15.3.09

Watchmen

Where do you start? Where can you start? Watchmen is huge. There are so many ways in. It has so much to say. I read it a second time a week ago, in preparation for the film, and this time round it really hit me. This is the best superhero story ever told. It is the culmination and the pinnacle of the genre. After it, we really don't need superheroes any more.

I'm gonna start at the end, and hopefully this will give some structure to what follows after. Watchmen finishes on a paradox. The greatest villain, the person behind the murder and mystery that open the book, is also at the same time the greatest hero. He commits mass murder in order to save the world. Alan Moore balances this perfectly. Throughout the book we get introduced to various peripheral characters -- the newspaper vendor, the comic-book kid, the lesbian cab driver, the detectives, the goodnatured analyst and his frustrated wife. They are developed enough so that we see the humanity underneath their selfish, harsh or conceited exteriors. And when these people die, in what is some grand arbitrary practical joke, we feel the impact. It's unfair. They were good people. It's wrong.

But at the same time, when the person who engineered these deaths turns and tells us how he pictures their faces every night, so as to remember them and his guilt, and when he asks, with uncertainty in his eyes, if he did right, how can we respond? The villain was driven only by the desire for peace. He was the only one who could foresee disaster, and have the means to prevent it. There is a superiority complex, to be sure, but Moore stresses how deserved it is. He crafts a deeply sympathetic character who commits terrible crimes in order to do what is right.

So the reader is torn between two poles: absolute evil and relative good -- necessary genocide. How can we make a moral judgement on this? The Manichaean dividing lines superhero stories always structured themselves around are overturned. Only Rorchach, who sees only black and white, has the strength of character to remain uncompromising in the face of such an extraordinary situation. The rest of the characters are defeated, and can only remain ambivalent. The ending of the book is open. We don't know whether the scheme will work or not, whether the practical joke will be unearthed and taken seriously ('The end? Nothing ever ends"). Moore leaves no signals for the reader, one way or another ("I leave it entirely in your hands"). We are on the fence. There is no judgement. It's as you like it. What you will.

The entire book is preparing you for this. In one brilliant, radical sequence, Dr. Manhattan sits on a rock on the surface of Mars and thinks about determinism -- how every action and every choice is but a sequence of random causes and effects. Moral values have no meaning. Life is no more special than death. Only when realising how unlikely life is, to the point where it is miraculous, is he prepared to intervene and save humanity. Even so, we are reminded of how, from Jon's scientific universe-wide perspective, we are still pretty insignificant. Jon wants to preserve us only because we are a rare natural phenomenon. I guess that is reason enough.

The Nietzsche chapter -- 'The Abyss Gazes Also' -- puts life in a God-less meaningless universe in human terms. The good-humored, condescending analyst is trying to cure Rorschach. Instead, he is confronted with the manifold evils of mankind, which have twisted a talented and compassionate boy into a brutal monster. The doctor's confidence is torn down. He stares at his petty inkblots and sees only 'meaningless blackness' -- 'we are alone,' he says. 'There is nothing else.'

What I find particularly astonishing about Watchmen is the way it deals with its characters with sympathy and humanity. Rorschach starts out as an odious, horrifying monster. By the end, he is one of the most noble of all the masked heroes we have come across. We come to understand the Comedian, even though he is truly despicable. The developing romance between Dan and Laurie is not only sweet and poignant, it serves as a necessary counterpoint to all the Heart of Darkness mayhem going on outside. Crucially, just before the analyst gets wiped out he rediscovers meaning in the world. Tearing himself away from his wife to intervene in a street-fight, he says: "In a world like this, it's all we can do. Try to help each other. It's all that means anything..." This is the only way forward Moore provides. And in keeping with the many polarities in Watchmen, this central statement is both pathetic and profound.

There is more to say. I've made zero mention of the wild experimentation with the form. The symbol of the Comedian's smiley badge merging with that of the doomsday clock. The Black Freighter image being identified with the radiation sign. The mirror structure of the fifth chapter 'Fearful Symmetry'. Visually, there is so much going on. Gibbons's storytelling is mesmerizing. It's indicative of the book's quality that the only failing I've managed to come up with is the ridiculous tobacco ball smoking tubes everyone uses instead of cigarettes. Everything else is pitch-perfect.

How do you adapt this hulking monster of a comic-book into a film? When Alan Moore tells us not to, he's not just being a grouchy and difficult writer. To get at the heart of what Watchmen is about, you need to spend time with the peripheral characters, or their deaths on screen will have no emotional force. In a film, there's just not enough time to do this, and so you won't get that good/evil balance so carefully constructed by the book. Terry Gilliam may have had the right idea when he wanted to adapt Watchmen as a 12 episode television series, although that plan got shot down. Having seen the new Snyder version, I think Gilliam was on the right track.

