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What looked vaguely at first like a garden-variety Hollywood legal squabble escalated late Monday into the Cuban Missile Crisis of fanboydom: A judge upheld Fox's pending lawsuit claiming that they, not Warner Bros., own the distribution rights to Zack Snyder's forthcoming graphic-novel adaptation Watchmen. The resulting mess is thick, deep and aromatic, with not just two but three studios slogging through a paper trail nearly two decades long. And perhaps the best part: Fox says it doesn't even want to be bought off, instead publicly suggesting they'd rather file an injunction against the breathlessly anticipated film's release next March than not get what it has coming. Which won't happen (at least we don't think so) but that doesn't make matters that much better. But whatever — we love a good Hollywood blood feud as much as anybody. Follow the jump for a morning-after summary, a few pressing questions and a bit of quick-and-dirty handicapping.We can start by thanking Larry Gordon for both the vision and the legal gaps that first got Fox (the original studio to sign on for Watchmen), Paramount (the international distributor) and Warner Bros. (the studio that nabbed the film for Snyder as his 300 came together in late 2006) into this imbroglio. Deadline Hollywood Daily yesterday offered a helpful timeline of events that started with Gordon placing Watchmen at Fox in the late '80s and finally reclaiming it in 1994 when the studio nudged it into turnaround: "The 'turnaround notice' gave Lawrence Gordon Productions 'the perpetual right . . . to acquire all of the right, title and interest of Fox [Watchmen] pursuant to the terms and conditions herein provided.' " And that should have been that; if and/or when Gordon took it elsewhere, he and his new partners cut a check. Alas, it never happened, says Fox, and while Judge Gary Feess didn't rule one way or another Monday, he denied Warners' request to dismiss its rival's claim to the rights that Gordon allegedly never bought back. But how bad is it? Bad enough for Fox to publicly toe the hard line in stopping Watchmen's opening on March 6, 2009:

"Warner Bros.' production and anticipated release of The Watchmen [sic] motion picture violates 20th Century Fox's long-standing motion picture rights in The Watchmen property," Fox said in a statement. ... "We will be asking the court to enforce Fox's copyright interests in The Watchmen and enjoin the release of the Warner Bros. film and any related Watchmen media that violate our copyright interests in that property."

Yeah, right. Cooler heads will prevail here, especially with Warners and Legendary Pictures about $120 million in (plus at least $150 million in marketing to come, starting with its recent success at Comic-Con) and Fox not wanting to start World War III with an avoidable throat-slashing. That doesn't mean someone won't bleed, of course — but who? Will Paramount, which itself had Watchmen ready to go before Brad Grey cleaned house in 2005, be edged out of some or all its foreign entitlement? Will Warners cut Fox in on gross, and how much will be enough — especially with a surefire franchise on its hands? David Poland crunched some messy, guessy numbers over at The Hot Blog, but we can't argue with his conclusion: "Don’t expect them to go away for anything less than $25 million. And they will take an amount like that now… because they don’t want to gamble either. 100% of WB’s profit could be $0." But that's just where our questions begin. Would someone at Warners let us know what's going on in legal? This same thing happened with Dukes of Hazzard four years ago when the studio shelled out more than $17 million to an original producer. We know how boring it can be to do due diligence, but last we checked, it's still a job requirement, especially on 20-year-old projects in turnaround — twice. Also, how much of Warner Bros.' sudden Harry Potter move to '09 anticipated Feess' decision? If Warners could conceivably lose money on Watchmen after factoring in Paramount and Fox's cuts, and its only summer tentpole, Terminator 4, is just something it's distributing for someone else, then Harry's switch may not be a matter of money it doesn't need in '08 but rather a cushion for money it planned to lose in '09. That may be the most telling sign of its strategy to come — that and the spike in empty liquor bottles recycled on the lot this morning. And at least Fox finally got the really big summer hit it needed. Kudos, gang, you earned it.