Monday, March 16, 2009

I Watched the Watchmen

I have a confession to make, and one that might destroy my comic geek cred. I've never been a fan of Watchmen.

Don't get me wrong. I have tremendous respect for the impact that Watchmen had on the genre. Were it not for this book, other great works and writers that followed may not have been possible. But it must be said that of many great works that did follow Watchmen, or were inspired by Alan Moore's other works, most of them were actually better than Watchmen, as were many writers being better than Moore. It was through the post-Watchmen writers and books that I found my way to Watchmen. By the time I got to Watchmen in the mid-1990s, it was already past its time. More than a decade after that I see the movie, which is as faithful to the comic as any movie could be, and is exactly why it fails.

Taken at face value, Watchmen is a seminal piece of work, and groundbreaking for the medium, but it is no literary masterpiece. As a comic book, it is masterful. As a work of fiction, it is really quite average. Watchmen is groundbreaking in the sense that this story is one of the first times that comic book heroes are shown to have genuine human failings, weaknesses that can - and do - cause great harm. Even though it is a modest study of human nature, this nature is somewhat distorted by the focus on the heroes, who are arguably still greater than other humans by comparison to the common man in the book. Watchmen is not an examination of the human condition through the fall of people that society has elevated to hero status, it is a story about comic book heroes, written for fans of comic books. In the words of the series illustrator, Watchmen is "a comic about comics". Watchmen was not written for the general public, which is why it should not have been made into a movie, and certainly not a movie that tries to remain as close to the original book as possible. That should have been obvious to anyone paying attention, as the author said this directly:

"What I'd like to explore is the areas that comics succeed in where no other media is capable of operating", and emphasized this by stressing the differences between comics and film.

Watchmen made for a bad movie for many reasons. Criticisms of the book aside, there are many devices that make the story work in book form that cannot be translated to film. The slow pace of character development, minor characters who are actually very important to the plot, various complicated subplots, and  the insertion of sometimes seemingly irrelevant back stories, all elements that help immerse the reader into this alternate reality are simply not possible to recreate on film, even in a three-hour movie. In the absence of the devices, all the audience has to suspend disbelief and become part of the Watchmen's world are novel twists on actual historical events and characters, allusions to real-world places and people, flashbacks of events in the characters' pasts that are mostly the standard trope of stereotypical conflicts (adultery, wrong place/wrong time, etc.), and a lot of cheesy, expository dialogue.

The Watchmen themselves are thin and cartoonish in the book, and on the big screen, that becomes even more pronounced. All of them pay homage to characters from early comics, which won't matter a bit to anyone who is not a fan of the medium. And many of those characters were thin and cartoonish out of necessity, and this is a major reason why comic books have always been scorned as unserious.

I take issue with most of the characters in the book, but especially in the movie, since the movie magnifies greatly the weaker aspects of the characters. Nite Owl’s alter-ego has been called an “impotent Clark Kent”, but in the movie, Patrick Wilson is more like Chevy Chase’s Clark Griswald from National Lampoon's Vacation, though he suits up well and has some decent fight scenes (likely a stunt man). Malin Akerman’s Silk Spectre II was most interesting when she had her clothes off, and I don’t mean that in a perverted sense. The rest of the time, she’s just vapid and whiney. She was as convincing in her fight scenes as was Uma Thurman in Kill Bill, which isn’t saying much. As for Matthew Goode’s Ozymandias, I’ll say that his fight scenes were decent enough, but I have nothing else good to say about his otherwise flat and dull performance. Jeffrey Dean Morgan’s The Comedian character was successfully detestable, so much so that you wanted bad things to happen to him, and were satisfied when they did.

The one character with the most potential for being interesting was the least interesting character of all. This is true of the book, and made even worse by Billy Crudup’s weak performance in the movie. I speak of Dr. Manhattan, a superpowered human capable of controlling matter and energy at the quantum level. Many things about this character have always bothered me. While most comic books treat science loosely, Alan Moore feigned scientific knowledge when writing Dr. Manhattan. Unfortunately, Mr. Moore has the same thin grasp of quantum physics as most comic writers, so as cool as the character could have truly been, he turned out to be nothing more than a big blue parlor trick. In the book, his character at once has no emotional concern for humans, yet does. Both of these exist in the character at the same time, but I guess since his character is not of time, this is gag. But it just doesn't make sense. He portends to be beyond other humans, yet he embodies the same pettiness as most humans. As for his magnificence, we see Dr. Manhattan use his powers over atoms to assemble and disassemble machinery, but it's always done in whole parts, not at the atomic level, which would make more sense (although, he does tend to disassemble humans at the cellular level). Also, Dr. Manhattan can grow to forty feet, apparently, completely ignoring the Law of Conservation. I also never quite got his ability to be two places at once. Entanglement doesn't work that way, and even if he is not of time, those who observe him are. So even on a theoretical scale, he couldn't be boning Laurie in one room while working on machines in another. Like I said, parlor tricks. This is too bad, because the real science of quantum physics is extremely cool, and the character could have been really amazing. I get that his character was based on an amalgam of "atomic" characters from pulp fiction and other cheese-ball sci-fi classics (including Captain Atom), and this speaks to why Watchmen is bad for a movie. People are tired of that type of schlock. We've moved on. But Moore doesn’t deserve all the blame for Dr. Manhattan’s poor screen presence. Billy Crudup did a perfect job making the character even more boring than he was in the series.

The one character I found the most interesting in the Watchmen movie is the same as was in the book: Rorschach. Jackie Earle Haley's performance was by far the best of the entire movie. His character wasn't particularly complex, much like the pulp characters he was based on, but was still intriguing. He is the masked vigilante with inexplicable abilities, questionable morals, and is of singular purpose: Justice! Haley's performance was spot on. He made you feel Rorschach's inner rage that burned hot enough to erupt like a volcano at times, and at other times you'd swear he had ice in his veins. He had the best line of the movie, and delivered it - in the prison scene - with awesome perfection:

"None of you understand. I'm not locked up in here with you. You're locked up in here with me."

But one character, no matter how great the performance, could not save Watchmen from itself.

Watchmen began as a comic series cum graphic novel that was an "homage to the simplicity and unsophisticated nature of Golden Age comic books" overflowing with Cold War paranoia, populated with narrow characters and corny dialogue. Watchmen ends as a larger than life example of just that. Such that large screens allow us to see the pores and the wrinkles and the blemishes on the characters’ faces,  the big screen exposes what is the worst of the Watchmen comic series, magnified a thousand times.

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