Sunday, March 22, 2009

The Pros and Cons of the ‘Watchmen’ Film


• The Dr. Manhattan flashback sequences were well done. The Doc’s backstory is one of the most poignant parts of the book, and it is delivered with pretty much the right mix of feeling and detachment.
• Good performances by Jackie Earle Haley and Jeffrey Dean Morgan as Rorschach and the Comedian. Both of them gave a very good idea of what their characters were all about.
• The movie did not tone down the violence of the book. In fact, if anything it turned it up, in some cases quite gratuitously.


• A key facet of the ‘Watchmen’ comic was the juxtaposing of scenes and symbols to create a greater degree of depth in the meaning of the work. This is a technique that could have – at least in part – been translated to film, but it is mostly absent. As a result, in some scenes the pacing and dialogue of the film seem rather odd.
• The story is set in 1985, but apart from a few retro hairstyles, the look of the film hardly conveys this fact. That being the case, why not set it in the present day with the Americans having won the Iraq war and George W. Bush being elected President for a third term? Such changes would also have a similar resonance with modern-day filmgoers as having the Americans win in Vietnam and Nixon as President had on the original audience.
• In the book, the Nite-Owl and the Silk Spectre are relatively normal people dressed up in costumes, not the brutal fighting machines they are in the film. It is hard to see how they could be scared of anything given the way they tear into the Knot-top gang, despite having been several years in retirement.
• On that point, it is a shame that none of the ‘normal’ characters could have been fleshed out a bit. A major theme of the book was how they react to the super-heroes and threat of impending war; here their viewpoint is almost entirely absent.
• Ozymandias does not smirk. He may as well have written ‘I am up to something’ on his forehead.

Sunday, March 15, 2009

Graphic Novels That You Would Like If You Weren't Too Chicken To Read Them - 'Watchmen'

When Time Magazine named their 100 greatest novels of the 20th century, ‘Watchmen’ was the only graphic novel to make the list. If the list had been restricted to the 10 greatest novels it still should have made it. ‘Watchmen’ is the greatest comic book series there was, is and probably ever will be – both an uncompromising deconstruction of the superhero genre and an extensive realization of the possibilities of its medium. I first read it when I was seventeen, and I soon realized that all the comic books that I had read up to that point were exactly what everyone claimed them to be – kids stuff.

The actual premise and plot for ‘Watchmen’ are not overly complex, even if they were somewhat revolutionary at the time. The story is set in an alternate version of 1985 in which the US won the war in Vietnam, Richard Nixon is still President, and the Americans and Soviets are locked in a nuclear arms race. Superheroes have been outlawed for almost a decade, following police protests that the masked vigilantes were making it impossible for them to do their jobs. The series begins with the bloody murder of one of these ‘heroes’ – namely the Comedian – and our cast of key characters are gradually introduced as we observe their reactions to their compatriot’s death. As the story unfolds, more and more of these characters come under threat, leading to the theory that somebody is planning to wipe out all of the remaining masks. The truth, however, is far stranger, as we learn to what lengths one hero is willing to go to in order to protect the world.

The plot itself really only takes up one half of the series, with the other half devoted to one-chapter portraits of the six main characters. The second chapter focuses on the Comedian, who has made himself into a violent, amoral reflection of our highly troubled times. Chapter four retells the story of Dr. Manhattan, a man-turned-god whose mind-boggling power is the linchpin of American’s defense system, despite his scant concern for political conflicts. Chapter six examines the psychology of the series’ narrator, Rorschach, whose hardnosed brand of justice makes the Dark Knight-era Batman look like a bleeding heart. Chapters seven and nine are about the second Nite-Owl and the second Silk Spectre, who are considered to be the most normal of the remaining heroes, although as their stories show it takes a special type of personality to dress up in a colourful costume and proclaim yourself a defender of the people. And chapter eleven is about Ozymandias, labeled the smartest man in the world, whose extraordinary intelligence is both an asset and a burden. Each chapter reveals something not only about the hero in question, but also about the human condition itself and how it is affected by the society that we find ourselves in.

However, by far the most startling aspect of all about ‘Watchmen’ is the multi-layered approach to storytelling that it takes, using the comic book form to juxtapose symbols and themes to create an incredibly dense piece of work. One of the most pervasive examples is the comic book being read by the kid at the newsstand, whose tale of a shipwrecked mariner desperate to save his hometown from murderous pirates mirrors both the chaos of the Watchmen’s world and the moral predicaments they face. But almost every page has something that is either intimately connected with another scene that is being laid out simultaneously or with another scene before it, with varying degrees of subtlety. Some may see some of the innovations – such as laying out chapter five in the form of a symmetrical Rorschach blot – as cleverness for cleverness’ sake, but it’s difficult not to admire the achievement at least, and it still provides the reader with the chance for a greater degree of reflection than 99 per cent of the works in popular culture. Even the creators – writer Alan Moore and artist Dave Gibbons – have rarely shown signs of replicating the series’ structure, probably knowing how hard it is to capture lightning in a bottle twice.

In the years following ‘Watchmen’ many other ‘realistic’ superhero works have appeared, often earning the moniker ‘the next Watchmen’ for their more mature approach to the superhero genre. However, ‘Watchmen’ itself is unrepeatable – it took the genre to its outermost limits, making all of the other series that came before or after seem like only a small part of it. Which is not to say that the superhero genre is dead; subsequent series have explored and built upon aspects of ‘Watchmen’ to great effect, such as the man-on-the-street viewpoint used in ‘Marvels’ and the stories of heroes meddling with international affairs in ‘The Authority’. But 1986 will always be year zero for superhero comics – the point where they finally stood up and demanded to be accepted as serious literature. Those strange men in the masks and tights would never be simply kids stuff again.