appeal the ruling, the legal battle could drag on for quite a while longer, causing Watchmen‘s release date to get pushed as far back as 2011. After so much build-up and hype, keeping the movie away from fans for another two years is tantamount to torture, and could temper the moviegoing public’s interest when it finally hits. In addition, Watchmen would have to compete with Marvel’s Avengers flick in 2011, and it’s never a good idea to split fanboys’ attentions. But aside from all that, movies typically don’t benefit from sitting on the shelf — just look at the reaction to the Weinstein Company’s Fanboys debacle. The extra time could give Warner execs a chance to tinker with and ruin director Zack Snyder’s baby while he’s off oiling up Gerard Butler for the 300 sequel.

Snyder’s epic could get trimmed (or shelved)
By all accounts, it appears that Warner Bros. never had the right to make Watchmen in the first place. The lawsuit claims that before approaching Warner, Gordon failed to offer Fox the option of using Snyder as a director — something he was contractually obligated to do. While a huge payout for Fox will most likely be the end result of all this, Warner Bros. could end up having to either shelve Snyder’s movie or hand the whole thing over. Fox’s chairman, Tom Rothman, has drawn the ire of comic book fans in recent years for the studio’s increasingly mainstream-friendly output ( Fantastic Four: Rise of the Silver Surfer , X-Men: The Last Stand ), so asking him to release Snyder’s nearly 3-hour cut as it stands is a tall order. If he so chooses, Rothman could decide to can Snyder’s version altogether and turn the property over to another director — Brett Ratner, perhaps, or whoever helmed Elektra.

Studios could stop banking on risky comic book fare
Between the legal battle and the production cost, Watchmen is going to end up being one expensive movie regardless of the outcome. And despite favorable buzz and a nearly unanimous agreement on its potential, it’s still a bit of a gamble since people aren’t entirely convinced Moore’s sprawling work is even filmable. Witnessing this debacle, other studios could start to get antsy about giving the greenlight to challenging comic book movies in the future — especially ones that feature lesser known characters. Where does that leave projects like Sam Mendes’ recently announced Preacher adaptation? Well, I wouldn’t expect to see Jesse, Tulip, and that hard-drinking Irish vampire Cassidy any time in the near future.

2009 at the movies could be a lot duller

Watchmen was supposed to kick off the blockbuster year with a bang, knocking out sleepy winter fare like He’s Just Not That Into You and Hotel For Dogs, and getting us pumped for the big guns to come (Star Trek, Terminator 4, etc.) The trailers and sneak peeks continue to build buzz, but the possibility that we might not get to see the movie at all kind of takes the shine off the new year’s cinematic offerings. X-Men Origins: Wolverine looks fun and all, but it’s a Fox offering and plenty of fans are already talking boycott. Besides, Wolverine is no Watchmen.

What is your biggest fear about the legal tussle over Watchmen? Do you think we’ll ever see the movie?

When not writing for places like The Onion and HBO, Nick Nadel is in line at the comic book store alongside the other geeks, er, fans of speculative fiction. His most prized possession is a 1960s Batman comic wherein the Dynamic Duo are trapped inside a fortune cookie factory.

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