Tuesday 17 March 2009


Watchmen created an interesting phenomenon; its reviews, particularly in the US, were as bad as any film's I can recall, including some every bit as gratuitously violent as they accused the film of being. At the same time, it was the top grossing movie in its opening weekend, despite, at two hours 40 minutes, being too long for the allegedly limited attention span of today's teenaged cinema audience. I heard one cinema manager explain that parents were arriving with six-year olds expecting something like Spider Man 23, given that the film suffered a two-thirds drop in the second week, word of mouth may have caught up with the fact that this isn't the film almost anyone thinks it is. At the most basic level,the bad reviews are very much a part of this inability to place, indeed, to understand what the film actually is, and this is a problem which has hung over Watchmen ever since the novel came out; first its writer, Alan Moore, and then potential director Terry Gilliam, both declared it unfilmable.

Watchmen is set in the 1980s. Nixon is in his fifth term as president, and costumed heroes have been outlawed, except for Doctor Manhattan, his body transformed in a nuclear accident, whose presence on the American side has thus far kept the world out of nuclear war. The Soviets are threatening war and Nixon is convinced the US could win nuclear armageddon, and someone has just murdered The Comedian, a member of the 1940s crime-fighting group The Minutemen, who stayed active with the Watchmen, and who, we learn in the credits sequence, has worked for the government doing any number of dirty jobs including assassinating JFK from the Grassy Knoll. Rorschach, who apparently has kept working as a costumed crime fighter, despite the ban, tries to reform the Watchmen to avenge the Comedian's killing.

Normally, it's not a good idea to review the reviews of a movie, but in this case, because I think the critics' reactions reflect the core difficulty the film presents, I will refer to two in particular: by AO Scott and Anthony Lane. Scott is the Bosley Crowther of this millennium for the New York Times, vainly fighting a rearguard action for literary values, mainstream entertainment, and artistic decorum. Scott finds it remarkable that the 'interminable' film 'freezes its frame of reference in the 1980s', saying it would appeal best to someone who was a college sophomore at that time, who had 'a smattering of Nietzsche and an extensive record collection'. While he's perceptive enough, which isn't saying much, to note themes of 'apocalypse and decay' (but not to realise the 80s was where these themes came together after being explored separately throughout the 70s) he also accuses the film of 'shallow nihilism', seeing its major conflict as the moral choice between killing masses and killing individuals; 'the only action that makes sense in this world is killing.'

At least he's willing to concede some sort of meaning. Lane, Oxford's man at the New Yorker, might be expected to treat it more gently, as Moore is English, and in this country critical reaction to Watchmen has been tempered by patriotism and the opportunity to show moral disapproval for rapacious Hollywood. But Lane is, in fact, even more dismissive than Scott, advising audiences to walk out after the credits sequence. He compares Watchmen unfavourably to Persepolis or Maus, the 'acceptable' face of graphic novels, saying Watchmen is stuck in 'cod mythology and rainy dystopias'. He too is bothered by the setting, though he's too mathematically challenged to understand Nixon is on his fifth term, not his third. He's also seemingly incensed by the fact that the movie's Nite Owl rips off Batman. His idea of the demeaning audience at which the film is aimed is 'leering 19 year olds' who believe 'America is ruled by the military industrial complex and whose deepest fear (even deeper than meeting an intelligent woman, he says) is that the Warren Commission might have been right all along.'

It's easy to see behind their dislike of Watchman's political perspective. Moore, of course, has dealt before in rainy dystopia; V for Vendetta is set very much in the British version of Watchmen's America, a cross of Thatcher and Orwell which five terms of Nixon approximates fairly well. Superman, remember, fought for 'truth, justice, and the American way', and this world view is one the novel and film present with irony. Remember too, war requires a suspension of super-hero disbelief: if in the 1940s, the Allies really had Superman and Wonder Woman on their side, why didn't they win the war overnight? The experience of Doc Manhattan (and the Comedian) in Vietnam shows us what this would have meant in 'real' life, and makes the bigger point. The superhero impulse does not solve problems, and its appeal is always, at heart, fascist. This, presumably, is what drew the sneering Nietzsche references from AO. But living in an era where a president sought virtually absolute powers to wage virtually perpetual war, it's quite a feat to ignore any metaphoric linking to the present, especially from the paper of Judith Miller. I mean, they even make fun of big business, can you believe it (!?!), as if prosperity weren't just around the corner.

