What follows is a long, spoiler-filled ramble on the Watchmen movie. If you haven’t seen it, yet, then do so. Come back afterward and let me know what you thought. These are mine.
Self-appointed, neurotic (sometimes psychotic) guardians of what they see as right.
Problem is…nobody wants them around anymore. And in a 1985 where the U.S. and U.S.S.R. are on the brink of nuclear war, and where Richard Nixon is in his 5th term as President (thanks to the skillful employment of a couple of these costumed musclemen), it’s questionable that they’d do any good anyway.
Dr. Filth, he keeps his world
Inside of a leather cup
But all his sexless patients
They’re trying to blow it up*
This is not a superhero movie. In fact, you’ll be hard pressed to find any heroes to root for at all. The closest you’ll come is pity. I hate to go all “comic book guy” on you, but if you’re going to this movie expecting to see Spider-Man or X-Men, then turn around and head for Street Fighter instead.
Now at midnight all the agents
And the superhuman crew
Come out and round up everyone
That knows more than they do*
Watchmen is a deconstruction of the super-hero mythos that had evolved from the first appearance of Superman in 1938 and Batman in 1939. Alan Moore was looking to take some old Charlton Comics characters like Blue Beetle, Captain Atom, The Question and The Peacemaker for a story where one of them is murdered in a dark future. What he wound up with was a work that explored what it would be like if normal humans tried to take on the task of solving society’s problems by putting on funny costumes and dispensing vigilante justice. What would drive them to this level of craziness? What would happen if the people they thought they were protecting didn’t agree with them? Who watches the watchmen?
All these people that you mention
Yes, I know them, they’re quite lame
I had to rearrange their faces
And give them all another name*
Watchmen is a brilliant series of “what ifs” that can be traced all the way back to Superman and Batman. Each of the characters is really just an over-the-top version of an existing child of those two.
Dr. Manhattan, like Captain Atom and Superman, is the ultimate super-man, and he leaves you to wonder what the all-powerful alien would be like if he lost his empathy for humans. If Superman didn’t have his affection for Lois Lane to bind him to humanity, what would keep him from doing whatever the hell he wanted? The fact that Manhattan is used as a symbol of American might goes right back to Superman as the bearer of “truth, justice and the American way.”
Nite Owl is actually Nite Owl II, a fanboy follower of the original costumed hero from the 40’s. He’s got Batman’s gadget-loving side, just like Blue Beetle, having his own underground lair filled with toys. Nite Owl gets the cool vehicle and all the accessories, which, it turns out, is all the poor, forcibly retired guy wants. He’s got no life without the cowl, the cape and the contraptions.
Ozymandias represents the uber-rich Bruce Wayne. He’s “the world’s smartest man” and rules an empire built on his fame.
Rorshach, like The Question, is the nearly insane, vengeance-driven side of Batman. He’s a detective who strikes fear into the hearts of his enemies…but he has the same effect on his friends.
Silk Spectre, being the only female of the group, gets to symbolize way more than her counterparts. She’s simultaneously Lois for Dr. Manhattan, Dan Dreiberg’s catalyst to get his chubby ass back in the game as Nite Owl, and the stand-in for all the women in comics: basically as sex objects. Oh, yeah, and she’s got mommy issues, too.
Praise be to Nero’s Neptune
The Titanic sails at dawn
And everybody’s shouting
“Which Side Are You On?”*
The fact that this movie finally got made is astonishing. The fact that it got made without ripping the novel to shreds and plopping it in our laps in some unrecognizable form is a miracle.
Alan Moore had good reason to be skeptical of this project. I never read The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen or V, for Vendetta, but I could tell how bad they turned out. Why would anyone think that something like Watchmen could make it through the film-making process unscathed? Plus, I read and loved Watchmen. The last thing I wanted to see was a dumbed-down version of it.
“Unscathed” is not the word I’d use for how it all turned out. There were scars. In fact, the further I get from the movie experience, the more painful these wounds become. However, I’m not above admitting that I’m closer to the obsessed fans of Harry Potter or Lord of the Rings complaining about pet peeves in those movies than someone who noticed some massive flaw in the film. (There is one, I think, but I’m still on the fence about whether it’s as important as I’m making it out to be.)
People who read the graphic novel can’t understand how anyone who didn’t read it will be able to follow the movie. As my wife can attest, most people who didn’t read it followed the movie just fine. I think there’s a bit of snobbery around the Watchmen experience that turns into a “you just can’t get all the themes” comic book nerdism. That said, there really isn’t a way to cram every ounce of symbolism and every side line plot into a movie of any reasonable length. While I think that an HBO mini-series would have been better, Zack Snyder is to be placed on a comic book geek pedestal. He used every ounce of his leverage with the studio to keep this Watchmen as faithful to its source as he could. For what might have been, see previous post.
