John C. Wright (johncwright) wrote,
John C. Wright
johncwright

Who Watches the WATCHMEN? I did.

SPOILER ALERT. Many, many spoilers below. I discuss the surprise ending and several plot twists.

CHILDREN ALERT. Do not take any children to see this film. It is not a superhero movie. It is an antisuperhero movie. It is deliberately brutal, gross and bloody where comic books would use sanitized comic-booky violence. It is deliberately lewd where comic books would be sweet and romantic. It is ironic and unheroic and dark and nasty where comic books would be more realistic. Not for kids.

I saw this movie the opening weekend, and I wanted to write a review. My only difficulty is that, for once, I do not have a strong opinion. I usually have a strong opinion about everything, but not this. The attractive things about the movie did not attract me that strongly. The repulsive things did not repel me that much, since I am mostly desensitized to movie gore. My response to the film was lukewarm.

The oddest thing that happened when I saw this film is that I suddenly realized that I was no longer a fan of Alan Moore’s WATCHMEN. I had been a fan for years.

In this, the movie is unique. I do not think I have ever seen a film adaptation that persuaded me to admire the source material less. This particular emperor has no clothes, and his blue penis is showing (more on this later). I walked out of the theater trying to remember what it was I had once liked and enjoyed in this unrelentingly bleak, nihilistic, dark, morbid, cynical and overcomplicated world of Alan Moore’s imagination.

The movie, on a certain level, is well done, and many scenes are visually splendid. The fight scenes are well choreographed and have a stylish violence to them. Other scenes are disgustingly bloody or laughably lewd, however. The plot hangs together without any glaring plotholes, and as a detective story, it reveals the central murder mystery in a satisfactory fashion.

Let me summarize the film, and then talk about the good, the bad, and the ugly.

  1. Summary

SPOILER ALERT. Do not read this if you mean to see the movie.

The film concerns an alternate version of Earth, where the presence of real costumed adventurers changed the course of history. These masked vigilantes fought crime in the 1930’s and 1940’s, and allowed the United States a rapid victory in Viet Nam, and this in turn led to Nixon reaching FDR-like levels of popularity, and being re-elected for a third and fourth term. In a comical reversal of historical roles, the Americans invade Afghanistan, and the Soviets threaten nuclear war. World thermonuclear destruction looms. The 1971 police strike in New York, in this world, is exacerbated by the presence of the vigilantes, and, in response, the administration outlaws superheroes. All the masked superheroes retire, all but one.

So much is merely backstory. The main action begins when a man is brutally murdered. The one remaining unretired vigilante, Rorschach, investigates the crime, and discovers a secret room where the costume and equipment of another ex-crimefighter rest. The dead man was the Comedian, at one time Rorschach’s team-mate.

Rorschach thinks there may be a ‘mask-killer’ at work, and seeks to warn his fellow remaining ex-supers. These include Ozymandias ‘the smartest man in the world’ who now uses his super-intellect to accumulate an immense fortune and solve global problems like the energy crisis; Nite Owl, who sits alone in his basement next to his Owl Ship, living in his memories; Silk Specter, who is the dissatisfied lover of Doctor Manhattan, living on a military base where Dr. Manhattan is kept as a living weapon against a day of war. Dr. Manhattan is the only superhero with superhuman powers. He sees all time from the point of view of eternity, can bilocate and teleport and can reorganize matter at will. Dr. Manhattan, to whom all human drama is foreordained, is slowly losing his respect for human life.

Much of the film is the discovery of the past of these characters, their secrets, their crimes, their lies.

Dr. Manhattan exiles himself to Mars when it is discovered that his close friends have cancer, apparently caused by exposure to him. Rorschach’s relentless and brutal investigations reveal that Manhattan was framed, tricked into leaving earth, and that Ozymandias was behind it. Rorschach is lured into a police trap, and jailed, but meanwhile Nite Owl and Silk Specter have fallen in lust, fornicated copiously, now don their costumes and break Rorschach out of jail, where Rorschach is busily maiming inmates. Silk Specter goes to Mars and talks Manhattan into returning to Earth; Nite Owl and Rorschach travel to the Antarctica base of Ozymandias, to confront the supervillain in his lair.

