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Notes from a Darkened Theater: The Tedious War Over Watchmen Rages On

By now, it’s hardly news that Zack Snyder’s Watchmen is a potential casualty of a bitter dispute between rival studios - ts March 6 release date in jeopardy as Twentieth Century Fox attempts to prove that the Warner Bros. project infringes on Fox’s copyright, first acquired in 1986. But the biggest surprise in a case that has already inspired some Web-savvy fans to call for boycotts of upcoming Fox tent-poles including May’s X-Men Origins: Wolverine is that neither studio appears willing to back down, whatever the cost.

While those familiar with the situation previously suggested that Fox could be appeased with an out-of-court settlement, the Dec. 24 ruling by U.S. District Judge Gary Feess that Fox still owns “at the very least, a distribution right” in the film has prompted Warner Bros. executives to take an aggressive stance toward possible negotiations – meaning they won’t be happening anytime soon.

“We respectfully but vigorously disagree with the court's ruling and are exploring all of our appellate options,” the studio said in a statement after discovering Feess’ lump of coal in their stocking. “We continue to believe that Fox's claims have no merit and that we will ultimately prevail, whether at trial or in the Court of Appeals.”

For their part, Fox lawyers insist they will continue to fight to prevent the release of Snyder’s $120-million adaptation of the popular graphic novel by Alan Moore, who, as a non-participant in the film’s production, couldn’t care less.

The same cannot be said for Moore’s fans, whose proposed boycott may not declaw Wolverine but still represents a public-relations embarrassment for Fox, whose past ventures into the realm of superheroes (Daredevil, Elektra) have fallen humiliatingly flat. If anything, the X-Men franchise remains their only viable commodity in the genre, unless their lawsuit earns them a stake in the Watchmen sweepstakes.

So what does it all mean? Could Snyder’s blockbuster be derailed by a studio that seemed to stand on the sidelines until production was all but wrapped, only to sandbag the competition in court? Not in the long-term, but with Feess expected to rule Jan. 20 on a proposed injunction against the movie’s March release, it seems increasingly possible that those who have waited more than two decades for Watchmen to hit the big screen may have to wait just a bit longer.

Here’s hoping that’s not the case. While I find myself mildly apprehensive about the film – adaptations of Moore’s intensely dark visions have ranged from the dreadfully misguided (The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen) to the transcendently entertaining (V for Vendetta) to somewhere in between (From Hell) – it seems like sour grapes for Fox to block its release, considering the studio sat on the now-contested property for years while directors including Terry Gilliam, Darren Aronofsky and The Bourne Ultimatum’s Paul Greengrass came and went.

Gilliam concluded that no feature-length film could do justice to the essence of Moore’s epic fantasy, and he might be right. (Producer Lawrence Gordon, who has shepherded the script around Hollywood since 1986, tried twice to sell the former Python on the project, only to have his efforts ultimately rebuffed.) But even if Snyder’s take turns out to be the massive misfire Moore himself seems to expect, it deserves its day in theaters. Its day in court has gone on too long.