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You knew it was coming: Watchmen

I have always had a very...special relationship with the Watchmen story.

I was first introduced to the story by Tracey Summerall, a woman who at the time was attending college in Sarasota, Florida. She also introduced me to the Terry Gilliam movie Brazil, among other cult classics, so as you might imagine this had a significant effect on my grasp of pop culture. (In fact, she had a map of the world up on the wall with the Watchmen comics carefully pinned against it, one issue directly over the country of Brazil, a juxtaposition that was not accidental.)

Tracey was my first crush, a fact which eventually led to the demise of our friendship. At that point, I was still young enough I hadn't yet learned some of the most basic and obvious but nevertheless still not easy tools of interpersonal relationships, among them "more communication is better than less communication," "if you don't ask for what you want you can not reasonably expect to have what you want," and "other people are not responsible for your unvoiced expectations." In fact, my friendship with her was in many ways instrumental to my learning these things, and she is among the ten or so people who have most influenced the person I later became, though she never knew that, and those lessons came too late to save our friendship. (Funny how that can happen. As it turns out, I learned more than a decade later that she went into exactly the same line of work I went into--when she won a prominent design award in the industry. But I digress.)

Anyway, she introduced me to Watchmen, which at the time I thought was the most brilliant and amazing thing I'd ever seen. It wasn't finished yet; only six of the twelve episodes that made up the full story had been published, and the rest were delayed by nearly two years.

At the time, I lived in Ft. Myers, an hour and a half drive from Sarasota, and the only place in southwest Florida that carried Watchmen was in Sarasota. And they refused to say over the phone whether or not the next issues were available yet. So I'd get in my car each month and make the drive, and as often as not the next part was delayed by something or other and wouldn't be there. It took, all in all, about a year and change for me to be able to read the whole story.

I still have the first edition, first printing comic book version of Watchmen. Not exactly in pristine shape, but that's not really the point; I'm neither a collector nor a fan of comic books (and to this day Watchmen is one of only three graphic novels I've ever read).

So it's fair to say that I went into the movie with some high expectations. Watchmen is rooted in a significant part of my personal history, and I have some attachments to it that no movie could reasonably ever be expected to live up to.

I've seen the movie twice now. The first time, I went to see it by myself; I gathered up all of my expectations and hopes and bittersweet memories and dragged them all down to the theater with me to see if what was up on the screen could do justice to my past.

When I got home, I posted on Twitter, "Back from Watchmen. Haven't read it in years. I'd forgotten how brutal it was. Movie is good, but not brilliant." and went to bed.

Before I went to see it, I didn't read any of the critical reviews or commentary about the movie, and that was deliberate. Since then, of course, I've read a lot of reviews and endless commentary about the movie; Watchmen is, if nothing else, the most talked-about film to come along in a long time.

Some of that commentary makes sense, even if I don't happen to agree with it. Some of it makes me shake my head and say "What?"

There's a lot of that going around. To be fair, the movie studio didn't really seem to have a grasp of what they were dealing with; according to several "behind the scenes" and "making of" articles I've read, what they wanted was a two-hour, PG-rated movie that could be the start of a whole new franchise.

What they ended up with, of course, is a sprawling, self-contained three-hour movie that barely avoided an NC-17 rating.

And really, it couldn't be any other way. Seriously. What were they thinking? Any executive who thought Watchmen could be the next X-Men franchise clearly didn't understand the story. Watchmen isn't really a superhero story; it's a brutal, ugly, and morally gray morality play, filled with characters who are at best deeply flawed and at worst are morally reprehensible. The main character is a sociopath, for God's sake! In one of the film's more graphic scenes, one superhero beats and attempts to rape another superhero. (Actor Jeffrey Morgan, who plays the superhero The Comedian, describes that particular scene as "three of the hardest days of filming I have ever had to do.")

What did they think, that they'd be able to release Watchmen Origins: Rorschach a few years from now? What we learn about Rorschach's past in Watchmen is exactly enough, kthx; anything more would be trawling through a sewer in a glass-bottom boat. The studio should be content with the merchandising tie-ins they've already done ("the Comedian deluxe collector figure comes with accessories and multiple guns," the better to shoot pregnant women with) and be done with it.

One of the complaints I've heard that makes sense is about the soundtrack. That complaint I have to agree with; the soundtrack for the film is jarring and in some places incongruous. I understand why the choices were made; I understand what the intent was; I understand that part of the goal of the soundtrack was to ground the film in a particular time, and more importantly, in a particular psychological environment. The choices that were made are logical, but I think were wrong; the audience members who are familiar with these songs are going to bring their own associations to them, and they may not be the associations that were intended. (That was definitely true in several cases for me.)

One of the complaints I've heard that doesn't make sense is that the pacing of the film was wrong.

