Sunday, March 15, 2009

Watchmen the Movie: Before and After


I've been a fan of the comic for a long time, and am looking forward to seeing the movie on imax. I have read a lot of reviews, and what seem to see is that everyone who expected a hollywood kids movie was disappointed like the moral puritans they are. They wanted a confirmation of their values of good and evil. Instead they got nudity, violence, and a plot that requires you to pay attention and think. In other words, they got a heaping of real life covered in the dressing of the superhero genre. I look forward to evaluating the movie on my own, and I worry that the director emphasizes the violence and sex more than the philosophical and psychological musings. But I'm not going to base my judgment of the movie on the idea that movies should cater to 12 year olds. 12 year olds need to grow up and if the movie is anything like the comic, which I read when I was about 12, then this is the perfect movie for them to start wrestling with the questions and issues they will deal with their entire adult lives.


What a disappointment. I saw Watchmen the movie on imax with some friends. After years of reading the comic, and believing that this was something that they would never be able to get right on film, I should have had low expectations, but instead I believed the hype. Partly because the director, Zack Snyder kept talking about how close he followed the comic. Scene by scene, panel by panel. Well, it's true that he stuck to the comic, but it's also clear that he didn't realize what the comic was even about.

In short, it was a violent disneyland ride based on the book. It lacked the serious pondering in Alan Moore's masterpiece. The post-modern doubt of all 'grand narratives' was gone. Instead the movie only offered a critique of the ends that lefties would use to achieve their goals. The comic was a critical deconstruction of the superhero genre, exposing liberal elitists (Ozymandias), right wing vigilantes (Rorschach), god-like supermen (Dr. Manhattan), and government agents (The Comedian) as flawed characters that rhetorical pretensions aside, might do more harm than good for society.

The Watchmen movie, like Synder's 300, had a right wing tilt. In 300, Greek super-studs fight against “Asian Hordes” to defend “the only hope of reason” and western civilization. It could have been written by a George W. Bush speech writer in order to drum up support for an invasion of Iran. In the Watchmen movie, we have a new hero in Rorschach, a vicious vigilante who stops at nothing to exact crowd pleasing justice. An uncompromising masked hero who is tragically killed while trying to stop a villain's murderous plot. The villain is Ozymandias, an environmentalist vegetarian liberal snob who is willing to kill millions to achieve his goal of a 'hippie commune' pacifist utopia. Watchmen becomes the perfect propaganda for an anti-Obama right-wing reaction.

In the comic, Rorschach's character is developed not as a hero, but as a dark reflection of American Right-Wing Populism. I think one of the most telling parts of the comic is in Rorschach's pyschological profile in the linear notes of issue # 6. Rorschach's alter ego, Walter Kovacs writes,”I like President Trumen... He dropped the atom bomb on Japan and saved millions of lives because if he hadn't, then there would have been a lot more war that there was an more people would have been killed. I think it was a god thing to drop the atomic bomb on Japan.”

Wait a minute. Could it be? Rorschach is willing to kill millions, just like Ozymandias, to achieve his better world? This is the kind of moral doubt that exists in the comic that didn't make it into the moralistic movie.

Part of the problem, is that times change. While Rorschach chopping up child rapists with a meat cleaver would have seemed monstrous when the comic originally came out, now he's perceived by many to be a bad ass exacting just revenge.

I do have to credit Snyder for copying so much of the book, and I do look forward to the dvd which is supposed to have 2 more hours of footage. Perhaps more of the moral ambiguity will make it into the dvd. The movie felt rushed in it's execution though. Every line of dialogue felt like the actor said it in ¼ the time it actually needed for emotional impact.

While many reviews have commented on Malin Akerman's poor performance as Silk Spectre, I was more frustrated with Billy Crudup's blah inspiring performance as Dr. Manhattan. The scenes on Mars in particular are agonizing to watch as they seemed rushed and forced. What was an excellent meditation of responsibility and a fantastic dialogue about human worth, became a one minute long excuse to have Dr. Manhattan return to Earth. I felt like Jackie Earle Haley as Rorschach was too animated, energetic, and angry in the movie. In the comic Rorschach was detached and calm in his sociological killing spree. I particularly detest Rorschach's appropriation of the Left's slogan in “an injury to one is an injury to all.”

I did enjoy Patrick Wilson's Nite Owl and Jeffery Dean Morgan as the Comedian was great, although the pressure to speed up the movie shows here. The Comedian's murder of a Vietnamese girl should have been in slow mo, to heighten the tension and drama, to illustrate the moral choice before the Comedian. Instead the movie blurred right by it and instead we got extra footage of comedian whuppin some hippies in the streets.

I have to comment on the ending. To Snyder's credit, he fought the studio to maintain Alan Moore's original ending. He lost. Many have commented on the ending, pointing out that it sort of made sense, tying together a couple of different plot threads and themes. I disagree. In the comic, the threat of extra-terrestrial invasion was one that would continue after the crises, thus keeping the USA and the USSR allied and at peace. Not so with the ending in the movie. There are two flaws with Ozymandias' plot in the movie. 1- Dr. Manhattan as the danger would only lead to a temporary alliance between the USA and the USSR, and would have actually raised questions about America's connections with Dr. Manhattan. 2- With Ozymandias doing energy projects with Dr. Manhattan, wouldn't he come under suspicion? Also, this is a critique of the comic, why does Dr. Manhattan even work for the US government to begin with? What's in it for him?

Some of my friends say “well, this is as good of an adaption as you could expect.” Well, I'll stick with the original. Maybe the medium is the message.

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