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Who watched the Watchmen? Eh, not a hell of a lot of people

dir: Zack Snyder

It’s almost unbelievable to me that this flick has eventuated, has been realised and ended up on the big screen. I don’t say that as a fan of the graphic novel that spawned this monstrosity, but as someone simply who’s read the story and thought it could never work as an audience-pleasing, seat-filling, multiplex product. Watching Watchmen hasn’t convinced me otherwise.

The story, well, let’s just say I can’t imagine it ever connecting with the kinds of audiences who go to the cinema to watch a flick chock full of super heroes. People, the vast majority of people who go to the cinema to watch a flick based on a comic book are expecting and wanting something along the lines of Spider-Man, Batman, Iron Man, stuff with Man in the title. Maybe Dark Knight’s incredible success has broken down some barriers and prepared people for more ‘serious’ and ‘complicated’ stories, but I don’t think it’s going to do much for people’s appreciation of Watchmen.

It is a complicated book, with a very convoluted plot and difficult ending, and worst of all from the perspective of PR people and the ugly trolls who work in marketing, it’s supposed to be a complete deconstruction not only of the whole comics genre, but of the characters who strap on the masks and fight crime for reasons that seem to have little to do with seeking justice. But you can’t sell something like that to audiences who want to watch good guys fight bad guys and triumph in the end.

In other words, you can’t sell what Watchmen stands for to audiences without hiding what Watchmen is. That it has gotten this far is amazing enough, in and of itself.

As I said previously, I don’t actually think that the source material is the bee’s knees and the ultimate in graphic novel storytelling and the alpha and omega of all time. I liked the book well enough, but didn’t think it was that completely amazing, for all the hype since the 80s. About the only elements that struck me as extraordinary were the way the story was told through different types of “media”, and the jaw-dropping ending, and how you never really had stories like this end this way in this genre. But the mechanics of the story, and the majority of the characters themselves struck me as pretty standard 2 dimensional fare.

Blown up big for the big screen, the obsessive fans were rightly terrified of how much would be lost in the translation, and rightly so. But, despite the fact that they are going to be predisposed to judging it harshly, I can’t imagine anyone who hasn’t read the book enjoying a single second of it. Especially since those seconds add up to over 160 minutes.

Zack Snyder is rightly criticised for making violent and intellectually empty movies that look real pretty (ladies and gentlemen of the jury, I submit a copy of 300 for your perusal), but he has approached the material here with a surprising reverence. It takes balls to approach something like a Watchmen big screen adaptation and to hope to come out of it with your balls intact. Choosing what to retain, what to change, and what to whittle away from the dense story must have been an almighty nightmare, and to an extent, I think the filmmakers got it mostly right.

Watchmen is definitely not the most enjoyable or smartest flick out there at the moment, but it’s not a complete disaster either, and it has some very strong elements that I enjoyed seeing on the big screen. It is unlike any other comic book story brought to life for the screen, and with good reason. Of course, people said that about The Dark Knight as well, but Watchmen goes that extra mile in delivering something different. The problem is, I’m not really sure how much it matters.

When it gets into it, we watch a hyper-stylised fight between two men, one of whom was doing nothing more than watching people talk on the telly about the imminent possibility of nuclear war with the Russians because of Afghanistan. The grizzled, cigar-chomping man is hurled out of a window to his death. Falling with him is a bloodied smiley face badge, establishing as it does the iconic image.

From there the credits roll with an amazing montage of bloody and powerful almost religious tableauxes set to Dylan’s The Times They Are a Changin’, giving us a strong idea of how the world about to be brought to life for us is an alternate history of the world as could have occurred from the mid part of the 20th Century, leading up to a 1985 significantly different from the one that occurred, but similar enough to be recognisable. It gives the sense that in this alternate history, people have strapped on masks in order to fight crime, but, with one significant exception, they’re just people wearing goofy costumes. And they’re in decline. And Richard Nixon is still inexplicably around like he would be in any ideal world.

Though we’ve seen images of the dead guy from the past, we only get to know him further through the story through numerous flashbacks. Oh so many flashbacks. It seems the cigar-chewing, grassy knoll shooting, Vietnamese villager killing swaggering chap was called Edward Blake, also known as The Comedian (Jeffrey Dean Morgan), a caped crusader who fought on the side of all that was good, proper and American. Seems like someone had a problem with his swaggering ways, hence the flinging out of the window.

A strange little man (Jackie Earle Haley) with an inkblot pattern mask who talks to himself constantly, investigates the killing and believes that someone is killing off people he calls ‘masks’, or the former vigilante heroes that he used to run with, the most obvious former colleague lying dead at his feet. From here the plot kicks off once Rorschach, as he calls himself, starts investigating not only who killed The Comedian, but why.