Watchmen is not a superhero movie. It is a deconstruction of superhero movies. It is a reaction against the comics of the 60s and 70s, that were forced by industry standards to conform to the Comics Code Authority's inane Comic Book Code, which required, among other things, that in all comic books "If crime is depicted it shall be as a sordid and unpleasant activity," "Criminals shall not be presented so as to be rendered glamorous or to occupy a position which creates a desire for emulation," and perhaps most stupidly, "In every instance good shall triumph over evil and the criminal punished for his misdeeds."

The superhero movies we're familiar with--X-Men, Spider-Man, Batman--are all based on stories that are products of this code. The code has shaped what we expect from a superhero movie, and I don't mean just in ways like "superheros don't commit rape" and "superheros don't shoot pregnant women." We expect a certain style of storytelling, with epic battles and chases and exciting music. We expect noble deeds, good, evil, tension, climax, resolution.

That isn't what Watchmen offers.

What Watchmen offers is the notion that our expectations are stupid, uninformed, and fucked-up from the start. What Watchmen offers is the observation that putting on a mask and beating up bad guys is a pretty fucked-up thing to do, and the fucked-up people who do this fucked-up thing are not likely to be noble in character. What Watchmen offers is the idea that life isn't neatly divided along lines of good and evil; people are people, and often they're fucked-up, and people do stuff--some of which is noble and some of which descends to atrocity.

And sometimes some of the stuff that people do is both at the same time, and sometimes it's neither, and sometimes people just plain don't give a fuck, and if that makes you uncomfortable, then that's too bad. Against the backdrop of war and civil unrest and the possibility of nuclear annihilation, sometimes it really doesn't matter whether you're beating up purse snatchers; it's all just rearranging deck chairs on the Titanic.

For people who walk into Watchmen expecting a superhero flick, there's likely to be some grumbling. It's not, even though it's filled with folks in masks who beat up bad guys. Better, I think, to walk in expecting a mystery. We know how to deal with mystery movies; we expect a slower, more measured pace. We're not looking for chase scenes and things blowing up. Though even that isn't quite right; Watchmen starts out with a straight-ahead murder mystery, but in this story, context and subtext are everything.

And how, exactly, do we cope with the superhero who sees all of humanity as a kind of extended lifeboat dilemma and makes the obvious, logical, necessary, and thoroughly evil choice? The story dares us: Are your moral values as resolute as Rorschach's, the sociopath who has nothing but contempt for human life yet is willing to die for the things he believes to be morally right? "No. Not even in the face of Armageddon. Never compromise," he says. Would you? Or would you choose to become complicit in atrocity?

One of the reviews of Watchmen I've read refers to one of the characters as a "supervillain," but is he? I don't believe that he is, and more to the point, by labeling him as a supervillain I think the reviewer missed the entire point of the morality play. One of the unintended side-effects of the Comic Book Code is that it has left pop culture littered with superheros who are incapable of making complex moral decisions, because they've never had to.

One thing I felt as I was watching the movie was a sense of disconnect from the emotional impact of the story. When I read the comic-book version, I recall feeling profoundly affected by it on an emotional level, and the emotional response I had to the story became so tangled up in the emotional landscape of all the things going on in my life at that time that now, more than twenty years later, they're still difficult for me to unpack from each other.

The movie, which in many ways was faithful to the comic to the point of obsession, felt detached to me. The set design, the direction, the costumes, the settings, were all pitch-perfect, but somehow the movie lacked the immediate emotional resonance of the book for me. That might be in part because of my own familiarity with the story, or because the story belongs to a part of my life that is so distant that the person I was then is almost alien and incomprehensible to the person I am now, or because there's just no way any re-interpretation of the story could ever match the impact of my first exposure to it. I've talked to people who didn't read it first, and they don't seem to find the movie as flat as I do, so I don't know.

It is interesting to me how the limbic system can remain static for decades. In almost every way that's relevant, I am not even remotely related to the person I was in 1986, to the point where I have trouble even understanding the person I used to be, yet the emotional reality of that person is still as clear and present as if it had happened yesterday. This sort of lizard-brain stickiness contributes, I think, to a great deal of human misery; we remember the emotions surrounding things long after the things themselves have faded, and as a result our recollections of people who have been important to us are stained by those emotions and become frozen like flies in amber. We remember arguments that passed a decade ago as clearly as if the door was still slamming, long after we have forgotten the things that drew us to the people around us in the first place. But again, I digress.

Watchmen is not a story that meets with the Comics Code Authority's approval. It's brooding and dark and morally gray, and the end of the story leaves the audience stranded in a moral quagmire with no way out. This is not your father's tale of heros and villains. "In every instance good shall triumph over evil and the criminal punished for his misdeeds"? In Watchmen, we're left not really sure who is good and who is evil, if indeed those terms are even meaningful at all.