Pacing kills the Watchmen film. It is a bitter irony that the director's laudable attempts to stick with the original source material is the very thing that ruins his work. The comic-book is divided into twelve chapters, and individually they work perfectly. The storytelling is deft, and each ending has a particular unifying weight to it. They work as single units. In the feature film you have to string them all together, and there are some very awkward transitions between scenes, where the energy of the story is lost. It just becomes a mess. One way to have dealt with this was to transfer the chapter structure as well as everything else. Divide the film into twelve segments with their own mood and pathos, maybe using a ticking doomsday clock as a device to signal the transition from one piece to another. But then you might as well go with Gilliam, and do it as a TV miniseries.

Apart from that, I have relatively few problems with what Snyder has done. Several points I'll make:

The violence isn't exaggerated -- Watchmen is a bloody book, and the film needed to convey the shock value it had. In fact, I didn't think the film was horrifying enough. The fightscenes are carefully constructed Matrixesque slow-mo awesomeness. It's comic-book BIFF! POW! for the 21st century. Watchmen consciously avoided this. The whole point was to put superheroes in the real world.

The giant squid will be missed. Here is something I didn't think of in relation to it. But I understand why audiences would have trouble buying such a ridiculous senario. Many readers of the comic were left somewhat bemused by the ending. Even a comic-book writer and artist like Michael Avon Oeming has confessed to being thrown, in a bad way, by Watchmen.

I liked the soundtrack -- going through Bob Dylan, Simon and Garfunkel, and Leonard Cohen. The book is partly a riff on American popular culture -- its pop music, comic-books, adverts and plastic toys -- and its film adaptation should have tried to do the same thing.

There is an unintentionally hilarious, very pornographic sex scene, which was ill judged, although I suspect in a better context it could have been pulled off tongue-in-cheek.

The acting isn't appalling, the problem is the pace. Given more time, I'm sure they could have delivered. Laurie's spikiness is gone, which is a shame. Her relationship with Daniel is stodgy, and there is little chemistry between them. Daniel's moments with Rorschach are equally unmoving. His wail of despair at the end is unearned. But, again, the actors could have been served better within a different storytelling framework. We shouldn't be too harsh on them.

The villain, however, is miscast. The character needed to charm us and win our sympathy, or the central idea behind the whole work would have been lost. Instead, the actor played him as haughty and cold. You can read him a mile off.

In any case, Snyder's film could not be anything but a disappointment when compared with the original source material. I think the fan backlash is unfair. We ask too much of a Watchmen film. I, for one, admire the foolhardy attempts to tamper with a book this huge and this perfect. We shouldn't be surprised at the results.

3 comments:

  1. On fb I was told I was being harsh, the the pacing and the villain were fine, and that I was judging the film in comparison to the book. The following paragraphs are my feeble attempts to defend my argument:

    You should read some of the fanboy reactions... There's some serious hatred being sprayed around. The director is an idiot, the characters are bowdlerized etc, etc. I've tried to be fair. I didn't hate it. As I said, I admire the attempt to adapt such a brilliant book, even though it's an impossible and thankless process. Snyder did better than I expected. There are some brilliant moments in his film. I have to say, I went to see it with my sister (who hasn't read the comic) and we were both a little deflated when the credits rolled. For both of us, the film couldn't sustain the momentum of the story. There were brilliant bits in it (even if some -- the sex scene -- didn't go quite how the director wanted it to), but it's also long and messy. But this is just how we felt. Obviously, you had a different experience. So maybe the thing isn't badly paced.

    On the villain. I have a particular interpretation of the comic (which is obviously the only valid one and everyone who thinks different is wrong and stupid and needs to bow down to my God-like genius). The film didn't go with my view on what the villain should have been like. So that was why I slammed it. They do keep the gayness angle, which was a welcome surprise. But I imagined this pivotal character as something different. Again, maybe I'm wrong. In the end, it's all subjective anyways. But I think I've laid out decent reasons for why I found the film underwhelming. And, seriously, I'm a lot kinder on it than some crazed, Alan Moore-worshipping fanboy weirdoes out there.

    True. Adaptations of genius books are always gonna be weaker. But for me the LOtR, Narnia, Harry Potter and V for Vendetta films worked great as films. I liked them all. I tried to judge Watchmen in the same way -- on its own terms. I hope my note wasn't so much about how the book was better, but where the filmmakers went wrong in adapting it. But I AM a fanboy, so maybe it came out that way...

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  2. Anonymous23.3.09

    How are you not supposed to compare the movie to the book? That seems harsh, to me; why shouldn't you?

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  3. I guess as film adaptations are either better or not as good as the original material, focusing on the difference can lead to distorted judgements on how good the film really is. The point is to judge the film on its own terms, I guess...

    Watchmen the film doesn't work on its own terms. But at the same time, it's an insanely faithful adaptation of the book, which definitely *does* work on its own terms. I found this intriguing. Why doesn't it work if the director took zero risks with genius material? The above is an attempt to understand this puzzle.

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