The Home of Steven Barnes
Author, Teacher, Screenwriter

Monday, March 09, 2009

Watchmen (2009)

Well, Alan Moore's "unfilmable" graphic novel has been filmed, and very well, I think, by Zack Snyder. I predict it will make a bare profit in theaters, and then live forever on DVD. And ten years from now, we'll get another version.

I read the twelve issue limited series when it came out in 1985, and was instantly entranced with this tale, which asked "what would the world be like if superheroes really existed? What would the superheroes themselves really be like?" And Alan Moore and Dave Gibbons (writer and artist) answered those questions with a multi-layered alternate-universe story with a great deal of psychological realism and minimalized superhero action. It was a book of thought, with a few outbursts of intense violence. A meditation on identity, politics, existential philosophy, and much more. It was also fiendishly clever, and its clean, classic comic-book graphics (the kind that I love most), made it a meta-comic, a comment on the nature of the readers as well as what they are reading.

Immediately, scribers like Sam Hamm (who wrote the first Batman movie) tried to turn it into a movie. I read the script, and it sucked, missing almost everything that made the comic work. The truth is that there have been hundreds if not thousands of good, solid comic books over the years--the iconography is established, and "Watchmen" depended upon that shared cultural history for its impact. In comparison, in 1985 there had been maybe two or three decent superhero movies. There was just nothing to draw on. Now, in 2009, there have been maybe twenty superhero movies that are really solid stepping stones to draw from thematically or visually, and a Watchmen movie had a bare chance of navigating the creative waters with success.

This story, of a group of disbanded superheroes living in a world approaching nuclear armageddon, in a country where Nixon is serving his fifth term, is at its core a murder mystery. Some killed an aging hero named The Comedian, and another hero, the borderline sociopathic Rorschach (the film's best performance) plays detective, trying to bring the hidden "mask killer" to justice, simultaneously realizing that it's all hopeless....the nuclear bombs will be flying soon, and as "Smartest man in the world" Ozymandias says, even big blue walking H-Bomb "Dr. Manhattan" can only stop 99% of the missiles, leaving just enough to destroy all life on Earth. Against armageddon are the sub-Batman "Night Owl" and his crush, "Silk Spectre 2", who was raised to be a superhero by her mom, the original Silk Spectre. These two represent "normal" people at the center of events beyond their control.

But the death of the Comedian turns out to have ties to the nuclear threat, and in 2.7 hours of often dazzling, occasionally underwhelming filmmaking, their histories and psychologies are stripped bare, and we learn the truth. WOW this was fun, but the "R" rating is seriously earned, both for sex and violence. When Night Owl and Silk Spectre try to get it on in their normal identities, he can't get it up. (She's been Dr. Manhattan's girlfriend...kind of intimidating to follow THAT up! Wonder if Joseph had any performance problems with Mary. After all, her first boyfriend was God...but I digress.)

After sneaking out to rescue a burning building filled with trapped civilians (superheroes have been outlawed in this world, much as in "The Incredibles," which was basically Pixar's riff on the Watchmen) they have quite the tryst up in the clouds. For fifty years and more, I've been watching the super-powered men and women in tights, and Watchmen gets right into the kinky questions everybody else has always avoided...mating rituals, the emotional scarring, the actual impact of such skill and power on the bodies of their sparring well as the way the world might have been altered had folks actually donned hoods to fight crime.

Oh, it's all glorious fun, probably the most literal translation of a book to the screen I've ever seen. The cuts and changes Snyder made I (mostly) approve of, including the notorious Squidless ending. His new ending plays far more elegantly than the one in the original Graphic Novel, which had Moore winking rather frantically at the audience. I also enjoy the way Ozymandias is clearly gay (to the point of hanging with the Village People, in the brilliant opening montage). What a hoot. I had just so much fun.

BUT...believe this. It is very very R rated. Probably my favorite superhero movie ever.



Actually an anti-Sambo alert. One of the changes Snyder made was to remove the home life of the prison psychiatrist who examines Rorschach. In the graphic novel, his encounter with the damaged hero triggers depression and impotence. Now, this guy is the only fleshed out black character in the book...and he is doomed, fat, and impotent to boot. Thanks, guys.

In fact, the howling of the fanboys about how "realistic" the Watchmen is was, from that vantage point, always bullshit. It was a typical 1985 white fanboy fantasy, in which superheros bound around in tights, and all of them are white as the driven snow. Comic books were mostly still like this back then, and to this day, most dark faces are either members of teams or guests. I remember a major editor for DC telling me that if they changed the race of the character on the cover--nothing else, not artists, not writers, not distributers, not ANYTHING...if they made the cover character white or Asian or an alien, it was cool. But if they put a black man on the cover, sales dropped. But that's just that old desire for our fantasy heros to resemble us as much as possible. Nothing personal.

ᅠBut if we're talking about the real world, don't tell me that black people weren't capable enough, or motivated enough, to put on capes and masks and tights. We're just as crazy as anyone else. But just as in its era's comic books, everyone shown in "Watchmen" (in the context of a VERY white New York...except for the prison, of course) in costume is white. Pure fantasy, and the accusation of "realism" automatically stinks to me, but that's just me.

