Monday, March 09, 2009

A Word about Watchmen

It didn't suck, though I wonder what the larger audience, the one not composed of GenX geeks for whom the comic served as a kind of serial Bible as it came out one mind-blowing, paranoia-steeping issue at a time back in the Eighties, could possibly have made of it. As spectacle, it exceeds The Dark Knight, and it's not without a certain visual poetry, particularly in the scenes focusing on Dr. Manhattan, who is gifted with a surprisingly light, properly bemused voice by Billy Crudup. The acting is a mixed bag: Jeffrey Dean Morgan makes gleefully sadistic hay in his turn as the Comedian, while Patrick Wilson is an appropriately melancholy Nite Owl (his hair is perfect). Malin Akerman, best known to me before now for being topless in Harold and Kumar Go to White Castle, looks the part but her line readings are wince-inducingly bad. As the trailer voiceover man would say, Jackie Earle Haley IS Rohrshach, compelling in his "squidgy" mask and even more compelling out of it. Most disappointing is Matthew Goode as Ozymandias: he gets the character's closeted self-superiority but has nothing of the necessary gravitas. He's a lightweight in more senses than one: it's hard to believe that the Comedian, even in his sixties, wouldn't have been able to throw this Ozymandias out the window instead of vice-versa.

These are quibbles. More disturbing, or perhaps just a sign of the times, is the negation or subtraction of the fundamental humanism of the comic. It's been misinterpreted as the book that cleared the path for "dark" superheroes, alongside the Moore-penned Batman: The Killing Joke and everything Frank Miller's ever done. But what Moore is really about in Watchmen is discovering the human faces behind the masks: as the first Nite Owl writes, ""Yes, we were crazy, we were kinky, we were Nazis, all those things that people say. We were also doing something because we believed in it. We were attempting, through our personal efforts, to make our country a safer and better place to live in. Individually, working on our separate patches of turf, we did too much good in our respective communities to be written off as a mere aberration, whether social or sexual or psychological." Moore takes the heroic impulse as seriously as the pathology, and none of his characters, even the very worst of them, lacks a fundamental humanity. That includes the minor characters, the non-masks: Bernard the newspaper vendor and Bernie the comic-reading freeloader; the compromised psychiatrist Malcolm Long and his wife; and the Nixon of the comic is more than the mad bomber of the movie but shows flickers of introspection and regret.

The subordination of these characters to the masked heroes is an obvious, probably necessary gesture given the task of compressing twelve issues into three hours, but it's a serious loss, made more serious by the director's moronic sadism, his need to upstage the already grim violence of the comic (but it's real, that violence—the people involved suffer, there's nothing cathartic about it). What on earth was he thinking by turning Dan and Laurie's battle with the street gang into a battle to the death? He takes a scene with a wryly humorous undertone—as shown in the final panel of the battle in which the sweat-drenched heroes are shown as it were post-coitally—and turns it into a pointless bloodbath that permanently damages our sense of the fundamental decency of those characters. There are many other moments in which the violence gratuitously goes beyond the comic, giving us a cheap little thrill that empties out the queasiness the original book induced by showing us superheroes attempting murder and rape. The cynicism of this is expressed most succinctly in the transformation of a scene in which Rohrshach outwits one of the thugs who've come to kill him in his prison cell. In the original comic, Rohrshach taunts poor Lawrence into reaching through the bars of his prison cell, Lawrence shouting, "We've got a hundred guys out here that want to kill you. What have you got?" Deftly breaking the guy's thumbs while tying his hands together, Rohrshach replies, "Your hands. My perspective." It's a dryly funny moment that emphasizes what's so terrifying about Rohrshach: not his physicality (he's a little guy) but his black-and-white view of the world. In the film, though, Rohrshach's line is "Your hands. My pleasure." That gives the whole game away. Snyder has traded the comic's negativity for nihilism, and it's too bad.

My dream for a filmed Watchmen always revolved around a mini-series or even a full-fledged series, something that could take the time to find a cinematic means of replicating the multiple perspectives for which comics are ideal. The comic packs almost every panel with multiple storylines, switching between background and foreground, each issue interpolated with texts: an essay on birding by Dan Dreiberg, a corporate report on Ozymandias' toy line, a Playboy-style interview with Veidt in Antarctica. It's a very writerly book, which makes it ever more obvious why Moore has taken his name off the filmed adaptations of his work. I liked V for Vendetta, and I liked this, if only for the set pieces and images that it brought to larger-than-life: Dr. Manhattan's glass palace on Mars, the Comedian leaping down into a rioting mob from the Owlship, Rohrshach's pitch-perfect battle with police. It's a great comic-book movie, but it's a lousy comic.

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