The typical superhero-supervillain confrontation is subverted, however, when Ozymandias reveals that he has incinerated tens of thousands of innocent people in major cities around the world with a weapon that imitates Dr. Manhattan’s energy signature. As he planned, the world powers, frightened by a mutual foe and angry god, make peace. Nuclear war is averted, at least for now.

Ironically, it is Rorschach who refuses to go along with the charade, and is killed by Dr. Manhattan, who returns from Mars to kill him. The good doctor’s new-found respect for human life urges him brutally to murder his friend, in the name of the greater good. Dr. Manhattan returns to outer space to create life in his own image. Nite Owl and Silk Specter go off together, no doubt for more extended fornication scenes. Ozymandias lives happily ever after, except for the fact that Rorschach mailed his journal to an ultra-rightwing nutjob newspaper: the story closes with the dimwitted assistant at the newspaper reaching for the journal, that may undo the plans of the smartest man in the world. Roll credits.

2. The Good

Fans of the original will be delighted at the utterly faithful reproduction of the comic, sometime panel by panel, which has been brought to the big screen. On that merely technical level, the film is an admirable achievement.

I found myself interested in practically every scene, scene by scene, but not being interested in the film as a whole. Watching Rorschach break into a military base, or seeing the Owl Ship take off from an underwater dock, or observing a gigantic Doctor Manhattan striding through jungles as if it were underbrush while annihilating lesser beings by a mere gesture, all were impressive and memorable.

But the memorable images do not add up to much. A good example is the moment when, during a street riot, Nite Owl drops in a swirl of cape to the street. It looks Way Cool. You may have seen this moment in the ads for the movie: it sure looks impressive. But all that happens is that Nite Owl dismounts from his ship and goes to talk to the Comedian. And this scene itself goes nowhere, it is merely part of the character backstory, so we can know what a stinker the Comedian was. The Red White and Blue clad avenger chomps his cigar and chortles, “The American Dream? Yer looking at it!” and he shoots a tear gas canister into the back of a rioter drawing graffiti.

Much of the backstory has been trimmed down and streamlined, and, in my opinion, this was the best job of adaptation I have ever seen, ever. Nothing that was left out was necessary. (I contrast this with the recent HARRY POTTER movie, where the identity of the ‘Patronus’ stag that saves Harry goes unmentioned, as well as the names of the former owners of the Marauders’ Map. I contrast this with RETURN OF THE KING, which most foolishly left out the Scouring the Shire, thus missing a main point, if not the whole point, of the epic.)

The substitution of Doc Manhattan as the boogieman to scare the world powers into mutual peace was clever, and made even more sense than the comic book’s original ending, which used a giant space squid instead. Myself, I think audiences would have laughed, rather than been horrified, by a giant space squid. The fear of Earthmen for Dr. Manhattan, on the other hand, is amply justified.

Some reviewers have mocked the musical sound track. I find no fault in it. Many of the songs were referenced in the original comic in the place they appear in the film. “Two riders were approaching/ and the wind began to howl” for example, appears in the scene when Rorschach and Nite Owl approach the fortress in Antarctica.

Using the music of Phillip Glass, however, as the backdrop to Dr. Manhattan on Mars, when the superhero is constructing an intricate crystal city of clockwork was an inspired choice. The music and visuals in that scene conspired to produce a sense of awe.

I admit I laughed aloud with evil glee when Rorschach, locked in a prison with fifty or more criminals he caught, shouts to the cowering mob of convicts after he cruelly and efficiently kills a man with kitchen implements: “I am not locked in here with you. You are locked in here with ME!”

The donnybrook where Silk Specter and Nite Owl wade through hordes of evildoers during a prison riot to break Rorschach out of jail was as well done as any Hollywood fight scene.