The other masks, since the passing of legislation banning superhero superheroics in the 70s, have lived either in seclusion or under the broad and gentle wing of the US Government as operatives or scientists.

Out of the different generations of heroes that we see depicted, ranging back to the 40s, only one of them is actually someone with ‘powers’ as we understand them in the comic book sense. The rest of them are just people who put on costumes. Strange, damaged people who need the costumes to hide how deeply fucked up they are. Especially The Comedian himself, who is such a monstrous right-wing lunatic, rapist and murderer that it is impossible to either take his existence seriously or to figure out whether he really is a hero or a villain. It doesn’t help that Rorschach himself, leading the investigation, seems to be even more fucked up than The Comedian.

In the context of his investigation, he decides to warn and check in with some of his former partners in crime fighting, being Nite Owl, Silk Spectre, Dr Manhattan, and Ozymandias / Adrien Veidt (Matthew Goode), the golden boy who went public when the rest of the heroes went underground.

Dr Jon Osterman, or Dr Manhattan as he is also known, played under multiple layers of CGI by Billy Crudup, is a glowing blue giant smurf who, due to an accident in some kind of field generating experiment, is a genuine super being. He is blue, of course, but also can grow to whatever size he wants and can control the atomic structure of anything, destroying things and people at will. Time is also no longer linear for him, as he sees the past, present and future simultaneously. His connection to humanity, tenuous at best since the accident, is only barely maintained by the government throwing hot chicks at him, who he goes through the motions of caring about and having sex with them whilst still being deeply involve in his experiments in developing an alternative source of free power for the world. Hooray for multitasking.

His latest squeeze is an attractive mannequin who happens to be a second generation crime fighter, being the daughter of the Bettie Grable / Bettie Page knockoff Silk Spectre (Carla Gugino). Daughter Laurie (Malin Akerman) has mommy issues. She is also, just like in the comic, attractive, grating, shallow, weepy, self-centred and quite comically goofy. It’s natural that she, when the magnitude of how little Big Blue cares about her existence, and in fact the existence of every human being, would gravitate to another male character who’s as transparently shallow and wooden as she is, being impotence spokesman and owl worshipper Nite Owl / Dan Frieberg (Patrick Wilson).

She and Dan coyly gravitate towards each other, until it becomes obvious that Dan is impotent without his costume, and Laurie is desperate to shack up with anyone now that her blue guy is gone.

When Dr Manhattan, whose very existence acts as a nuclear deterrent against the ambitions of the Russians, mindful as they are that he could march into Moscow and vaporise them all like he did in Vietnam, leaves Earth, the world verges on the brink of total nuclear destruction. Something has to happen, as the clock ticks closer to midnight, or all life on the planet will end.

Thankfully, someone has a plan, but the plan is one of those textbook scenarios whereby the treatment might be far worse than the disease. Far worse.

The humour in the film is almost uniformly of the sardonic variety, and that doesn’t make for lots of laughs. That’s not a problem from my point of view, since it is such ‘serious’ subject matter as giant blue guys and lesbian superheroes, and guys with panties on their faces running around causing as many crimes as they solve. But it means it’s a bit of a drag for an audience. I did get a laugh from Adrian Veidt talking to a group of executives with the gentle strains of Tears for Fears Everybody Wants to Rule the World tinkling in the background.

Also, the line “Superman exists, and he’s American!” made me laugh for all the right and wrong reasons. Oh, and it’s hard not to laugh when Dr Manhattan and The Comedian are killing Vietcong to the gentle strains of Wagner’s Ride of the Valkyrie.

The film putters along for most of its length, excising plenty of extraneous stuff (like the some would say crucial element of the kid reading the pirate comic The Tale of the Black Freighter which parallels the main themes strongly), as it goes along to its merry conclusion, but for me it was never boring. It was interesting, even if it wasn’t exactly riveting. Clearly, apart from wanting to replicate the look of almost every single panel from the comic, Snyder’s interest is usually more towards developing and lovingly rendering action as opposed to dramatic scenes. And how can you really blame him: when lame characters as hokey and cheesy as Nite Owl and Silk Spectre II are talking to each other, muttering lame dialogue, it’s a relief to then see them beating up or killing people or fucking. Yes, that’s right, simulated fucking to the tune of Leonard Cohen’s Hallelujah!

That’s not to take away anything from the actors, because I think they do all right with pretty ordinary characters, which are only being true to their paper counterparts. But my problem with some of their ‘big’ scenes, like the alley way mugging and their attempt to break Rorschach out of prison, is that it completely goes against the grain of the comic.

