It’s Not A Superhero Movie, II

watchmen smiley

Well, strangely, I was able to walk right into the Vista (one of my favourite movie palaces) and go to my favourite seat on Friday evening to see Watchmen, without even waiting in line. So I’m able to report on this rather sooner than I thought. (Or at least I was, but Friday night saw me busy, and Saturday night I was all prepared to do so after my long hike in the rorschach costumeSan Gabriels, but I feel asleep on the sofa still in my hiking gear and did not wake up until 6:00am.) So here we are. I’m happy to report that the owner or manager guy at the Vista, who wears a costume whenever a film of this genre shows, did not disappoint. There he is on the right in his Rorschach outfit. (Click for larger view.) Quite splendid.

This film is, on the surface, partly about my people (My people? Take your pick about what you think I mean here: (a) Physicists? (b) Superheroes? (c) Physicists who like to wear capes? (d) Physicists who like to go around in the nude and are sometimes blue?) and so of course I had to go along and see and report, but more urgently I have to report because I am quite sure that most film reviewers will not be able to see past the capes and tights. Having seen a few reviews since I’ve gone, I’m not wrong so far. I get to use the above title for the post, as I did last year for The Dark Knight, because the capes and tights are a red herring.

I’ll fold the rest of this away for those who don’t want to read about the film before seeing it first, so click to read on if on the front page or on a feed.

The bottom line is that my worry:

[…] will Zack Snyder make a pig’s ear of bringing out all the wonder, joy, sadness, and hope that the wonderful graphic novel contains?

…while not unfounded, given the complexity of the source material, was met with some relief. I think that a great deal of those emotions and themes were communicated. Now that might simply be because they were resonating with things already inside me as a result of being familiar with the source material. I cannot be sure, but I can certainly say that I felt many of the things I was “supposed” to feel, and thought many of the things I was “supposed” to think at the right places, by which I mean the filmaker(s) communicated many of the messages I think the original writers (Alan Moore and Dave Gibbons) wished to communicate. I got weepy in some of the same places I did in the book.

What did they want to communicate? Gosh, I’d be silly to sit here and try to write about a subject that is so well written about (and badly in many places too) in numerous sources that you can call up by just Googling “Watchmen”. This may be one of the most discussed pieces of work in the graphic novel genre and beyond, and rightly so. All I will say, for those of you (and there seem to be many, which is fine) who somehow don’t know anything about it, is that it is not really about superheroes, despite what you will hear. (For a start, all except one of the actual people dressing up and becoming vigilantes are ordinary human beings (by the standards of Snyder and other typical films of the genre, at any rate!), although that is not the main point.) The humanness of these people is what is at the heart of the matter. Their flaws are right up there for you to see, along with how they deal with the world around them, and the path that it is on. And what a path it is on indeed! The alternative 1980s we find ourselves in is as a result of the one superhuman who does arise (following the fine tradition: the result of a laboratory accident), but in some sense, beyond setting that backdrop for the drama, he is irrelevant, and that is what makes it all the more interesting. That irrelevance of unimaginably great power (willing or otherwise) is one of the themes as well, well contrasted with the use and abuse of such great power (from, e.g., science) for political, military, etc, ends. He becomes America’s new atomic weapon, which they use to win the war and give us this alternative universe, with all the consequences of this woven into the fabric. Regular people have to deal with these consequences, of course. Other themes include the problem posed by having a group of highly flawed people try to take matters into their own hands, and how this can get way out of control. The film is also in large part about what became of the American Dream, in the light of the politics of the 60s and 70s, and what it turned into. (To my mind, the iconic Watchmen image – see above – with the Smiley with the drop of blood on it, is so powerfully evocative of that latter question. I’ve wondered for years who first thought of using that.) And lots more.

Much of it is not as well explored as other filmmakers might have, but it is there, and in reasonable balance. As with any film based on something from another medium, the idea is not to replace reading the wonderful source material after all, but to take some of it and put it up on screen. I think it was a worthy attempt – and better than I’d have predicted. If you want more depth, go read the book. (I’m not convinced that you would not get that much more if you’d got the Nolan brothers, or Paul Greengrass, or Terry Gilliam, to have a go, although I would have loved to see their versions of it too. Greengrass actually started work on it on set, as did other directors at various points, apparently.)

Turning to the detailed execution of the film itself, it is not a big surprise that it looks great, right down to the totally (and clearly intentionally) cheesy looking suits. All the players were excellent, and marvellously cast, although I can’t get over how truly perfect Rorschach was (such an excellent character in the book and on film), as was the (new) Nite Owl. (I particularly love the Nite Owl in the novel and in the film as he is so very charmingly unsure of himself, and more than a bit ineffectual. One detail about him I wish they’d kept in the film was him being clearly way too large around the middle for the cut of his old Nite Owl outfit.) The pastiches at the beginning showing the various iconic scenes from the 50s, 60s, and 70s, twisted somewhat to fit the tale were very enjoyable indeed. While the use of music of the period to invoke the sense of time was good, it was clearly not as well done as I’ve seen in recent films (take Boogie Nights or Donnie Darko, just to randomly mention a couple), but since they picked things I liked (Hendrix’s version of All Along the Watchtower is an all-time favourite of mine), I don’t mind too much.

Was it violent? Yes. Well, not much more than the source material. Too violent? You have to remember these are moving images with sound and so forth, so you’re more immersed, so a fist crushing a nose or teeth biting a cheek are at a further remove in a drawing than they are in a film… So don’t let anyone tell you that they really beefed up the violence a lot. It is mostly all there in the novel too, although there were indeed one or two places where choices were made to amplify a scene or perhaps substitute for something a bit more gory. But mostly, it is the novel, in terms of the level of violence. You just have to remember that you are more immersed, when seeing a film. It is ok to look away at some points and still enjoy and appreciate the rest of the film.

Well, I could say more, but I have to frantically get ready to rush across town to see a play. I’ve probably said enough. Summary – It is a good piece of work. Not a masterpiece (few films are), but a worthy attempt at doing difficult and rich source material. Worth seeing. Try to see past the genre and get at the themes that are being played out and examined. Ignore most reviewers, who have a gut reaction when they think they’re going to see a superhero movie, and make up your own mind.

You know what though? The best option of all – if you’re not sure you want to give up that (almost) three hours – is to simply buy a copy of the graphic novel Watchmen and settle down with it, for a real treat.


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