Monday, March 09, 2009

Some thoughts on WATCHMEN - replete with spoilers

WATCHMEN is one of the finest graphic novels ever published - far surpassing the norm in its carefully constructed panels; the quite beautiful production design; the counter-point of the main plot and the meta-narrative; its careful examination of the nature of identity; and its logical unraveling of the implications of state-sponsored vigilantes. It's a book that works as a discourse on utilitarianism and equally well as a police procedural. Most of all, it's a book about reading - how we read - how we collect information - how reading creates cultural phenomena - how what we read echoes what we see around us. You can see all that in its pages. Traditional panels are interspersed with psychological reports, extracts from autobiographies, marketing materials and corporate memos. Most famously, one of the characters in the novel is a young kid who sits by a newspaper stand reading a nihilistic book called "The Tale of the Black Freighter". This meta-comic tells of a man who looses his humanity and enters a sort of living hell, while around the teenage reader, the book speaks of a world on the verge of nuclear annihilation. In short, WATCHMEN is a masterpiece.

I approached the feature film adaptation of the novel with some trepidation. It seemed practically impossible to do the book justice: the complexity of the novel's intellectual ideas and the deliberate structure of its panels - the sheer length of the main story and the internal comic - made me think that it would be better suited to a lavish mini-series or a feature film trilogy. Added to that was the more profound objection - that a novel that was so much about reading comics should be left as a reading experience.

Still, sniffing pop-cultural pay-dirt, the studio forged ahead, even when writer Alan Moore disavowed the project (and, impressively, the money). A number of directors were associated with the project including Terry Gilliam and Paul Greengrass, who apparently had wanted to update the story. Finally, the film passed to Zack Snyder, evidently a director who understood how to translate graphic novels to screen (viz the stunning visuals in 300) and also, apparently, loved the book. Fanboys breathed a sigh of relief. If the movie were to be a poor shadow of the book, at least it wouldn't be willfully messed with.

Sure enough, the resulting film is very faithful to the book - both in terms of plot and production design. The bravura opening credits tell us everything we need to know about the world we are entering. As bulbs flash, the camera moves through sepia-tinted photographs. We see the the world as we know it take a fork in the 1940s. A handful of people decide to don costumes and fight crime under the banner of The Minutemen. They have no special powers: they aren't superheroes - they're as flawed as the rest of us. Moreso. What kind of person only truly feels themselves when in disguise? What kind of person can resist the intoxication of power than comes with being above the law? And, indeed, should anyone be above the law at all? Who watches the watchmen?

By 1960, the Cold War is in effect and the existence of masked heroes has changed the nature of politics. Masked vigilantes make for an almost perfect arm of the shadowy secret services we suspect of conspiring against us: the flips The Comedian to assassinate Kennedy and gives him leave to terrorize the Northern Vietnamese. But the game is changed even more completely by the creation of the first genuine superhero, the victim of an horrific experiment that turns a physicist into a near-god - a man who can control atoms - Dr Manhattan. He's a good kid, so when Richard Nixon asks him to intervene decisively to end Vietnam, he does. Unlike his fellow vigilante, The Comedian, who enjoys the irony of state-sponsored violence, Dr Manhattan merely feels indifference. For a man who can see all of time and matter, one human life is of no importance. How can a man like that love a woman? Or feel any stake whatsoever in humankind? Would he not, logically prefer the quiet of Mars?

By the early 1980s, the original Minutemen are all but retired - into failed marriage, a mental asylum, a quiet life...There's a new Nite Owl and Silk Spectre - and new characters altogether - but the government has out-lawed their vigilante-ism and they are reduced to, in one case literal, impotence. The exception is Ozymandias, an intellectual giant who, Schwarzenegger like, uses a body-building video to build a personal fortune. Where Nixon (still in power) feels callous disregard for human life and Dr Manhattan mere indifference, Ozymandias is yet more dangerous: he is one of those dangerous utilitarians who is willing to destroy millions to save billions, viewing his own intelligence as the only moral requirement to him taking such as decision.

These are the themes and motivations underlying WATCHMEN. The device by which the reader is taken through this rich history is a criminal investigation. As the book opens, Rohrshach finds The Comedian murdered. Rohrshach warns the other Minutemen that their lives at risk and reunites with Nite Owl II to investigate the murder, interrogating a former enemy, Moloch, who is dying of cancer. When Dr Manhattan is humiliated on a live TV show, accused of causing cancer in the people he works with, and loves, he leaves Earth in a fit of pique. And so, Rohrshach has the link. He realises that Ozymandias has framed Dr Manhattan, shaming him into leaving earth. When Ozymandias nukes major global metros, he knows that Dr Manhattan will be blamed and that the visceral shock and the common enemy will force an end to the Cold War and the start of global co-operation. Rohrshach won't sit still for this act of brutal arrogance, and pays the ultimate price for arguing for free will, even when it is almost inevitable, pace The Black Freighter, that humankind's fundamental brutality will inevitably triumph. The book ends wonderfully ambiguously - a boorish newspaper junior may or may not take seriously the ramblings of a psychotic mind in a journal left in the crank file. He may or may not choose to believe that the nuclear war was a hoax by a utopian sociopath....

The movie is a remarkably successful abridgment of the source novel. True, without the Black Freighter story it loses some of its poignancy, but the imminent release of the animated feature DVD should go some way to remedy that - it's the best practical solution. But all the great lines, great scenes and great characters are faithfully rendered. It was a joy to watch - the credits were sheer genius - and the sets are simply wonderful. In general, the acting was strong - I particularly liked Carla Gugino as Silk Spectre I - she completely sells a very complex character, and Billy Crudup gives a moving performance, visible through a motion capture suit, as Dr Manhattan.

I still have three major problems with film. They detract from it being a pantheon film. But let me be clear. Despite these flaws, WATCHMEN remains a spectacular achievement - hugely enjoyable and as thought provoking and subversive as ever.

Problem number one is the use of popular music. I found some of the musical cues superb but many were jarring, quixotic and used to ill-effect - thrown in and then cut away from - as if Snyder got bored. The use of Leonard Cohen's sublime "Hallelujah" during a rather excruciatingly shot love scene was particularly crass and only partly offset by the perfect use of Dylan's "The Times They Are A'Changin'" Problem number two is the use of some really poor prosthetics and wigs. The Richard Nixon mask was horrible - like a cheap party shop mask. They would've done far better to just cast an age-appropriate actor who could approximate the voice, Frank Langella styl-ee. And as for Matthew Goode's wig, it completely took me out of every scene featuring Veidt. Why couldn't Matthew Goode just have naturally styled hair? Which brings me rather naturally to Problem Three: Matthew Goode's performance as Ozymandias. Goode seemed completely mis-cast - his frame is too slight, his natural bearing too diffident for an imposing, self-made man and ex-body-builder. Moreover, his choice of accent - soft, mumbling - further undermined his credibility. Quite simply, Goode was acted off the screen by Crudup, Wilson, Haley and Gugino.

All of which adds up to a spectacular film, though not one without its flaws. A film that doesn't disgrace the book but doesn't live up to its complexity either - how could it have done? I suspect that fanboys will respond well to the fidelity and quibble, as I did, over certain characters that aren't particularly well rendered. Overall, you can't deny the childish joy of seeing something you've read many times up on a big screen.

WATCHMEN is on global release.


  1. I kept thinking that the guy who played the Comedian was Javier Bardem (I found out later that it's actually Jeffrey Dean Morgan), but the two actors definitely look alike

  2. I though the comedian was Robert Downey Jr.!!