Wednesday, March 11, 2009

Watchmen: A Simulacrum (Accept no imitations?)

Thank God for these good men, but say, “I also am a man.” Imitation cannot go above its model. The imitator dooms himself to hopeless mediocrity. The inventor did it, because it was natural to him, and so in him it has a charm. In the imitator, something else is natural, and he bereaves himself of his own beauty, to come short of another man’s.
- Emerson, Divinity School Address
(This article contains SPOILERS.)

The film adaptation of Watchmen has reached critical mass, and apparently, its opening weekend box office was Hiroshima-sized, but for this intellectual property, two Hiroshimas were needed to provide validation for all the hype, not to mention the rabid fans.

The movie is fun to watch. Also tiring, not so much because of length, but rather breadth. After watching it, I was interested enough to take in some critical reviews of the movie, just to see if other people saw something in it that I missed. A common criticism was that anyone who was not already familiar with the book would get nothing out of this movie (another strange theme: the critics all seem to have read the book, perhaps as teenagers?). I disagree, since I have never read Watchmen and knew nothing about the story until I started reading a few previews and articles about the movie. I avoided early reviews so as not to ruin the story for myself. In fact, the first time I saw the trailer, I thought that the three blue guys were malevolently serene alien invaders, especially since one of them had earlier exploded a bunch of humans, probably while suppressing a yawn. Turned out that the Blue Man Group on radioactive steroids was actually a singular “good” guy, and the so-called humans were merely Viet Cong. (As Rorschach would say, “Men get arrested. Dogs get put down.”)

I liked the movie overall, but it did have problems.

Example: How can the “world’s smartest man” also be the world’s fastest man? It hardly seems fair. I hesitate to say “world’s strongest man,” but Adrian Veidt did go toe to toe with two of the world’s most awesome fighters at the same time and dismissed them like that Fancy Feast cat dismissing some Meow Mix. And why only so late in the movie do we learn that in addition to his globular brain, the remarkably feline Ozymandias also has quick-chops the envy of a Ginsu knife? I forgive him a little because my favorite image from the movie was of him in his purple suit clobbering a hitman with a metal queue post in slow-mo.

Example: How did Dr. Manhattan ever become part of the club? Perhaps this is an instance of previous knowledge of the book being helpful, but nothing in the movie tells me why the guy who became Mr. Indifferent-to-the-world in 1959 would much later make himself part of a group of all-too-human vigilantes. What, did Nixon introduce him to the masks?

Example: Blue tiger with horns. What the hell? Later research revealed that there is a story behind this reject from the Island of Dr. Moreau, but no explanation appears in the movie. It’s just there. “Visionary” director Zack Snyder couldn't be bothered to offer either a little restraint or a little context?

Critics agree that Jackie Earle Haley steals the show as the growling, uncompromising Rorschach, and I think they’re right. The inkblot mask is interesting, but Haley really terrifies the movie itself into submission when the mask comes off, and we see his savage face, like a shaved Wolfman.

Not many critics give enough credit to Patrick Wilson’s performance as Daniel Dreiberg (Nite Owl II), who is the most “real” of the Watchmen, the kind of guy you could have a beer with (as, indeed, we see in the movie). Malin Akerman is deathly boring as Silk Spectre II; her mom (Carla Gugino) was better-acted and better-dressed. I’ve always enjoyed Billy Crudup’s priceless voice, and it works for Dr. Manhattan, but I just couldn’t find myself drawn to the CG character (“cute dong” notwithstanding), not after Crudup’s sympathetic face is shown in agony as he’s obliterated, wristwatch in hand. I enjoyed Matthew Goode as Adrian Veidt (Ozymandias), accent and flamboyant suits and all. Honestly, I wanted to see him as the hero of the movie, which probably earns me the bile of Watchmaniacs everywhere. Lastly of the “heroes,” Jeffrey Dean Morgan’s portrayal of the Comedian made me admire the actor, something like a fatter Robert Downey, Jr., raised on pork chops and coal-mining, but at the same time, it made me hate the movie a little bit.

Some critics have lumped the Comedian and Rorschach together as examples of the movie’s indulgence for sociopathic excess, but I don’t see it that way. To me, the Comedian’s violence and mercilessness are ends in themselves, his own nihilistic fantasy where he plays court jester to an empty throne. Rorschach, on the other hand, fights not so much because he’s angry (or insane), but because the rest of us cowards won’t. Or rather, his anger grows from seeing how the rest of us cringe and demur. And yet he leaves a journal so that others will know what he saw. Can you imagine the Comedian giving a damn about opening people’s eyes? The movie piles on scene after scene of his vileness, to the point where a story that starts ostensibly as an investigation into who killed him in the opening scene ends with me happy he got tossed through that window, and not caring who did the deed. So what’s the point? That only fools would root for costumed vigilantes?

