erik lundegaard

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Watchmen (2009)

It’s almost unfilmable.

“Watchmen,” the graphic novel, was created by Alan Moore and Dave Gibbons 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 nutjob 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 wasn’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 and fifth term. So maybe in that universe, they argue, 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 from Y2K. Audience reaction will generally be: “But Y2K didn’t happen...”

Fans, those pesky SOBs, will continue to argue that the Watchmen are not Will Smith — that the whole point of the Watchmen is that they’re not Will Smith. They’re dark, 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.”

Right. 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. Hey, this “other universe” thing is a lot of fun!

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 at the beginning. 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? If 14 years later, Dr. 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 and politics?

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 is this: After the opening scene, which is great, 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 worthwhile and it turns out he’s wrong.

This is why I never really got into the graphic novel — let alone the movie. I need characters interested in something in order to find them interesting.

—March 13, 2009

© 2009 Erik Lundegaard