The film is, if anything, more heavy-handed than Moore in ladling out the irony of the superheroes at the beck and call of a corrupt imperialists. The Comedian, who works willingly doing the government's dirty tricks, is also the only crime-fighter who understands, and accepts,his existence as the theatre of the absurd Moore sees it being. He answers Nite Owl's anguished cry 'what happened to the American Dream' by laughing 'this IS the American Dream', and Jeffrey Dean Morgan's playing of the character like Robert Downey playing Nick Fury (one of the models for him) makes that work. I think at least part of the vituperative critical response in the US (and the critical pleasure in the UK) comes from that raw expression of American failure. In this sense, the closest filmic equivalent I can think of is Godard's Made In USA, in which a Richard Stark 'Parker' novel is transformed into a little essay about how the US is in Vietnam because of the same impulse that caused Richard Widmark to throw the lady in the wheelchair down the stairs. Substitute comics for film noir, add a little entertainment value, and you've got Watchmen.

But the crux of understanding the film, and both these reviews, is Lane's harumphing at 'cod mythology', because Watchmen the novel is all about mythology. No less than Godard, Moore is aware of how the pulp fictions of a society reflect, if not shape, that society's behaviour. But he's reflecting comic books from the 'golden' and 'silver' ages, not film noir from the 40s and 50s. This mythology was always going to be the hardest part to convert to film. In fact, the most self-referential part of the novel, a comic within the comic, was eliminated (though it was filmed for a DVD bonus). This is why the setting, in the 1980s, is so important: the real target audience for Watchmen was born in the baby boom, and grew up reading Marvel comics, attracted to them by their adding of real-life angst to the daily lives of Superheroes. That's why the music of the film is so anchored in Sixties cliché (and here I have to agree with Lane that we should ban 'Hallelujah' from any further soundtrack use, ever. Ironic intent or not.) When Frank Miller revitalised Batman with the Dark Knight Returns, the films drew on that nihilism only slightly; though the iconography got adapted in many other parts of mainstream film making.

Remember too that, apart from Doctor Manhattan, none of the Watchmen is actually a super hero. They are costumed crime-fighters, but they posses no super powers (though Ozymandias seems to come very close in some ways). Nite Owl's being out of shape is only hinted at by one shot of his gut, then he seems back instantly to full villain-routing prowess, but these are very much people. Of course he's a copy of Batman, AO, that's what Moore was doing, playing with the tropes of the heroes, at the same time he was inventing so many more. And if the Comedian is his most perfect invention in terms of the role of the hero him (or her) self, it is Rorschach who, as his name implies, is the litmus test for the audience. With his constantly-shifting mask, but otherwise dressed like Mike Hammer, his Spillane-like voice-over frames the film, and it is his diary which will, at film's end, overturn the great good deed which the Watchmen have done. He is the spirit of pure vengeance, and as played brilliant by Jackie Earle Haley, with a Clint Eastwood rasp made all the more effective by the coincident release of Gran Torino, he is both the most violent and most sympathetic of the characters. This suggests another comparison, because what Moore and now Snyder are doing with comic heroes is very similar to what Sergio Leone did with westerns: The Man With No Name reflected, in some ways, an adult approach to the super-hero elements of the genre, a look at what things might really be like if you accepted the conventions of the genre and tried to make them work in reality.

Moore drew on existing comic characters besides Batman. Rorschach is his version of Steve Ditko's Question and Mr A, particularly the latter, with his uncompromising views of right and wrong. That so many of the other characters recall previous comics' heroes is intentional, but too esoteric for the mainstream movie audience; even modern comic nuts are unlikely to have seen Charlton comics, the Blue Beetle, Captain Atom, and many more. So the backstory gets jammed into that entertaining credits sequence which Lane loved. We learn the fates of some of The Minutemen, heroes of the 40s, of whom the Comedian is the only one still active. Mothman went crazy; Dollar Bill was shot when his cape was caught in a revolving door. Lesbian heroine Silhouette was forced to 'retire' then murdered with her lover by an old enemy turned into a crazed sex killer by her 'perversion'. The similar fading to the background of gay Hooded Justice is passed over. But the depth of Moore's comic book universe is thus established right at the start, and to some extent, it's a question of how much the audience can accept it, and what follows, as history which underscores their appreciation of the film.