There were not one or two, but a large number of scenes that had a thrilling or thoughtful or impressive or shocking effect, and they were all well done. Where the film is good, it is good. It never quite reaches the level of being great.

One charming thing the film did well was resurrect the look of the past. A shot of a flying fortress with Sally Jupiter painted on the nose in a cheesecake pose was spot on. The filth of pre-Giuliani New York was spot-on, graffiti and all. Not just props, but people: Look-alikes with fairly unobtrusive make-up did convincing imitations of the John McLaughlin, Pat Buchannan, Andy Warhol and Henry Kissinger, and so on. The only misstep was Richard Nixon, whom the make-up artist decided should have the nose of Pinocchio.

If you liked Rorschach or Nite Owl in the original, you will like the way they look and act in the film. Again, the adaptation was simply perfect.

3. The Bad

And yet…

For some reason I found myself looking at this film and thinking “This actor does a real fine impersonation of Rorschach, a cartoon character whom I liked and pitied, despite his warped ugliness” but I did not think, ”Here is the real Rorschach, whom I like and pity, despite his warped ugliness.” If I had not gone into the film already knowing and liking these characters, I would not have liked them. I was not drawn into the film the way I was drawn into the comic. I am not sure what was missing, but something was.

It is impossible to cram a twelve-issue miniseries into a two and a half hour movie. Even so, however, Zack Snyder, the film maker, could surely have done something to make the characters come alive. I remember when I read the comic, how heartfelt the pathos was. I felt sorry for Dr. Manhattan, for example, and for Nite Owl and Rorschach, and for the tangled relationship between Silk Specter and her mother. Some imponderable was missing, the heart and soul of it.

I like the idea of a retired superhero. I love the idea of a retired superhero. In fact, my first story I ever had printed was in a college newspaper, and it was the tale of Perseus, as an old man, living with his memories, called upon one last time to fight evil, long after he has lost the heart and thews for the deed. Look at the way Brad Bird handled this theme in THE INCREDIBLES. Another example might be the way the character of Bruce Wayne is handled in the cartoon BATMAN BEYOND. No matter how strong he was in his golden, glory days, even the superhero merits some sympathy when he has nothing to do but sit by his old costume, in his old trophy room, and drink beer. Ah, but then when the trumpets blow, and Evil once again rears its arrogant head, must our aged hero don his antique panoply, take up his shield, and face a foe he no longer has the strength to match? The character of Theoden in THE TWO TOWERS embodied this same sentiment. It gives the superhuman a human side. It makes him come to life. The idea automatically calls to mind a certain pathos, a certain nostalgia, and most importantly a certain humanity, too often absent from superhero comics.

But that did not happen here. Even after two hours into the movie, I found myself still in the mind-set where you are waiting for it to start, waiting for the characters to come to life for you.

Now, the change might be in me rather than in the material. If so, I cannot say. I cannot point to specific things the comic did, or the film failed to do, which made the illusion fail for me, but fail it did.

The film is not merely bleak and nihilistic, it is superlatively, abundantly and over-self-indulgently bleak and nihilistic. The bombastic negativity involved in ‘deconstructing’ the superhero genre is on display in this film, and by its very nature, bombast is neither amusing, nor charming, nor nice. Nihilism is a bitter herb, perhaps appropriate for Passover, or Lent, or Ramadan, but not the stuff we normally associate with light and frothy fare like superhero comics. Vanilla with horseradish.

I realize it is supposed to be adult and hepcat to mock denigrate heroism, especially innocent children’s heroes, and I also realize it has been going on in comics since the 1980’s, thanks mostly to this comic currently being discussed.

But, as an adult, I no longer see things with childish eyes. I don’t believe all warriors are war-criminals or that all cops are crooked. The dread of global thermonuclear destruction no longer hangs over our political landscape; and, even if it did, as an adult I would not blame the Americans for the threat. The threat came from the Soviets. Cynicism seems like a pose to me, an act, a thing adolescent children do when they have a shallow idea of what it means to be grown-up. So a cynical film, no matter how well made, looks immature to me. The innocent simplicity of a normal superhero comic looks grown-up.

