March 11, 2009 § Leave a comment
For the uninitiated, Watchmen presents an alternate but oddly familiar 1985 where superheroes are real, but are largely people who were loopy or determined enough to simply put on a mask. It’s a world where Nixon is still the president and the cold war threatens nuclear annihilation. There’s one truly powerful, nearly godlike superhero, who goes by Dr. Manhattan. And somehow, despite his helping America win the Vietnam war, America is spiritually running on empty and masked vigilantes of all kinds are outlawed, so they either retired or became hunted and bitter. And it’s all based on a graphic novel, which was a mini-series of comics published in 1986 / 1987.
So, got all that? Now here’s what to expect: film noir with superheroes. Rorschach (a man with a constantly changing Rorschach blot on his mask) narrates much of the first two-thirds of the film while skulking through back alleys and rain, finally taking the audience on a tour of some memories that make The Dark Knight seem fairly mild. Eventually, even some of the more supposedly well adjusted heroes slowly reveal that they drink too much, are guilty of rape, or whatever else. Meanwhile, Dr Manhattan is powerful and serene, but increasingly distant, and becoming some kind of cosmic Buddha.
Is there a point to all this? There is, and without going into the ending, it’s something about the slow, faulty movements in the direction of progress and the tremendous costs, both in terms of wasted energy and lives lost. For a comic book (or graphic novel, depending on how much respect you’re willing to award the whole genre) Watchmen does have something to say about the larger struggle, and something it thankfully doesn’t want to spell out too much, either.
The film has a tidy bundle of interesting moments, as well as a pile of entertaining ones, though I think this particular story ultimately works better as a graphic novel. Been a while since I read it, but as a comic it isn’t quite so obvious it borrows from film noir, even as a comic made in the late eighties is just that, even if it happens to have been reprinted later. A movie made for 2009 seems a little out of place in an era where climate change and lack of bio-diversity are bigger concerns than nuclear war, and a time when a lot of people would say the president seems like a pretty decent guy. It works well that there’s a cast of relative unknowns here, but the whole idea that they’re regular folks (and in addition to that, regular folks who haven’t suited up in years) is hurt by the eventual Matrix-like action scenes that don’t even seem to leave them winded. At other times, the faithfulness to the comic appears to have been a little too strong — it’s fine to have shots designed to reproduce specific frames or art, but there’s one sex scene that’s broken down into a series of disjointed, fairly typical moments, and between that and the cheesy music, people actually laughed.
I did find myself personally wishing the film was a little more balanced. Part of the appeal with costumed heroes is their duality: Bruce Wayne chats pleasantly at parties but Batman descends into alleys to beat up sleazeballs. In subtle ways, I think it comments on the duality of the real world. After all, we need both warm family homes and cold warehouses. Watchmen is strong on dismal material, and only offers a few glimmers of hope at the end. And forget Bruce Wayne aching for his lost parents, there’s a lot of domestic hostility in occasional flashbacks. At one point, Dr Manhattan sits on Mars contemplating if he’ll help mankind, looking out over the pristine landscape to ask how it would be improved by an oil pipeline or a shopping mall. It’s really an irrefutable and devastating argument. He comes up with a few lines about beauty managing to emerge out of chaos, but nobody states the only possible reply to his original question: certainly, it isn’t worth it for an oil pipeline or a shopping mall, but it might be worth it for a symphony or an act of kindness. Both as a comic and a deeply faithful translation into film, Watchmen takes the view that we may need to endure any number of irredeemable moments to fluke into one progressive step forward. It may not be my cup of tea as a world-view, but I certainly can’t fault the film for declining to make a statement.