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It Was So Real There For Awhile
by Alex Carnevale
dir. Zack Snyder
American history begins in 1776, predated slightly by the discovery of barbarism. Most cultures bask in their refinement and sophistication. Americans have a love-hate affair with the idea of being brutes. Since we are ignorant of other history not our own, we tend to think of ourselves as more powerful and destructive than we really were.
This is the attitude of Alan Moore. He is never named in the 2 hours and 43 minutes that comprises Zack Snyder’s film version of his graphic novel, but he is in every scene.
To the British-born Moore, as to many others of his generation, the governmental excesses of the Cold War era (specifically U.S. excesses) were just another example of how nasty and cold we could be to those who stood in our way.
The man who is murdering all the superheroes of the World War II – Vietnam period in Watchmen shares this perception. It is rare you have a film that sympathizes to some extent with its primary villain. And that is just the beginning of the things Alan Moore did that made Watchmen the finest superhero comic of all time.
Snyder has resisted altering any of the original’s details, and his is a devoted portrait of a time and place in alternate American history. In this version of reality, we have won World War II and Vietnam by the virtue of these superbeings fighting in our stead, and now, in the 1980s, we have turned on those to who we owe so much. No director has had so much fun with the World Trade Center towers since Oliver Stone.
Rorschach getting his grub on
The personages of Watchmen are what burn brightest. Individual issues of the comic tended to focus on the detailed origin stories of each member of the drama, and how they got to whatever miserable post-heroic existence we found them in. Moore used a narrator, Rorschach, whose origins are maliciously recalled with great zest in the film version. With two separate unreliable narrations, Watchmen likely made Richard Roeper pee his pants and call his mommy.
Even more scandalous to our modern superhero sensibilities is the raping, killing behavior of Jeffrey Dean Morgan’s The Comedian. He’s not even a villain, and he’s about a hundred times worse than Heath Ledger’s castrated Joker. He is splendid in the role and he gets even more attention than he did in the graphic novel. The Comedian is Hunter S. Thompson and George Patton all rolled into one.
carla gugino before the worst make-up job of the modern era
Also buoyed by the limitations of film is Malin Ackerman’s Silk Spectre. Her rounded ass and high breasts invade every scene, though she’s more Anna Faris than Michelle Pfeiffer. At the very least she didn’t have to endure the production team’s horrific attempt at age makeup, as Carla Gugino did as Malin’s mother. Ackerman is no great beauty, but her old school body does have a certain timelessness, and you have to admire the actress who will get naked in a movie where she’s half-nude the rest of the time.
not having exposed thighs is one of the major tenets of firefighting
Then there’s Dr. Manhattan. Turned into an all powerful blue superbeing by the vagaries of modern science, Dr. Manhattan is a literal Deus Ex Machina, and the most enjoyable God in comics since Galactus. Most of the New York City audience viewing Watchmen spend most of the time staring at Billy Crudup’s blue, special effects addled schlong. Better to focus on that then the maudlin dialogue. We’re missing the small moments of Manhattan’s life, but then, something had to go from the original.
never go back to a defraction chamber to get your watch, never
A large portion of the film focuses on the history of the characters, subsuming the simple murder mystery of the present. The trick is old hat, but Alan Moore’s level of detail gives it new life. For those of us who already knew these characters as well as we did ourselves, the implosion of Billy Crudup into Dr. Manhattan is like the E! True Hollywood Story reenactment of something that really occurred.
There’s so much going on in the mise-en-scène of Watchmen that’s hard to keep track. Director Zack Snyder was more than keen on replicating some of the most compelling images of the graphic novel (I suggested a few here); and there are four or five easter eggs in every frame. For the trained eye, the rewatch value is through the roof, but when A.O. Scott doesn’t understand something, he gets grumpy.
We owe the majority of the film’s criticisms to its terrible ending. They probably should have changed it from the comic book, because the rote destruction of major metropolises is now a serious cliché. That no one saves the day in Watchmen is not its only innovation, but that smart plot point gets lost in the exchange of dramatic exclamations.
Also wondrously out of place is a long sequence in which Silk Spectre and Nite Owl uses the Archimedes for firefighting and a post-rescue bang on the ship. This is a comic book excursion that puts aside the plot for the greater glory of giving the film some action. Snyder was of course damned if he did, and damned if he didn’t. As it is, we may as well be watching the stop-motion comic they released before the film.
The violence, Snyder’s addition to the milieu, is beautiful and attention-grabbing. As terrible as 300 was, its director’s passion for bones splitting creatively impressed where the dialogue and story did not. This is the only thing that makes it a Zack Snyder movie, and while it’s fun to watch, there’s a problem.
Here every snap of femur is well-wrought — the only issue I have with the proclivity for the slo-mo violence is that when the film gets quiet and serious (and it is overly so when Dr. Manhattan brings his girlfriend to Mars), you want to laugh. Violence is just as beautiful as the surface of another planet, but in a work of art it’s no easy thing to put the two next to each other, and let the audience appreciate both.
This was the problem that kept Watchmen from the silver screen — not its deep complexity of vision or helter-skelter plot. The major challenge is tone.
Watchmen is both comedy and drama. Not only that: it is melodrama, it is serious art, it is slapstick comedy, it is irony and juxtaposition, it is superhero shtick and superhero opera. In one sense it is the funniest movie of its kind, and yet you cannot imagine a superhero movie taking itself this seriously since the depressing, boring The Dark Knight. Nothing so brightly colored has been this dark since Dick Tracy, from which Watchmen the movie takes much.
For all the critics who bash Watchmen, they’re missing the point. To them Alan Moore is just another superhero creator, with the same old origin stories colliding into a happy-ish ending. But for those of us whose brainflow was reversed by the complexity of Watchmen, this translation is our version of the good old days. We are watching heroes of a genre they invented, not characters in a made-up story. To those who already know the story, this version is a nostalgia rollercoaster.
Strangely, the Cold War has gone from a dark period of government distrust to a soaring period of moral clarity, where we could nobly be destroyed by a great evil instead of tearing ourselves apart.
Moore’s ideas about the future and the past were what made Watchmen so exciting, and if you don’t already know the story, you’ll spend most of the film’s 203 minutes figuring out who is who. (Better to read the comic first, in this case.) Beyond mere understanding are some wonderful futurist visions of what we might have become. The blunt lack of charm in the Nixon character obscures the more deft takes.
We see Dr. Manhattan and the Comedian winning the war in Vietnam; protesters calling for a return of the police to the streets; superheroes forcing each other into non-consensual sex, screwing up press conferences and causing collateral damage. In so many ways, still, this is not what our idealized heroes do.
Ours is a savage history, the British writer tells us, but we can be equally sure it is not the only history. We are today in a period of time in which no great number of losses on the battlefield is sustained, when fewer people go hungry than ever before, when the majority of human rights violations are seen before the world. We have already accomplished the ending of Watchmen, and we are still unhappy with the result. It sounded good in theory, but in practice it was two naked blue dudes tag-teaming us.
If a man from any century before the old twentieth saw how far we have come, he would wonder at the majesty of what his fellow beings have accomplished. Is it so quickly that we forget? Watchmen, on the page and on the screen, is the crucial reminder of what it took to get us here.
Alex Carnevale is the editor of This Recording. He lives in Manhattan. He tumbles here.
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