Some reviewers have said this film will spark debate. Maybe so, but I expect the debate will be as pedestrian as I found the movie: something to interest college students, perhaps. For example, the whole dramatic tension of the final scene rests on the notion that Ozymandias might be right in his deadly calculation of human life. But, for me at least, the concept of killing thousands to save millions is not one that has any particular traction in my imagination. It merely looks like evil, and not even the kind of romanticized evil we associate with dashing Pirates and handsome Jewel Thieves and majestic Darth Vader in a big black cape. It looks like raw, stinking, stupid Chairman Mao type evil: the kind that says you cannot make an omelet without murdering a million innocent people, and then kills a million innocent people and does not end up making an omelet after all.

The drama of the climax scene in this film rests on the kind of disorienting shock the reader feels when he realizes that the villain might be, in some cold or twisted way, a hero in his own eyes! It is supposed to make you pause and think.

But if you are old and wary curmudgeon, like me, there is no realization and no shock, and nothing to think about, because you have thought it out before, and you think that it is not expedient for us, that one man should die for the people, so that the whole nation not perish.

The central irony of having Ozymandias, the intellectual idealist, end up as a mass-murderer, whereas Rorschach, whose opening monologue says he is not willing to save the stinking city from its filth, end up as the tragic hero unwilling to compromise on principle, is noteworthy. It is a clever reversal of roles and expectations. But then Rorschach is killed by God Almighty, in the form of Dr. Manhattan, rather than by Ozymandias who just got done killing the Comedian and trapping Rorschach for the express purpose of hiding his master-crime; and therefore Ozzy has a motive to stop Rorschach, but Doc Manhattan does not really. Of course, this God Almighty is wind-up watchworks god in a wind-up watchworks universe with no watchmaker, and so, by express auctorial purpose, nothing he does has any motive, point, or purpose: everything is done as it is foreseen because it is foreseen. And since the master-crime of Ozymandias will either prove successful or prove futile depending on whether the halfwitted newsman picks up the wrong piece of mail from the crank file, even the acts of the smartest man in the world trying to save the world have no point or purpose.

And what is the point of having Nite Owl be impotent? Is this a sly statement that superhero comics have a Freudian component to them, perhaps? Or was it just to make us feel sorry for the guy, or to tell us he felt unmanned without his superheroic costume, or what? Whatever the intended point, I was merely annoyed.

I am annoyed because the author’s purpose, among others, was to denigrate something I adore, namely, superhero comics. Moore’s WATCHMEN is a satire on Charleston comic heroes. For those of you interested: Nite Owl is Blue Beetle; Rorschach is The Question; Dr. Manhattan is Captain Atom; Silk Spectre is Nightshade or maybe Black Canary; Ozymandias is Peter Cannon the Thunderbolt; Comedian is Peacemaker.

I am not a fan of Charleston comics. I never much cared for Blue Beetle, and I have never even heard of the characters that Ozymandias, Silk Specter, and Comedian are based on. I am familiar with, and indeed a fan of The Question, who is Objectivist Steve Dikto’s Objectivist paean to Objectivism: The Question is a perfectly remorseless because perfectly just character. Moore decided to portray him as a nutbag. I am not offended for the sake of The Question, merely because Moore is an artist, and therefore his Rorschach takes on a life of his own, and transcends the original satirical intent. Moore is not just denigrating Dikto. So, I am not here going to leap to the defense of Charleston comics, and complain how thoroughly Moore assassinated their characters. However, an element of denigration is not only present in the whole plot and theme of WATCHMEN, it is the central to the plot and theme.

The point of this pointless movie is to make superheroes look pointless, but moreso, to make the idea of heroics itself look pointless. The point was character assassination on a whole genre of characters.

