Monday, March 9, 2009

Manic Monday Apocalypso: Watchmen

I would hate to judge an author by the film adaptations of his work, but if I were to do so for Alan Moore, I would say he was a nihilistic misanthropist who was far enough left to make Chosmky blush. And also that he was an idiot. But while the latter would probably be true of assessments made of most authors based on screen adaptations, there may be some merit to the former.

This is the guy who gave us V for Vendetta after all. Also League of Extraordinary Gentlemen, but I have to believe that's not as stupid as it sounds, and it couldn't possibly be as dumb as the movie made it out to be. I just have to believe that, if I'm to have any faith in humanity at all.

Let me back up a bit and just talk about the movie: This is a decent superhero action flick, surprisingly entertaining for its length (two-and-a-half hours, not counting credits). The story takes place in an alternate 1985, and the premise is that masked heroes started appearing ca. World War II, and a second generation appeared in the '60s and helped the USA fight (and win!) the Vietnam War. (As if we lost that war for military or even enemy morale reasons.)

This win, and apparently the use of our five superheroes by President Nixon allows him to seek a fifth term--1968, 1972, 1976, 1980 and 1984--and somewhere around his third term, he makes masked vigilantism a crime. So our heroes are retired (a la Incredibles, which probably took a little inspiration from here) and either working clandestinely or not at all.

The story begins with one of the heroes, the Comedian, being killed. The Comedian's kind of a psychopathic Punisher type who really enjoyed Vietnam, and in one appalling scene opens fire on a crowd of protesters while screaming about the American Dream having come true. Jeffrey Dean Morgan does a fine job playing this "nuanced" character.

The hyper-violent Rorschach, who most reminded me of The Question, suspects foul play. Or rather, suspects fouler play than just a random burglary. He warns the Nite Owl, reminiscent of the Blue Beetle, but really evocative of a clunky Batman (complete with lots of money and toys), and the Nite Owl warns Ozymandias, now a super-successful businessman who's working on a cheap power source with the help of Dr. Manhattan.

Dr. Manhattan was exposed to some super-science thing that allows him to see into his own future and past, and apparently to give others the same power. Like his girlfriend, the Silk Spectre, who seems to be the only hero who inherited the position from her mother. Anyway, Dr. Manhattan's superpowers don't include giving a damn, which puts a strain on their relationship.

Anyway, there's lots going on, and director Zach Snyder keeps the action coming so that the story never gets bogged down. I'm always amused by the sort of critical reception of movie like this gets: Apparently it confused the poor dears. It's actually not at all confusing; it is, however, high volume, and some things are done shockingly poorly for such an A-level production.

The acting is largely top notch. I mentioned Morgan as the Comedian, but Patrick Wilson (most known to me as the guy who gets tortured by Ellen Page in the neat little horror flick Hard Candy) does a very fine job as Nite Owl, and Billy Crudup does well with a difficult role as the subtly emotional Dr. Manhattan. I found Malin Akerman, who plays the Black Canary-esque Silk Spectre, a little grating and occasionally radiating a kind of bimbotude, which was just tragically wrong for that part.

Once again, though, newly reborn Jackie Earle Haley (Bad News Freakin' Bears!) just kicks ass as the uncompromising terror, Rorschach. And he does it, for the most part, through a completely opaque, featureless mask. (Featureless except for the shifting pattern on it.)

So, while the acting is overall quite good, there is some wicked bad makeup. The makeup for the Nixon and Pat Robertson characters, for example, is just ostentatiously bad. Carla Gugino, who plays the original Silk Specter, does a fine job, but her old age makeup reminds me of that episode of the Brady Bunch where Peter plays Benedict Arnold. (Maybe I'm just hyper-critical of old age makeup and maybe I was turned off by the Nixon caricature after Frost/Nixon, but that's how it seemed.)

