I feel a bit guilty being so behind in my War and Peace blogs and then having time to blog about Watchmen. But, by the same token, Watchmen is the War and Peace of the graphic novel world, and the whole world has only just seen the movie since last Thursday, so I might as well strike while the iron is hot.
First off, for anyone who’s not familiar with Watchmen, it was a 12-issue comic book written by eccentric English comic-book author, Alan Moore. Since it came out in the mid-80s, it has gone on to become the most famous comic book series of all time. As far as ongoing popularity goes, the other superhero comics like Batman, Superman, etc. are all still going, but this 12-issue one-off series continues to be held up as the standard that all other comic books should aspire to.
So what makes it so great? The story, to briefly sum it up, concerns an alternate 1985, where Richard Nixon has been President of the US for four terms, the Cold War is at its height and everyone is terrified of being nuked by the Russians. In the midst of this, this comic follows a group of strange people who used to be superheroes.
This is the cleverness of Moore’s concept. Being a dark, eccentric cynic, he was curious as to what kind of person Batman or any sort of superhero would be in real life. Let’s face it, if there really was a person who wandered the streets wearing latex, a mask and punching up bad guys, what would we call them? Chances are, we’d think they’re a bit of a nutcase and a vigilante.
And this is exactly what Moore created. His superheroes range from being nutcases to psychopaths to people who get a bizarre kick from wearing a costume and playing with gadgets. When one of them (a superhero known as The Comedian) gets murdered, a mystery begins which leads to giant conspiracies centred around the Cold War situation.
As well as this attempt to deconstruct the superhero genre, the original comic was also helped by Moore’s dense, but very tight, plotting. Like different themes of music in a Baroque work of music, minor characters and subplots wove in and out of the story, all building together to an ending that completely turned the superhero story on its head.
I don’t want to say any more if you haven’t read it, because the pleasure is in seeing how it all unfolds. But I’d call it a superhero story for those who are cynical about superheroes.
So now we come to the film. If you’ve done any reading, you know it went through about four different directors, before it came down to Zak Snyder, the director of 300. This worried me before I’d even seen it. 300, while visually stunning, is a fundamantally brainless movie about a bunch of Neanderthals in leather underpants who hack and slash people for an hour and a half. Action film fans loved it. Anybody looking for anything serious in the film did not. But that was okay, because there was nothing really serious there.
But now we come to Watchmen. How was a director who cut his teeth on a boys’ only action film going to handle a film that was really taking that sort of story and pulling it apart.
The answer is: he copied it as faithfully visually as he could – but ultimately missed the point of the original.
If you loved the original comic or even if you’re remotely curious, the look of the film is astounding. Image after image is recreated straight from the comic book, and even the film’s script is remarkably faithful. And as far as they stuck to the original story, there were some very clever moments.
I was more disturbed by what Snyder put in. Every fight in the book has now been extended out to a fully-choreographed, slow-mo, blood-and-thunder action film fight scene. (Including the original murder that opens the story.) The sex scenes (only briefly shown in the original comic) are also dragged out. This is just stupid.
Slow-mo unrealistically brutal fight scenes and raunchy sex scenes belong in stupid action films designed for teenage boys. Watchmen is not that kind of story. The problem was, to do Watchmen properly, it had to have an air of realism to the whole thing. A director needed to show some restraint to place it in a real, living, breathing world.
There are so many cliches out there about superhero films, and this was the story that needed to avoid them.
Instead, Snyder has put them back in. While this will make the film more popular with the teenage boy market (and the studios will be happy about that), ultimately it will ruin this movie’s chance of being regarded as a great story that rises above its genre. For source material that is now regarded as a great book, not just a comic, this is a great shame.
My own gut feeling is that the ideal director would have been Paul Greengrass (who ultimately gave it up), director of all the Bourne movies. If you’ve seen some of his non-Bourne movies (Bloody Sunday and especially United 93) spring to mind, he has a remarkable knack to be able to create a feeling of reality on screen. Watch the opening half of United 93 and even though the terrorists have not attacked on the plane yet, the people on the plane are so ordinary, their conversations so banal, that you immediately feel like they are real people and are drawn straight into the story.
I think Greengrass would have made a Watchmen that was less visually spectacular (which was a great asset, especially watching it on the IMAX) but immediately engaging.
So I think for superhero films that rise above their genre, I think we’ll have to stick with the still-brilliant The Dark Knight. However, that said, it’s still an engaging experience and it does rise above the level of a dumb action film, so that’s one thing to be said.
I especially thought the use of music was very clever. Within the opening 10 minutes, both Unforgettable and The Times They Are A-Changin’ are used to great effect and this kind of trend for period songs continued well throughout the film. The most surprising music I came across was a large slab of Philip Glass music that had been lifted straight out of Koyaanisqatsi (the famous film consisting of just images of “life out of balance”).
3.5 out of 5.