I’ve just seen Watchmen again, this time in IMAX, and now I think I’m ready to write about it. There are a number of people (say, for example, Adam) who found the Watchmen graphic novel to be one of the best things ever. I do not fall into this group. Don’t get me wrong — I love Alan Moore, and I liked the book very much, but I didn’t find it overwhelmingly compelling and revelatory in the way that some people do. To me it felt like a good, well-written story that resisted superhero clichés in some interesting ways. A solid B or B+.
Now, I think there were a couple of things working against me at the time I read it. One was the fact that I read it in the mid-90s rather than the mid-80s. By that time, various aspects of it had been frequently imitated in various ways, and what was revolutionary and groundbreaking about it no longer seemed so.
Laura has a story about being assigned Dashiell Hammett and Raymond Chandler in a college class, and complaining to the professor, “These guys write in such a clichéd style, it’s driving me crazy!” To which her professor of course replied, “No, no, see, these guys invented this style. It was their thousands of imitators who turned it into a cliché.” Well, I had a bit of the Hammett/Chandler effect going when I read Watchmen, even though intellectually I understood that Moore was the originator. His ideas just couldn’t have the same impact on me that they would have had if I’d read them first.
My other disadvantage is the fact that the book is so highly and universally praised. Reading something after hearing bunches of people call it The Most Awesome Thing Ever I Mean Ever can hardly help but be a slightly disappointing experience. It’s the expectation theory.
Well, having read quite a bit of the press around the movie and how it compares to the book, I think it’s safe to say that I missed entire layers of that book in my first reading. I’d really love to reread the graphic novel, perhaps with some kind of Annotated Watchmen alongside it. (Okay Watchmen book, go stand over there in the line marked “to read.” Yes, I know there are 112 books in the line. Hey, I pick randomly from the group, so maybe you’ll get lucky.) Like the book, I think the movie benefits from repeated viewings. I know I was catching things this time around that completely passed me by on the first viewing. However, my overall opinion remains the same, which is that it is a very enjoyable superhero movie, with a great story, some excellent writing, magnificent visuals, and a couple of sublime performances, but it is also significantly flawed in certain ways.
IF YOU’RE READING THIS ON FACEBOOK: THE SPOILERS START HERE.
The first of these is that it is far too much in love with violence, which leads it to undermine one of its story’s main points. From almost the first moment of the movie, characters are punching through solid walls and withstanding beatings that would stagger a rhino, not to mention performing phenomenal feats of strength and speed. Watching these fights, it is impossible to believe that these people are not somehow enhanced, and the fact that the so-called superheroes are not enhanced (with the notable exception of Dr. Manhattan) is supposed to be crucial to the story. In addition, some of those fights are gratuitously gory — I was really tired of seeing people’s bones broken by the end of this film. Another flaw, though one far less in director Zack Snyder’s control, is that the main source of tension in the narrative is the idea of impending nuclear war between the US and the USSR, an idea which has lost most of its emotional resonance today. Viewed as a period piece (despite the fact that it’s set in an alternate universe, it still operates as a period piece), it’s fine. Then again, as huskyscotsman points out, the Doomsday Clock is at five minutes to midnight now, so maybe I’m just far too complacent.
Some people have faulted Snyder for hewing too closely to the source material, but that’s actually one of the things I enjoyed the most about Watchmen. The movie lifts entire scenes, dialogue intact, from the comic, which means that much of its dialogue is quite a bit better than that of the average superhero movie. In addition, it was quite wonderful to see these characters and this world brought to life so faithfully. I don’t know whether somebody who hadn’t read the book would react adversely, but for me it was the thrill of seeing static images come to life. The entire visual atmosphere of the movie is outstanding. The color palette is exactly what it should be, Rorschach’s mask looks perfect, Dr. Manhattan’s glow is just right.
Oh, and I think the opening credits sequence is one of the best I’ve seen in any movie, ever. It manages to pack in an enormous amount of exposition about the characters and their world, all without any dialogue. It does this via a series of striking images which are both reference-heavy (Silk Spectre I’s retirement dinner as Last Supper; Silhouette taking the sailor’s place in the famous V-J day kiss) and highly interconnected (flashbulbs, historical recreations), something that captures the Alan Moore spirit exquisitely. It mixes humor and horror, often within moments of each other, and manages to tell a poignant story of forty-five years in just five minutes. Masterful.
Speaking of masterful, and of Rorschach and Dr. Manhattan, those two characters get the best performances of the film. Billy Crudup’s voice work captures his character’s not-quite-detachment completely, and Jackie Earle Haley is freaking phenomenal every moment he’s on screen as Rorschach. In some moments, he manages to convey enormous emotions from behind a mask, just using his body, his voice, and the shape of his face beneath the fabric. Once the mask is off, he’s even more powerful.
Then there’s Jeffrey Dean Morgan. He certainly nails the character of The Comedian, but that character has always puzzled me. Watchmaniacs, please be patient while I plod through my thought process, and keep in mind it’s been like 15 years since I read the book. So here you have a milieu of heightened, explicit symbolism. Doctor Manhattan is both a genius and a living nuclear weapon. Nite Owl has big goggles, and a bunch of owl-themed gadgets. Rorschach sees the world in black and white, and his “face” is made up of moving black blobs on a white field. And so on. In this world, you have a character called The Comedian, who is never funny, and never makes a joke. Sure, he laughs a lot, but it’s a bitter, cynical kind of laugh. In fact, he’d be more appropriately called The Cynic. It’s not because the story lacks for humor, either. I mean, yeah, it’s a dark story, but there are certainly plenty of comedic moments. Heck, even Rorschach gets off a bunch of good one-liners in the prison scenes. So the character whose theme is comedy is in fact the least funny, and the most horrifying, at least on a personal level.
Nobody seems to comment on this, except for Rorschach, who claims that The Comedian “saw the true face of the 20th century and chose to become a reflection of it, a parody of it.” Except, as I said, he’s not funny. Now, I know that comedy and horror are not strangers, and I understand that exaggeration is a comical tool, so is The Comedian’s over-the-top repulsiveness a comic exaggeration of human savagery? I would argue that it is not. Comedy, even brutal satire, works because it has a moral center, an oppositional point of view. It may shock, it may exaggerate, and it may distort, but it does not simply personify or repeat. It works toward healing, or at least toward tearing down the things it opposes, not amplifying them. The Comedian is more like a parody of a parody — where a parody would exaggerate in order to show ridiculousness, he exaggerates but without questioning. Where a parody would personify human savagery in order to decry it, he personifies human savagery because, well, he kinda digs it. In fact, it’s completely unclear why he’s even a superhero at all. The closest hint we get is when Hooded Justice is attacking him for his attempted rape of Silk Spectre I. “Is this what gets you off?” he asks, while receiving a beating. Maybe it takes one to know one.
That smiley face icon is strangely appropriate for him, if we take it as the ultimate symbol of empty cheer. If the smiley in culture is an attempt to pretend that the darkness doesn’t exist, it’s sledgehammer irony to put it on the darkest character in the book. In Watchmen, that illusion can’t sustain itself. It’s bloodstained. Just as it repudiates the emptiness of cheerful Golden Age superheroes, just as it takes an extremely dim view of human nature, arguing that the only cure for warfare is a common enemy, so must it mutilate the icon of simpleminded sunniness. In itself, I don’t know that this subversion of cheery fantasy is a bad thing, but I’m not sure I agree with the so-called reality that replaces it. In my real world, humor can be a healing force. In Watchmen, there aren’t many of those kind of laughs around, whether or not The Comedian is dead.