Is Watchmen Review-Proof?

The first batch of Watchmen reviews has arrived, drawing the geeks-vs.-trades divide into crisp, predictable relief. And while the critical haters are a minority, it's their box-office forecasts that could most alarm its producers.

The London Times issued the first mainstream approbation after Tuesday's world premiere, suggesting that "as the first attempt to make a truly post-adolescent comic book movie, Watchmen is, literally, peerless." Neither critics from Variety nor The Hollywood Reporter seemed to disagree after viewing the film last night in LA. For what that was worth: At bigger issue, they wrote, is Watchmen's muddled mediocrity at best and stories "too absurd and acting too uneven to convince anyone," according to THR's Kirk Honeycutt. And by "anyone," the critic really does mean it, concluding, "Looks like we have the first real flop of 2009." Variety's Justin Chang was barely more optimistic about the long-awaited graphic novel adaptation:

[A]uds unfamiliar with Moore's brilliantly bleak, psychologically subversive fiction may get lost amid all the sinewy exposition and multiple flashbacks. After a victorious opening weekend, the pic's B.O. future looks promising but less certain.

"Whatever," studio partners Warner Bros. and Paramount might reply, reminding us that last week's distant fanboy screeching has crescendoed into a full-on market mating call. Harry Knowles led a generally rapturous second wave of praise ("I WATCHED THE FUCKING WATCHMEN AND FUCKING LOVED IT!" he bellowed this week on Ain't It Cool News), joined by admirers from CHUD, Hitfix and elsewhere. The studios' pricey, saturation marketing push nudges you from every direction — Web, print, TV, bus stops, even inside your coffee cup. Another classic case of review-proof comics fodder, a $125 million epic cut from Dark Knight cloth and tailored like one-size-fits-all robes for the geek choir. Right?

Not so fast. Full disclosure: We haven't seen Watchmen, and for all we know it's worthy of CHUD's comparisons to, ahem, The Godfather. But the ad hominem accolades overlook the bigger problem of two studios offering spring's biggest film as an R-rated, 161-minute, apocalyptic sex-and-violence fantasia. "[N]ot for the kids," acknowledges the Times, and possibly not even for the adults if leading critics — usually relied on to boost the prospects of indie and foreign fare — don't attest to director Zack Snyder's "art" when the films opens globally next week. So far, so bad.

Outside of Oscar season, it's an almost unprecedented scenario. The audience limitation is already beyond risky at these prices (particularly for a film that has no franchise future), but unofficially relying on critics to sell a blockbuster even its own source novelist vehemently disowns doesn't seem like much of a bet at all — it's like a prelude to a forfeiture. Of course Watchmen will open to $70 - $80 million domestically, and of course it will be profitable (most notably for the Satanic rights-claimants at Fox), and DVD perpetuity will be good to Snyder's even longer director's cut. But a sure thing it's not — and that's at best. Look out below.