Anyway, granted that, showing the black shrink unable to make love to his increasingly shrewish wife just struck me as Moore being a typical human being: his color is the only real color in the world. Removing those scenes didn't hurt the movie a bit.


Anonymous said...

Your take on Watchmen is so similar to mine, I'm going to have to ask you to get out of my head!

I think it'll have mediocre sales ... for exactly the same reasons that it'll last forever the way that Blade Runner lasted forever. It's just too good (by the standards of justly mapping the book to the screen, making no compromises to audience attention span or ability to absorb subtleties instantly, and spending enough time to really tell the story) to be a release hit. And I couldn't be happier about that. It's been so very long since I saw a science-fiction/fantasy movie done this well.

No book can go straight to the movie screen; it always needs rewriting. Generally, though, the rewriting shows, because it's just stupider than the original text that it (necessarily) abridged.

Not this time. This is the first movie maybe in my entire life where I honestly thought every single rewrite was at least as intelligent as the original book, and in some cases more intelligent.

(I didn't consciously notice the omission of the black psychiatrist's home life, but no, I didn't miss it. I myself honestly didn't see it as being Sambo so much as being ... well, a depiction of something that waaaaaay too many white guys in soul-draining draining jobs who've been husbands to unhappy wives know about. But I certainly didn't mind having it deleted, either.)

--Erich Schwarz

Christian M. Howell said...

But if we're talking about the real world, don't tell me that black people weren't capable enough, or motivated enough, to put on capes and masks and tights. We're just as crazy as anyone else. But just as in its era's comic books, everyone shown in "Watchmen" (in the context of a VERY white New York...except for the prison, of course) in costume is white. Pure fantasy, and the accusation of "realism" automatically stinks to me, but that's just me.

Well, according to the real world we can only be related as "The Sagging Crusader." I guess the film makers found it difficult to have the scenes with running. Though I guess the sex scene would be a little easier since it would only involve the lifting of the shirt. The pants are already down.

It's really embarrassing being a black man right now.

Hopefully I can make a bigger dent. It is kind of lonely in the offices I go to though. Realistically we should be at least 10% of every work force but we're not.

I wouldn't have much desire to put that kind of thing in the movies without ridicule either.

salina said...

Saw the film last night. It oscillated between fantastic and lukewarm ... the full effect of it's absolute brilliance didn't hit me until today. I found myself involuntarily thinking about it, it just crept on me.

Yeah, the absence of folk of color was prominent indeed....

Anonymous said...

When I heard the line about Dr. Manhattan being able to stop 99% of the incoming warheads, my next thought was that he's expected to stop 0% of the outgoing warheads.

Presumably he'd then be asked to stop the jet stream from bringing over radioactive debris, the formation of ozone-killing nitrogen compounds in the stratosphere, the airborne soot from blocking sunlight, etc...

Mike Ralls said...

This is what I was expecting to happen in the Watchmen movie;

Charles said...

An interesting assessment I found and thought you might find interesting:

Review on PVP Online

Specifically, to quote:

Watchmen is comic book porn. It felt very fetishistic. If The Watchmen was a story about ex government black-ops who discovered that members of their old unit were being murdered to cover up a plot to trick the world out of global annihilation, nobody would question anything. Movies about espionage often touch these subjects and deal with bad people with no morals. But when you replace government agent with Superhero, and you make the costuming as campy as a 1960’s Batman TV episode, suddenly it seems very off putting.

Some of the situations in this film would seem like normal R-rated fare if it were an episode of the Wire or The Shield. But when it’s Super-Heroes it really seems a bit naughty. This is a movie I wouldn’t want to watch with my dad. And we catch ALL the super-hero flicks together. During our second outing to see the film, a couple got up and left half-way through the movie.

Mike Ralls said...

There is also this version of Watchmen as a Saturday Morning Cartoon;


Strong together, united forever
They're the best of friends

But when troubles about, you'd best watch out
For the Watchmen!

Nite Owl is their leader
And he loves to party down

Rorschach's friends to the animals...

"Yeah, when hes not clowning around"

"I'm nutty!"

Beat up some thugs, say no to drugs
Be in bed by 10

But if troubles about, you'd best watch out
For the Watchmen!

Silk Spectres a sensation
You should really never miss

The Comedian's her biggest fan now...

"If I could only get that kiss!"

Ozy and Bubastis - a couple o'
Crimesolving superstars

John can give you cancer
and he'll turn into a car

Strong together, united forever
Come and meet your friends

Have no fear, times up, times here
For the Watchmen!


Steven Barnes said...

I LOVE the "Saturday Morning Watchmen." You just KNOW that DC got approached to create just exactly that. I'm amazed that Snyder got it to the screen as pure as it was. He must have used up every drop of capital he had in Hollywood.

Worg said...

I was absolutely flabbergasted that they were able to get Watchmen by the censors in a condition as pristine as it was.

Pretty much every part of it that mattered was in there. But there's one thing that was missing: the Black Ship.

What the hell was the deal with that in the comic anyway? I never understood it, can someone who understands the intricacies better than I do please explain it?

"John can give you cancer
and he'll turn into a car"

Funniest line ever in any media, period, for all time.

I am still kind of partial to "Watchmen Babies."