The familiar let's-open-an-action-scene-with-a-pop-song approach takes a beating here, too. The Hendrix version of Along The Watchtower is used, for example, and it fell flat with me. Worst of all--people are talking about this one a lot--was the use of Leonard Cohen's version of Hallelujah.

People, it was a dubious choice to have Leonard Cohen singing in the documentary about his own life, I'm Your Man. Putting his voice and the ridiculously clunky Hallelujah Chorus Singers that grace his recording of that song over a sex scene--not subtly in the background but loudly and insistently--was ridiculously tin-eared.

The other thing I'm on the fence about is the fact that, with the exception of Dr. Manhattan, they're all just regular heroes, not super heroes. That is, they have no powers. Except that they sort of do. I mean, in the opening scene where The Comedian is fighting his assailant, walls and furniture get smashed through. Rorschach scales walls as though attached to wires. Ozymandias is faster than a speeding bullet. And so on.

I dunno. A certain amount of "super" heroism is pretty much standard in action films. It was better than bogging down the film with a bunch of origins stories. (I had a minor but similar sort of feeling about the technology used by the Nite Owl. It was so clearly of today and not of the '80s; I would have liked to see future tech as imagined in the '80s.)

Overall, a flawed, but engaging movie.

The Boy pronounced it "Entertaining. But it had a message, and I don't know what it was. It would have been better without it."

But, of course, I knew what the message was, and I'm sure it seemed so incredibly profound back in '86 when this was written, that a lot of people are clinging to the story's "greatness" now without observing the irony that it was terribly, self-indulgently wrong. See, the authors proceeded from the standpoint that the human race was on the brink of destroying itself in '85, and built themselves a story around that concept.

Man's capacity for self-destruction is, of course, a fond topic for writers, as well as how to diver that energy elsewhere. Ray Bradbury wrote an upbeat little story called "The Toynbee Convector", for example on how a time machine saved humanity. This wouldn't be that story.

No, this is a story where imperialist America goes unchecked and--you know, when you get down to it, the villain is none other than Richard Nixon--brings the world to the brink of destruction.

Heroes are made from sadists and neurotics and mass-murderers, and the desire to create a "nuanced" story turns--as it always does--into a soap opera's celebration of pettiness. Dr. Manhattan gains incredible knowledge and wisdom, and as a result becomes detached from his humanity--not so detached that he can't cheat on his wife with a younger woman, but detached enough that he can't decide whether humanity is worth saving. The climactic scenes work--they vary from the graphic novel--but they don't bear much thinking about.

It's not that there aren't a lot of conflicting messages here, because there are, and there are supposed to be. You're supposed to make your own moral, which is what good artists allow the viewer to do. But the backdrop that that decision is supposed to made against is false, and rife with ugliness and ennui.

I haven't read the graphic novel; The Boy and I both eschewed that, feeling that the movie should stand on its own, and I think it does. Ultimately, whether the grim world view presented--and the few upbeat notes therein--are the influence of Moore (who had his name taken off the production) or Snyder or Gibbons (who illustrated the comic) doesn't really matter.

It's so very '80s, though, like Blade Runner, American Psycho and The Dark Knight Returns. The '80s generation, in its own way, is insufferable as the '60s generation was: Faced with unprecedented wealth and the demise of the great threat of our time, everyone was just so freaking convinced the world was coming to an end. (At least the Dark Knight embraced the notion that hard times meant heroes had to be even more heroic, on an even larger scale.)

Just in case you thought it mattered which Republican was in the White House.

So I give it a reserved recommendation--but you might find yourself a little embarrassed. There was talk of a sequel--I don't think the movie will do as well as predicted--but that would only be slightly less stupid than a sequel to Snyder's last film: 300.


  1. Glad you wrote this review. I thought the movie would be exactly like that, but I was holding out hope. Oh well...

  2. I don't see how it could've been otherwise, but I hadn't read the book. I've written qutie a bit more about it and comix in general, since.


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