erik lundegaard

Review: “Watchmen”


It’s almost unfilmable. If you stay true to Alan Moore’s original graphic novel, as director Zack Snyder did here, it’s almost unfilmable.

“Watchman,” the graphic novel, was created during the 1980s, when Europeans in particular were paranoid that between Reagan and Russia (which is where they were, literally), the world would end. Given human nature, and given the destructive power of these two countries, human beings were doomed. How to prevent it? Moore’s solution was to blow up New York, blame a third party (aliens in the graphic novel, Dr. Manhattan in the movie), and thus unite humanity against this third party. Sacrifice millions to save billions. Create an illusion of an Other to save ourselves from ourselves.

There’s logic in this. The problem? It’s 2009. No matter how nihilistic you may be, the doomsday scenario Moore and others feared didn’t happen. Which means sacrificing millions isn’t necessary.

At least in our universe. Fans will argue — have argued — that the “Watchmen” universe is not our universe. Their America “wins” Vietnam. Nixon gets elected to a third, fourth, fifth term. So maybe in that universe, it’s argued, the sacrifice is still necessary.

Doesn’t matter. We’re stuck in this universe. And for moviegoers stuck in this universe, particularly those who have never read the graphic novel (which is most moviegoers), watching the machinations in “Watchmen” is like watching a contemporary action flick set in 1999 in which the hero —Will Smith, say — sacrifices the world financial order to save us all from Y2K. Audience reaction will generally be: “What the hell...?”

Fans, those pesky SOBs, will argue that the Watchmen are not Will Smith — that the whole point of the Watchmen is that they’re not Will Smith. They’re complex, full of faults. Night Owl II is weak and ineffectual. Rorschach is like a short, masked Dirty Harry. Ozymandias is amoral, Dr. Manhattan disconnected. The Comedian is a murdering, raping fascist. “Complex.”

Yeah. For me, the lack of anyone between Rorschach’s paranoid activity and Night Owl’s shrugging passivity (or, in sexual terms, between the assaults of the Comedian and the impotence of Night Owl) means we’re in an adolescent realm where extremes rule and an unrelenting darkness is often confused with complexity. “It’s all a joke,” the Comedian says. It may well be, but he’s not in on it.

Why “The Comedian” anyway? That’s an odd name for a superhero who isn’t funny. Why “Ozymandias”? Why would the smartest man in the world, a powerful and pompous man, choose for his superhero name a figure representing the ultimate lesson in power and pomposity? To remind himself not to be pompous? Or maybe in this universe, Percy Shelley never wrote “Ozymandias,” and so its lessons were never imparted to the smartest man in the world, who took the name just because. This “other universe” thing is always a helluva argument.

OK, here’s why they chose those names. They didn’t. Alan Moore did. They come to represent those names (ironically), but there’s little in their characters that would make them choose them themselves. Well, maybe The Comedian; he’s got a sick sense of humor. But Ozymandias? That’s the author imposing his heavy (and symbolic) hand on the character. And Alan Moore’s got one heavy and symbolic hand.

Questions linger. Why does Dr. Manhattan fight in Vietnam? Can’t he see where this will lead? And if, 14 years later, Manhattan is so disconnected from humanity he’s choosing non-life over life, wouldn’t he, by 1971, at least have divested himself of nationalism?

I like the rise of the costumed superheroes in the late ‘30s — which is when they first appeared for us in comic magazines. I like their ascendance during World War II, and how they began to get knocked off after the war — which is when superhero comics began to be replaced by westerns and romance and horror. The graphic novel, more than the movie, gives us a sense of both the Golden Age (Minutemen/Watchmen) and the Silver Age (Watchmen II) of comic books, while the movie fudges the Silver Age. We really only get the second generation (Silk Spectre II, Night Owl II, Rorschach) in their dotage. By the way: Can anyone imagine a less likely duo than Night Owl II and Rorschach?

Ultimately the biggest problem with the movie (and maybe the graphic novel) is this: After the opening scene, we are left with five superheroes: Dr. Manhattan, Silk Spectre II, Night Owl II, Rorschach and Ozymandias. What is the storyline for each? What is each of them seeking?

Manhattan is increasingly disengaged and building things we don’t understand. Ozymandias is a non-entity until his machinations are revealed; then he seems insane. Night Owl is a schlub. Silk Spectre wants, like Daisy Mae, a man. Only Rorschach is really after anything and it turns out he’s wrong.

This is why I never really got into this story. I need characters interested (in something) in order to find them interesting.

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Posted at 09:11 AM on Fri. Mar 13, 2009 in category Movie Reviews - 2009  


Andy G wrote:

I like your review. I first read Watchmen about ten years ago. I wasn't the leering 19-year-old from Anthony Lane's review though. I was more like the Nietzsche-skimming record-collecting (just substitute mp3 for LP) college sophomore AO Scott imagined liking the graphic novel. Still a sad young case, but not as objectionable. I remember loving it then but when I reread it over this last winter and saw it a while ago I was nonplussed and a little affronted. I saw darkness and cynicism presented as 'complexity' too. There was little to like about the heroes and even if that was Moore/Snyder/Hayter/Tse's intention I want more from what I read and see.

I just wanted to mention that while Watchmen is a period piece it hasn’t aged as poorly as you imply. Topicality doesn’t always make a better movie (see Soylent Green, The Day After Tomorrow). And if you want to explore the question of whether humanity is worth saving the Cold War makes a fine backdrop (even if you disagree with the artist’s answer). Comparing Watchmen to a Y2K schlock flick seems a little trivial.
Comment posted on Sat. Mar 14, 2009 at 07:19 PM

Erik wrote:

Andy: My beef, such as it is, isn't with the graphic novel, which is of its time and place, but with the movie adaptation, which is of our time and place, but which, out of a perhaps misguided loyalty to the orginal source material, pretends to be of theirs. Why doesn't the movie resonate? This is the main reason it doesn't with me. But you're right: the Y2K reference was probably too flippant. Y2K was a joke even then; Cold War fears never were.
Comment posted on Sun. Mar 15, 2009 at 11:36 AM

coffee wrote:

I had a nagging feeling throughout the movie that the they chose the wrong girl for the (younger) Silk Spectre; all the other character choices were perfect tho
Comment posted on Sun. Mar 15, 2009 at 02:08 PM
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