Watching a conventional superhero movie like Spider-Man or X-Men in the theater is a very different experience than seeing Watchmen; with movies like X-Men, you eat popcorn and the folks around you cheer and you leave the movie feeling excited and happy. There are moments of that in Watchmen, to be sure (both times I saw it, the audience cheered at Rorschach's "None of you understand. I'm not locked up in here with you; you're locked up in here with me!") but Watchmen is the only movie involving superheroes I've ever seen where the audience reaction to the story's final, climactic confrontation is stunned silence (or, the first time I saw it, someone crying). Complicity in atrocity comes easily, and the movie makes us complicit and then twists the knife.

That last confrontation did keep its emotional impact for me. In the end, the technical changes that were made to the storyline, the condensation of the background material, all that stuff doesn't really matter, though I'm sure hard-core comic geeks will keep using these things in online dicksizing contests for generations to come.

What matters is that the movie achieved the objective of the comic. And in that, I'm by no small measure impressed. Is it a brilliant movie? No, it's not; but it's a brilliant story. And that's what counts.


( 16 comments — Leave a comment )
(Deleted comment)
Mar. 13th, 2009 08:02 am (UTC)
Re: Odd timing
I've heard the Black Frigate will be on the DVD as an animated short.
Mar. 12th, 2009 08:54 pm (UTC)
Watchmen Origins: Rorschach


Mind you, I'm a fanfic reader, and I'm enjoying quite a lot of Watchmen fic these days, but for god's sake I don't want any of it made into a movie.

Well, you know, aside from the really hot, fucked-up smut. *looks shifty* *goes back to post-apocalyptic Dan/Rorschach AUs and Sally/Eddie revenge!rape pegging fic*
Mar. 12th, 2009 09:30 pm (UTC)
Now I really want to see it! (Hmm ... maybe this weekend?) One of my sweeties saw it and while she liked it, she thought it was pretty gory. She didn't remember the comic book being that gory, but I think she just didn't remember that part of the story.

The superhero movies we're familiar with--X-Men, Spider-Man, Batman--are all based on stories that are products of this code.

True. I also note that these comics all eventually abandoned that code and were vastly improved by it! The modern DC titles in particular are much, much better than those trite fluffy places where they started.
Mar. 12th, 2009 09:44 pm (UTC)
That was a really excellent review. It's exactly as you describe it. Very nicely written.

I think the problem with the emotional impact is the "Good Guy" Character of Night Owl - felt a lot like Chevy Chase to me in the Vacation movies. Sort of vacuous and not really emotional. Yet most of the movie seemed to hinge on his emotional reactions to things. He just felt more like a 50's era dad - slightly out of touch and just wanting to get the whole thing over with.

With the exception of his acting performance, I loved the whole thing. I was completely entrenched. And Rorschach? For a guy who spent the whole movie emoting with his voice - I was damn impressed.

Definitely worth the watch. ^_^

Mar. 12th, 2009 09:54 pm (UTC)
The only character I could connect with even a tiny little bit was Rorschach, and that was disturbing to think that the only emotional connection offered in the movie was with the sociopath.

I never read the comics, and went into the movie ignorant of the story, save that it was about 'fallen and abused superheros'. I didn't much like the movie.
Mar. 12th, 2009 10:31 pm (UTC)
I felt a bit of a connection to him too, but I'm actually used to feeling connected to fictional sociopaths.

Of course, most of my exes would claim that I *am* a sociopath, so it shouldn't be surprising that I feel a connection to the characters in entertainment.
(Deleted comment)
Mar. 13th, 2009 02:47 am (UTC)
Exclamation point!
Mar. 12th, 2009 10:33 pm (UTC)
I have not read the book, and I did not feel the movie was "flat", but I did get the impression that I should read the book for more depth. I enjoyed the movie a lot, but throughout the whole thing I had the feeling that there was or could have been something ... more ... to the story, and I assumed I would get that something from the book. I desperately wished you could have seen it with the rest of the Freaks so I could listen in on your collective conversation about it afterwards.
Mar. 12th, 2009 10:44 pm (UTC)
Superb review/commentary. To the extent that my experience with the story matches yours (which actually isn't much) I agree completely.

I've read the book, but in my case I finished reading it only 3 days before seeing the movie. I think that I benefited greatly from this, as I knew the story, had a couple of days to mentally chew it over (INSUFFICIENT!) before seeing the film, and it was fresh enough that I could notice even slight changes in the movie translation. (Ex: in the book Rorschach refers to Laurie as "Ms. Juspeczyk", while in the movie he calls her "Ms. Jupiter".)

Watchmen isn't really a superhero story; it's a brutal, ugly, and morally gray morality play, filled with characters who are at best deeply flawed and at worst are morally reprehensible.
Best... summary... EVAR! A cow-orker of mine asked me about it the other day, and I wish I'd had this quote available. Despite my explanation I suspect he's expecting The Dark Knight.