In the comic, as in reality, the kinds of people who wear the kinds of outfits that these two wear look and are goofy. By turning them into hyper-stylised killing machines, and in effect trying to make them look less goofy by making them look badass, it completely misrepresents the book. These are goofy people who dress up goofily for goofy, often pathetic, sometimes sociopathic reasons. It’s not a coincidence that the only one who doesn’t wear any costume is the one who’s the ‘true’ superhero, in fact he spends most of the flick naked.

But it sure does look pretty, I guess, to have them snapping limbs and necks like there’s no tomorrow, if you’re into that sort of thing.

Rorschach himself, ably played by a guy who looks like he was born to play Rorschach and his unmasked / unfaced self Walter Kovacs, is superbly rendered, and completely true to the comic, in all his sociopathic glory. The thing is, it’s such an ugly character (I don’t mean his appearance), so sickening in his poisoned and rotting view of the world, that he becomes frightening to hang around. His time to shine, which comes before and after he is arrested and sent to prison, is as disturbing yet empty as anything I’ve seen in any horror film in the last few years.

Not just the prison violence, which is very 300 and cheesy, but moreso the conversation with the prison psychiatrist, delving into Rorschach’s complete psychotic break from reality, which comes from viewing a reality so sickening that madness is probably the most comforting option. It is not surprising, but equally disturbing, that this character is the one most audiences are going to admire and identify with.

That he is the moral centre of the movie is the most disturbing element of all.

The way Dr Manhattan is rendered, both visually and dramatically, is very strong. If they got nothing else right, they got this major part of the story right. Though every review seems to overemphasise the fact that he is often cock-out naked, as in completely naked, the self-same reviews usually fail to point out the reason why. Clothing is a convention for him, solely for the considerations of others, and so the less he cares about humanity, the less he cares about them seeing his blue equipment.

His time on Mars, the voice, everything to do with him they get right, especially to the extent that he is not an emotionless being, though close to being a god, he is anything but. And that lingering affection he might still have, the wonderment he might still feel at the existence of the women in his life, whether it is Laurie now or Janie back in the 50s when he was still human, is the one thing that might save humanity. Or damn us to hell. Whichever, it’s fine by me.

The ending is different from the comic, in that the mechanics of what the big bad villain / hero’s plan is, are substantially different in the flick, but the truth is, whilst the ending of the comic book is sombre and shocking, the mechanics were stupid. And I use the term ‘mechanics’ to avoid spoiling something that I don’t think should be spoiled for either the book or the film. The intent, though, is the same, in that someone creates a situation where a great number of deaths might occur, to prevent a greater number of deaths from occurring. The morality of the actions becomes almost pointless when you talk about the potential for so many deaths, but the ending is true to the characters involved.

The ending still gets to me, after all these years, though I’m not sure whether the packed audience I saw the flick with on opening night gave a damn. When I first read the ending on the page, I was stunned, flabbergasted, gaping open-mouthed. The audience I saw the flick with last Thursday walked out of the cinema muttering ‘eh, it was all right.” Eh, it was ALL RIGHT? You feel like fucking shaking these people by their shoulders. They’re so accustomed to their tales being spun out to them in a belaboured, camera shaking fashion and labelled as ‘dark’ just because the imagery literally is dark and gloomy. When confronted with an ending that couldn’t have been any darker if President Obama himself had come out with a machete and killed everyone who voted for him, they shrug nonchalantly and go back to their popcorn.

Not the reaction I was expecting. How jaded these audiences have become, to the extent where the deconstructed version of superhero stories and the regular superhero stories are indistinguishable, and greeted with the same vague level of interest. Sure, so it’s not as thrilling, and despite looking great, isn’t as overall entertaining as The Dark Knight. It doesn’t have a performance or a character as seductively evil as Heath Ledger’s Joker. It does, for me, have a far more interesting, convoluted and more coherent story, and I didn’t find its length a chore at all. That’s not to ignore the deficiencies and clichés in the characterisations, most of which I blame the source material for.

Perhaps Snyder’s approach in general was too statistical or reverential, maybe action is overemphasised at the expense of character, but I don’t really care. I think it’s more important to entertain audiences than bore them silly with wretched adherence to some sacred text. I don’t think the story could or would have been adapted in any better way, and it’s enough, it really is, for me, that’s it’s as good as it is. I don’t think it absolutely had to be adapted into a film version anyway, since it’s just another revenue stream for people that don’t need the extra money anyway, especially in these times of recession and such.

But I’m certainly happy with it for what it is. The question now, since its release into to an unfeeling, uncaring world is not so much Who Watches the Watchers, but Who Will Watch Watchmen and Enjoy It? Few methinks, only but a few, but at least I liked it.

7 times “eh, it’s all right” barely cuts it for sophisticated communication between primates out of 10

“That’s the difference between you and me. Never compromise, even in the face of Armageddon.” – Watchmen.