Notice what is missing from both the film and the comic. It is hard to notice the absence, but once you notice it, it is as obvious as the lack of sympathetic victims in INTERVIEW WITH VAMPIRE (where, by no coincidence, only obnoxious people are killed by the vampires).

What is missing is heroics. Even when a high rise tenement is saved from a fire, no one expresses thanks to the superheroes. We see a pederast and his dogs being meat-cleavered to death, but no one is saved. The little girl is already dead. We see gangsters being blown into meaty chunks, but no hint of what their crimes were. Compare and contrast this with a scene in SPIDERMAN 2 where Spidey, at great personal risk, saves a trainload of people from a wreck, and the grateful people are willing to stand up even to the deadly Doc Octopus in gratitude. As I recall, not a person saved from the tenement fire says thank you to Nite Owl. Instead a bag lady tries to light her cigarette from the ship’s flamethrower, and Silk Specter swears at her.

4. The Ugly

With no fear of contradiction, I think I can say that this is an ugly, ugly movie. It is ugly visually and ugly spiritually.

The movie makers went out of their way to exaggerate the brutality of the violence involved, even more so than Alan Moore did. During a rape scene, the woman’s head is banged against a pool table over and over, for example. When some gangsters are blown to bloody bits, the camera lingers on their dripping blood and gore clinging to the ceiling. We see dogs fight over the severed leg of a little girl, her cute wee little shoe and sock still on the foot. When the comic has Rorschach burn a pederast to death offstage, in the movie we are treated to slow motion closeups of the blood and brain-goo flying up from the meat cleaver that the superhero plunges again and again into the bad guy’s skull. A man’s face is burned off this skull by a ladle of boiling cooking oil. Another man has his hands slowly cut off his arms by a buzz-saw; we are treated to a lingering shot of the stumps. And there is much breaking of bones, and we are treated to views of the compound fractures, with jags of bone protruding through torn skin. And there is a pregnant woman who is shot to death by the father of her child while he swears like a sailor.

And then there is Dr. Manhattan’s big blue penis. This is a penis movie, and there is a lot of penis. Lots of buttocks. Blue buttocks. Giant blue buttocks.

And there are two or three too many fornication scenes for my taste, and, I might add, for the taste of the audience I was with. I don’t think the film-makers meant the audience to laugh when Silk Specter and Nite Owl are playing “hide the pickle” in the Owl Ship. Malin Akerman is a perfectly attractive actress, and I am sure seeing her nipples bouncing and hips thrusting as she pantomimed the sexual act would normally be a treat for a healthy male audience, but the scene was filmed in what I can only call a sleazy and ridiculous fashion. I wonder what her mother thinks of this.

I was also distracted during the sex scene (or rather, ‘scenes’, since Nite Owl’s erection fails the first attempt) by wondering why these two were not married.

I realize that this is a terribly old-fashion thing to think, and that modern audiences like scene of women getting raped, beaten, and shot, as well as committing sex outside marriage, but nonetheless, it dulled my enjoyment of the movie, and it added to the ugliness. I am trying to picture Blue Beatle and Nightshade from Charleston comics doing the Wild Thang without wedlock, and the picture seems a mockery to me.

Far be it from me to claim these elements were not present in the original comic: but there is a difference between seeing a cartoon picture of a woman with red ink running down her face, and a color motion picture of a realistic-looking battered woman’s face on a giant screen in the multiplex, while she is being beaten and raped.

  1. Conclusion

In general, I would say the bad outweighs the good. There is something like corrosive carburetor exhaust the clings to the soul after seeing this movie. But, even so, I am hardly ready to denounce this film. The artistic achievement of the original comics is real: Alan Moore did something I had never seen before, and pulled the entire world of comics in a whole new direction. Now, it is not a direction I particularly like, but the new direction has treated comics with grown-up sobriety. This is a sobering film.

There were plenty of scenes I liked in the film, despite the fact that there were no heroes in it.