What I found interesting is that one of the (though not the only) most sympathetic characters in the story is also the only actual "named supervillain" that directly appears- Moloch.

The story dares us: Are your moral values as resolute as Rorschach's, the sociopath who has nothing but contempt for human life yet is willing to die for the things he believes to be morally right? "No. Not even in the face of Armageddon. Never compromise," he says. Would you? Or would you choose to become complicit in atrocity?
This, I think, is the crux of the entire story. When I finished the book I felt physically... uncomfortable. As I considered the moral implications of the characters' actions I realized that that was merely a sign that I "got it"- that the discomfort I felt and the thought process that triggered it were the whole point.

And while there was effectively no time between my experience of the book and the movie, I can nevertheless appreciate the difference in perspective on the story that time would provide. Morally speaking, 20 years ago the character that I would've most related to would have been Rorschach, and I would have completely agreed with his "no compromise" stance. My entire ethical framework is completely different today, and it's telling that a "mere comic book" makes that so abundantly clear.

"None of you understand. I'm not locked up in here with you; you're locked up in here with me!"
This was, hands-down, my favorite line in the book. I cackled my evil genius cackle when I read it. I did so again when it showed up word-for-word in the movie.
Mar. 13th, 2009 12:06 am (UTC)
Thank you for this - this is exactly the sort of review I was hoping to see before I decided to invest in seeing the movie/reading the book/buying the "motion comic" (an animated version of the graphic novel, in the original novel's style, but unfortunately with only one voice actor) on Xbox Live.

I'm curious - what are the other two graphic novels you've read? So far, although I bought V for Vendetta after seeing the movie, the only one I've read - and it was some time ago - is The Prisoner: Shattered Visage. - ZM
Mar. 13th, 2009 01:49 am (UTC)
I read the collected graphic novel in the early 90s and in a similar fashion, having been turned on to it by my then boyfriend and so for many years my view of Watchmen (and other graphic novels I read of his during that era) was coloured by that relationship and how it ended (badly). What I did take with me from that relationship was a bittersweet love of Watchmen and the Dark Knight and Sandman, and a feeling of sorrow for these characters (that self I was?) that still clings to my rereading of them now.

I remember when I read the novel the first time that I always felt bad for Manhattan and he is always the one I hoped would be able to reconnect with his lost humanity. The movie did not generate that sympathy in me at all. I felt not at all sorry for him. I am not sure if that is good or bad. I am rereading the book for the sixth, seventh (tenth?) time to compare and see what in the movie left me not caring about my favourite character.

Thank you for your well written and beautifully presented review. It made me a little teary eyed, in a good way. Your writing is evocative and compelling, as always.
Mar. 13th, 2009 08:04 am (UTC)
I found it emotionally moving; in fact that was one of the things I liked most about it. It's clearly a movie about it's characters more than the plot, and I felt really drawn up in the characters and their relationships. I'd really like to see it again.

Though, as with other people you've talked to, I have not read the book (though I plan to).
Mar. 13th, 2009 02:15 pm (UTC)
It seems like people who haven't read the book, but who got what the story was trying to do, liked the movie better than people who had read the book and were emotionally attached to it.

I think someone who has their own feelings and experience of the book cannot be completely satisfied with any screen adaptation. While I understand that, I think we should all be grateful that the director *got it* even if he brought his own interpretation.

It broke many a heart that V for Vendetta was completely shat on in an interpretation that saw V as a burned, insane cheshire cat character rather than a brilliant anarchist who is meant to make the audience feel very uncomfortable.
Mar. 16th, 2009 02:51 am (UTC)
This is, hands down, the best review of the movie I've read. I just watched it yesterday on IMAX. I've not yet read the graphic novel as I wanted to watch the movie first and fill in the gaps with the book, as is usually the case.

I knew, going in, that this was not a "normal" superhero movie. How could it be, really? I mean, it's Frank Miller. I don't think he really knows how to do "normal". LOL

Anyway, thanks again for a great review. :)
Mar. 17th, 2009 01:35 pm (UTC)
I went with friends this past weekend to see the movie, and I was one of the people that went blithely into the theatre expecting a happy superheros piece a la Spiderman or Fantastic 4. From the opening credits, I realized that would not be the case, and I seriously considered getting up and walking out at certain points. Gratuitous violence does not sit well with me, and there were certain points where I plugged my ears and buried my face in His shoulder. I think the one scene that really got to me (other than the one involving mutilated German Shepherds--I have one of my own), was the one between Silk Spectre and the Comedian...that brought back some unpleasant memories... :-/
Jan. 12th, 2015 02:23 am (UTC)
I really think Watchmen is destined to be a cult movie – not very mainstream, but with a smaller and very dedicated core of fans loving it as time goes on.
( 16 comments — Leave a comment )