The Good News
It’s all there. Every plot point that matters made it from the book to the film. In fact, I kept watching it and saying to myself, “Ok, this is where they’re gonna wimp out and skip the part where…whoa, they didn’t!” Granted, a lot of smaller sub-plots (like the psychiatrist and his wife) were skipped, but I didn’t really miss them. The Tales of the Black Freighter that weaves its way in and out of the book would not have worked on the screen. I’m glad it’s getting its own animated version, instead. You couldn’t have asked for a more faithful recreation of the look of the novel.
Jackie Earle Haley is brilliant as Rorschach. If you went back in time and kidnapped a kid and spent the last 45 years trying to make him into Rorschach, you wouldn’t have come up with someone better. (In fact, you’d be pretty damned scary with your precognitive skills and your time machine…not to mention your sadistic obsession with Rorschach!)
I really liked the musical choices, too. Big Dylan fan (duh), so the use of Dylan songs throughout was nice (though Whiny the Elder had a problem with the punk version of “Desolation Row” in the end credits…too “upbeat” for what should have been a depressing ending to this tragedy and just a general distaste for the band My Chemical Romance). Nat King Cole’s “Unforgettable” during the death fight with The Comedian is great, as is K.C. and the Sunshine Band’s “I’m Your Boogie Man” during his quelling of the riots.
The Bad News
Much of the power of a Watchmen movie is robbed by its distance from the original time. In 1986, Watchmen and Frank Miller’s Batman: The Dark Knight Returns kicked comic book readers like me in the gut. These were from before there was a term “graphic novel.” These were comic books. What the hell were they doing trying to make you think?
Not only that, but Watchmen was set in the here-and-now of nuclear paranoia. We were still a few years off from the fall of the Berlin Wall. Between 1945 and 1989, it was just a matter of fact that the end of the world was near. We were determined to blow ourselves up, and no one was going to stop us.
Today? Not so much.
Yes, they could have set the story in 2009 and switched the threat to terrorism, but it’s just not the same. A main theme throughout the book is that we will destroy everything in one, big fireball. Today…well, yes, there are still plenty of nukes out there, and one or two might go off at the hands of terrorists, but whereas nuclear Armageddon was in your face in 1986, today it just feels like we’re dying in smaller chunks.
Another problem with the movie is the fact that the novel spawned so many things that are common in stories today. Seeing Rorschach kick ass, while still fun, isn’t nearly as revolutionary now that everyone else has copied him. Hell, even in the movie, they changed a scene from the book, because they didn’t want it to look like they were ripping off Saw!
Seeing this is like watching Chuck Berry play guitar. You enjoy it. You know it’s historic. You know that he invented this stuff. But you also know that Jimi Hendrix came later. It’s nice, but it’s not super relevant anymore.
For folks who know the novel, the opening shots are great. They lay out a bunch of the history of the Watchmen universe from the 1940’s through the film’s present. But (here I go again) I don’t know how anyone who didn’t read the novel would understand half of what’s depicted. To them, I’m assuming it’s just a way to show that the universe is slightly tilted from our own.
A few other things were rushed or left unexplained:
- Why did the Comedian shoot JFK?
In the book it’s because Kennedy was starting to move toward disarmament and peace (that, and he was Nixon’s hired gun). In the film, it just seemed like he was being an asshole version of Forrest Gump.
- Why did Dr. Manhattan put on a speedo in some parts of the film but let his supermanhood flop around at other times?
In the book it’s because the government made him wear a full costume right after the accident. He slowly began to lose bits and pieces of it as time marched on and he drifted further away from caring what humanity thought of him.
- The whole Keene Act and the outlawing of masked heroes was a little vague in the movie. I didn’t quite catch the reasons for the riots (the cops were on strike to protest the supers), but maybe I missed it.
Finally, the unkindest cut of all: the ending.
At first, I thought, “OK, this works. It’s not a giant squid, but…well, at least it’s not a giant squid!”
Thinking about it, though, I’ve come to realize that it nearly ruined the entire movie.
In the book, Ozymandias takes his “father knows best” complex to the absurd level of faking an alien attack in order to unite the world against a common enemy. He creates a genetic mutation (a giant, Cthulu-like creature filled with psychic power) and explodes it over New York, “killing millions to save billions.”
In the movie, he frames Dr. Manhattan for a bunch of explosions he sets off in major cities around the world.
Let’s leave for a moment the fact that you may or may not be affected by the deaths of all those people (I wasn’t), but it changes from being a ridiculous plan that might work to an illogical plan that would never work!
All through the movie, Manhattan is touted as an American weapon (“God is real, and he’s American”). So, why does Richard Nixon (of all people) get world sympathy because America’s weapon just attacked everyone? Sure, the big blue guy supposedly hit New York, too, but come on…you don’t think that the Soviets might just blame the U.S. for this mess instead of singing kumbaya with them?
The further I get away from that ending, the more it hurts my impression of the movie. But maybe I’m just being comic book geek guy again. I dunno.
In any case, bottom line on this is that you should see it. I want to see it again, too.
Right now I can’t read too good
Don’t send me no more letters no
Not unless you mail them
From Desolation Row
*Bob Dylan, Desolation Row
Oh yeah. Smiley face on Mars. Malin Space Science Systems. Malin Ackerman. Too cool.