It has its flaws, though few of them are as serious as those that rendered Zach Snyder's previous film, 300, also a comic book adaptation, so one-dimensional. It is at times gratuitously violent: even if it is understandable that the basic fighting should been enhanced, to emphasize that, although lacking super powers, these are still heroes. Rorschach's prison scenes go on for too long, are too graphic, and don't need to be there; there's a similar indulgence in his explanatory stories. There is an adolescent and voyeuristic lingering over the attempted rape of the original Silk Spectre (Carla Gugino), and when the somewhat wooden Malin Ackerman (who has the unfortunate task of trying to play a scene while being loved by two blue Doctor Manhattans while a third works in the next room) finally dons her costume and steps on screen I laughed out loud, because the costume was simply latex and high heels and she looked almost exactly like a blow up sex doll. The guys, except Rorschach, get costumes obviously engineered to assist them; while Silk Spectre gets fetish. This too reflects the adolescent male sexual world of comics and their audience, including AO Scott, who, oddly, found both Gugino and Ackerman's performances 'solid'. So latex has its artistic uses after all.

And on its own terms, the film is at its weakest as it tries to resolve its over-arching mystery, the bigger question of sacrifice and survival. Part of this is because the ethical dilemma is presented in exactly the kind of philosophy-lite that the critics complain about. Part of it (spoiler alert here) is down to Ozymandias really not being involved enough in the story to the point where he is revealed to be its linch-pin; this was a flaw in the novel too, though to a much lesser extent. And the destruction of Manhattan with nuclear devices is puzzling as well: it seems to have been specific enough to have left most of the island (including both Nite Owl's subway tunnel and Silk Spectre I's flat) unscathed (not to mention free of radiation).

Watchmen fails as a juvenile entertainment; it's too complex. It probably fails as a complex entertainment, in that its assumptions, and its biggest dilemma, are both too simple. The many-layered subtleties of the novel are, after all, based on readings of comic books, and although Michael Chabon has won awards for doing just that sort of deconstruction, not many others doing it will be praised by the New York Times. Time magazine, however, picked Watchmen as one of the 100 greatest novels in English, so go figure. The movie has the power to keep a sensitive, non-comic book reading, anti-violence, prefers-subtitles kind of movie watcher like my wife attentive throughout. It's a fine effort at adaptation, probably about as good as we could expect. I'd put it somewhere between Leone's Fistful of Dollars, a not-quite-perfect first effort, and The Good The Bad and The Ugly, a pulp epic (For A Few Dollars More is more of a self-contained and perfectly formed film) but it should be considered in the same way as we looked at Leone's westerns. Something different from the super hero movies you've seen before. That may well be more weight than the genre can stand, especially in the eyes of Mr Scott and Mr Lane.


Anonymous said...

A very interesting review, Mr. Carlson, you've definitely put a lot of thought into it, but there are a few points I'd like to point out to you:

- Frank Miller wrote The Dark Knight Returns which isn't actually what the film The Dark Knight was based on, although it does share the dark tones.

- Most of Watchmen's leads are based on characters from the Charlton lineup; Nite Owl (I and II) is based on the Charlton incarnations of the Blue Beetle, who, while similar to Batman in that they both are normal humans using training and gadgets to fight crime, don't exactly have the same motivation.

- The Atom is actually the name of several DC heroes, but most notably the name of one hero who can shrink to tiny sizes. The character from the Charlton lineup you're referring to is actually Captain Atom, who was the inspiration for Dr. Manhattan.

- Silhouette, it is said in the comics, was killed by an old enemy of hers. A lot more information about the fates of the Minutemen was given in the graphic novel, and while the film does an adequate job of compressing a lot of the information, more of it will be revealed in the film medium, I presume, by the "Under the Hood" mock-umentary on the "Tales of the Black Freighter" DVD released later this month, which includes the titular comic-within-a-comic animation as well.

- It's actually Silk Spectre, not Silk Sceptre.

Anyways, great job with the review.

Michael Carlson said...

Thanks for that. I did mention Charlton specifically, the dropping of Capt. from Atom and Silk Sceptre (!)were just literals, and have been corrected.

The film's Nite Owl II quite obviously borrows some of the visuals of Batman, though yes he's patterned on the Blue Beetle.

And I'd forgotten the info on Silhouette: though my imagination may have given me a more interesting sort of recollection...

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