(There was a psychotic, self-absorbed smart guy, a psychotic, greasy vigilante in a trenchcoat, a black-ops assassin, an impotent has-been in an owl mask, and a self-absorbed harlot who flits from one lover to the next while bitching at her drunk mom. No heroes.)

Of course, there is many a literary work that has no particular heroes in it, and there is something of a relief, if you are in the mood for it, to watch a tale where the human beings have human flaws, and there is even a morbid joy in watching a tale where human beings have exaggerated flaws. That, I suppose, depends on what you are expecting when you walk in.

If you get queasy at make-believe violence, stay away. I am not particular in that regard.

(I remember when I watched ROBOCOP in the theater, the girl I was with was hiding her eyes. Then I noticed that what we were watching was a scene where a man is being torn slowly into chunks by a malfunctioning machine gun, and the spray of bullets was sending sprays of blood and viscera across the table and windows beyond. The scene was played for laughs. That was when I realized that the girl I was with was right to hide her eyes, and that I was wrong to be nonplussed. I had become callous, through overexposure, to a sight that, to a healthy soul, would be repugnant and horrid.)

So, if you are like me, the gross-out parts of this film will not gross you out. It is not as bad as some modern horror movies.

Some commentators have argued whether this film is conservative or liberal. I doubt this is a worthy argument to pursue. There is no heavy-handed symbolism here, and I think the point being made is about life in general, not about a particular political system or political party. This is not a mere piece of polemic like Phillip Pullman’s AMBER SPYGLASS, or Robert Heinlein’s heavy-handed STARSHIP TROOPERS. More to the point, it is not like V FOR VENDETTA.

The fact of the matter is Leftists are a confused bunch. In order to criticize the Right, they liken us to totalitarians and thugs, and so when they make films were heroes bash totalitarians and thugs, they wonder why we cheer and wave the flag. Seeing Luke Skywalker blow up the Death Star, to us, looks the same as if Captain America socked the Red Skull on the jaw: it does not look like a criticism of American imperialism. So, here. If there is some hidden criticism of Reagan dismantling the Soviet Union hidden somewhere in this movie, I was too inert to spot it.

The theme of the movie, if it had one, seemed to be that all life was infinitely precious, but ultimately futile, and that we are merely carried along by gears of the clockwork fate to weal or woe, in a machine that no god made. You can be like the Comedian, and laugh at the pointless joke, or be like Rorschach, and seek some pattern or symmetry in the meaningless blot, or be like Dr. Manhattan, and stand aside from life, or be like Ozymandias, and attempt to cut the Gordian knot. Perhaps the only thing to do is be like Nite Owl, and seek solace in a lover’s embrace. But the story neither condemns nor recommends which course a man might choose: it is a pitiless character study of human life and death, and, in the end, the story itself says nothing.

If you are a fan of normal superhero movies, like the X-MAN movies, SPIDERMAN or IRON MAN, or Alexander Salkind’s wondrous SUPERMAN, you may be disappointed if you walk in unwarned, because there is no large-scale superheroics here. You will not see the Wolverine mixing it up with Sabertooth, or Spidey saving Mary Jane, or Tony Stark cracking jokes and dogfighting a pair of F-22 fighterjets, or even Supes catching a helicopter in one hand.

WATCHMEN is not like this. Instead, it is detective story and character study (of some rather unsavory characters) with a few disconnected and pointless yet Way Cool fight scenes of graphic brutality. There is some gallows humor, and some bleak humor, but no humor. It is a story where the good guys lose, or get blown into a messy red stain on the snow.

By itself, the story is negative and bleak, oddly paced, and making an obscure self-referential point about superheroics that non-geeks might not grok. An ordinary person who reads mainstream books does not need to be told that we should not trust superheroes.

I would recommend this movie to fans of the comic, but urge anyone else to steer clear. It is a faithful reproduction of the comic, and if you liked the comic, you should like this.

But I am not planning to see it again. I would rather watch the first MORTAL KOMBAT movie one more time.

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