Saturday, March 7, 2009

Andy Watches the Watchmen

Warning: Spoilers Ahead

Who watched the Watchmen?

Last night, not many.

A few dozen folks in the audience, plenty of mobile-phone tapping, snickering teens, a handful of comic-book-guy lookalikes too, and lots of empty seats for a Friday night.

That's a shame, because Watchmen rocks.

I write this as a non-fanboy and as a virgin to the Alan Moore/Dave Gibbons graphic novel. I walked in having never heard of alien squids or Black Freighters. I didn't miss their absence any more than I missed all the wheels-within-wheels backstory necessarily trimmed for a hard-R 2 1/2 hour summer blockbuster.

Despite all the hue and cry I'd followed from a distance about an unfilmable film, I left the theater with a good buzz, thinking about quantum mechanics and free will and utopia and the cost of peace. I also left with indelible images of shifting Rorschach blots and Martian timepieces and snapping bones and exploding bodies.

Watchmen is a triumph of big ideas and hardcore action, a film worth watching again and again, if only for the myriad details inevitably missed at first glance. Like the graphic novel, it rewards careful attention to symbolism, imagery, metaphor, and nuance. This is an action-thriller-noir whose words and referents matter.

For me, the movie does a swell job of engaging a key theme of Moore's opus, the implications of the American Dream. As the nihilistic Comedian announces: "It came true." Sure, our version of 1985 got Ronald Reagen instead of Robert Redford. And our version faced 9/11 rather than the reelection of Richard Nixon. Yet both versions suffered a psychosis with roots in Vietnam, whether by defeat or victory.

A mirror image of opposing ideas, the American Dream revealed itself to be the culmination of all efforts to create a good place: dystopia. Watchmen tackles that thesis both delicately and with gross clarity, arguing that we lost something fundamental in the 1960s. We lost the sanity of limitations.

In that vein, I also dug the movie's ability to examine complex questions of time and causality. If all our actions are known, stitched together into a singularity of past and future, here and there, why should we choose one direction or another? From that perspective, why should a person don a mask and save the world? Why not simply destroy it? And if we can (or must) destroy either a village or the world in order to save it, what's the difference?

In Watchmen, the answer affirms what we've come to know in the past couple decades: superheroes hide behind their costumes and exploits, obscuring their fear, their alienation, their impotence, and their pathology. In my opinion, it's cheap to always fall back to some sexual "dysfunction" as justification for all that leather and those masks (Moore's winking "closet" language wisely excised from the film, though the Village People make an appearance). No, I view the superhero as a means to understanding the American dilemma. That is, we went a little crazy in the Cold War. Moreover, we went totally nuts as the world's "lone superpower."

Was it wise for director Zack Snyder to shoehorn 9/11 imagery into Watchmen? I'm still figuring that one out. Imagery of the Twin Towers always stings, and its abuse verges on the pornographic. Those ghost buildings are a matter of historical accuracy in any production seeking to evoke a sense of time and place before the attacks. But the new "ground zero" at the film's conclusion -- the gaping hole, hanging flag, the sick hint that some Americans profited from mass murder -- is too facile, too clever to be accepted without a wince.

That said, I admire Watchmen for its ambition and its balls (albeit literally in the case of Dr. Manhattan). It's not a perfect movie. And purists surely howl over a thousand slights. Let 'em. Jenny and I left our viewing and headed to a nearby Denny's. We asked questions. We compared notes. We reflected on themes. And we remembered favorite parts. Amid all the splatter and spandex, Watchmen inspired conversation and introspection. It's filled with big ideas and memorable moments.

Most of all, it's the first movie I've seen in years that made me say, "I've got to read the book."


Anonymous said...

Great thoughts.
A day later and after much conversation, I think Zack Snyder's Watchmen mostly pulled it off. Was it the exact same as the book? no, but it was pretty damn close to a point.

I tried to think my way through the movie and see if it accomplishes the same things the book was back in 95, and I think it does; if you're paying attention. The thing that is nice about books or in this case graphic novels, is that you can go back and read and digest things that you may have missed. In a movie, you have to go see it again and again, hopefully disregarding your preconceptions.

I think many of the changes make sense for reaching an audience that doesnt consist of the fancore, although it seems too long and complex for people to bother with.
I'd be very interested to see what you think of the book when you read it (I'm including an analysis of Watchmen in a paper I'm writing).

Zaki said...

Wow, terrific analysis, Andy! Now I'm more curious than ever to hear your thoughts on the book.

Thanks, btw, for the kind words about my review!