Comparisons to The Dark Knight, though perhaps unfair, are inevitable, and many critics have juxtaposed the two. Both were meant, either by their creators or their proponents, to elevate the “superhero movie” to equal standing with Hollywood’s prestige genres (whatever those happen to be!).

The Dark Knight is a stridently Greek interpretation of tragic heroism and the depths to which all men can fall, intertwined with the modern mythos of the superhero as the one man who can (and must) make the sacrifices the rest of us can’t. Watchmen, on the other hand, seems to suggest that the so-called heroes, and heroism itself, are either false deities or that thing inside us that we lie to ourselves about.

I’m a Greek at heart, and I think that whereas The Dark Knight probes intensely personal territory, Watchmen is more impersonal and seeks to put the viewer/reader outside of the story in order to expose the mythology. And so my heart lies with The Dark Knight, though it is not without its own problems.

My biggest complaint about the Nolan Batman films is that Nolan and editor Lee Smith have a particularly vertiginous eye for fisticuffs. The cuts are too fast, the blows too wild, the zooms too zoomy, so that you’re left with, I don’t know, the impression of a fight? It’s the Bourne school of fight sequences, and getting ever choppier. The fighting in Watchmen, while not the equal of Asian martial arts cinema or a Star Wars Prequel Trilogy lightsaber clash, conveys the guts, if not the dance.

One of the best descriptions of my lack of attachment to the Watchmen movie is found in a review in IGN, of all places: "Snyder's film is cool, yes, but it's also cold; it culminates with tragedy of a global scale, yet you feel next to nothing during or after it happens. Characters talk about the horror of what's happened, but the sheer scale of the crime is lost and the attack on New York is simply a rather unimpressive special effects sequence." Also, out of the numerous barbs and puns aimed at the film’s blue wiener fetish, this review includes the best yet: “the Doctor’s lower Manhattan.”

Watching Watchmen didn’t make me believe in new possibilities for comic-based movies. It didn’t have me howling for Oscar noms. It didn’t dispel my belief that Snyder is a penny ante hack whose 300 is about as much fun as picking at hemorrhoids (your own or your neighbor’s, does it matter?). What it did do was make me want to read the book and get the full skinny on these characters. Certainly, a movie could do worse than this.


Henry said...

It seems a common sentiment among Watchmen's many detractors is that its coldness makes it impossible to appreciate with one's heart. That was the case with the comic as well and the main reason I never really enjoyed the book, but it was also very much the point. Superheroes don't exist, of course, but Watchmen's argument was that, if they did, they wouldn't be you, and they wouldn't be your pals. In declaring themselves the world's watchmen, the characters elevated themselves to a level of godhood, from which height it became too easy to lose perspective of the individual lives they meant to protect.

Out of all the characters, I think the film somewhat mishandled Ozymandias. Characters repeatedly described him as "the world's smartest man," which made you think that he was some sort of scientist hero or tactician, when, really, his genius was supposed to be in all aspects. That, along with his all-American enthusiasm and work ethic, allowed him to excel at everything--science, art, business, athletics, etc.

The horned tiger? I didn't remember it from the book, so it was one thing that I was able to take with fresh eyes, and I had no problem with it. Everything Veidt had said throughout the movie clearly established that he had a god complex, and the entrance of the Dr. Moreau-type chimera made sense to me as a nice detail to punctuate his vanity post-reveal of his true intentions. Any further explanation would have been irrelevant to the plot and also likely uninteresting.

I don't think Snyder is a hack, but I'll say that he lacks the conviction of Alan Moore. Whereas Moore truly believed in his arguments about imaginary issues, it's not clear what Snyder believes in, if anything. But if Watchmen ultimately succeeds, I think its greatest contribution to comic-based movies will have been Snyder's commitment to convincingly translating the grand comic book visuals to an otherwise fairly believable live-action world. Looking ahead to projects like Thor and Avengers, I really don't think there can be any further excuse for things like the Bryan Singer X-Men, Spider-Man Green Goblin, or Michael Bay Transformers.

On the Nolan Batman fights, I thought the second film was much better, but, in both cases, I think the choppy editing was meant to portray Batman as a ninja-like predator of such speed and sudden violence that he made thugs fear the shadows they themselves dwelt in. That said, I don't think those movies nor Watchmen offered fights anywhere near as exhilarating as in the first two Bourne films, which I personally still greatly admire as action movies.

Czardoz said...

No further excuses, eh? Well I just saw an X-Men: Wolverine trailer and a Michael Bay Transformers trailer at Street Fighter: The Legend of Chun-Li, and boy, does it look like more of the same. Well, in the Wolverine case, maybe not the same, but I'm not hoping for better. And I suppose the Transformers trailer suggested a darker view of the proceedings, but I have a feeling we won't be surprised when we see the end product. Maybe the next round of superhero flicks, the real post-Watchmen stuff, will put Bryan Singer to rest.