Sunday, March 22, 2009

WATCHMEN

Hanging over the entirety of Watchmen is the long accepted acknowledgment that we humans are flawed and emotionally malleable creatures. Director Zack Snyder rolls his what-went-wrong credit sequence to the tune of "The Times They Are A Changin'", but not really, the amount of societal conflicts displayed in Watchmen (circa 1985) have always been historically and nationally familiar. It is in our nature to crave leadership, but then to also turn tide and tear down authority. We celebrate swift, sought after justice, but then distrust the mechanisms that bring it to us. However, this on-the-fence skepticism is oftentimes warranted. After learning of the many brutalities committed by The Comedian, it's no wonder "Who Watches the Watchmen??!!" graffiti adorns a shop window and "BADGES, NOT MASKS" placards pump the air of city protests.

The authority and protectorships that attempt to govern and guard our lives can give good reason for cynicism. Take the Watchmen, a group of righteous for-the-greater-good vigilantes started by ex-cops who had witnessed one too many scumbags run free. Within that small cell of good-intenders eventually awakens a corruptible power structure, the same as with any united group. Good intentions give way to celebrity, jealousy, and rage. In my opinion, any type of extreme, across-the-board cynicism and misanthropy is harmful and intellectually lazy, but despite what Watchmen may present on its surface (especially in Rorschach's bitter, resentful verbal journal entries) this isn't a film that wallows in nihilism.

It's interesting that a film which takes place in an alternate reality (we've won the Viet Nam war, Richard Nixon evaporated term limits and is still our president ... The Fat Toad of Venezuela must be proud!) can elicit so much cultural emotion from us. Spiderman 2, The Dark Knight, and Iron Man all tried to bank on heroism in the face of politically familiar enemies (the military industrial complex, terrorism, techno-spying) but their way of relaying it to an audience was shallow. Well, how is Watchmen any different? Because Snyder's film touches on historical events and figures that provoke a reaction in us no matter our individual depth of knowledge. Shows like The McClaughlin Group, names like Lee Iacocca, developments like the Soviets in Afghanistan, have all crossed our ears, yet may not be fully understood by any of us. Watchmen plays off of that cultural consciousness.

I enjoy Zack Snyder as a director (I think he's improving with each film he makes), but watching Watchmen made me shifty in three specific moments:

# 1 In the opening sequence, The Comedian throws his whiskey glass at the door, knocks off the 1 on his room number of 3001, and presents the audience with a "300" (as in 300) in our faces. Eek... silly self-referencing for such a young director.

# 2 I don't like the way Zack Snyder directs sex. The romp between Nite Owl and Silk Specter was eerily similar to the overwrought sex scene between Leonidas and the Queen in 300. Neither of them are erotic, they are both filmed coldly like soft-porn, and they are superfluous. And nothing should excuse Snyder's decision to have the aircraft, that the two lovebirds are humping in, shoot flames as they achieve orgasm.

# 3 Despite what I read/heard from some friends and critics, I liked the pop-music Snyder chose to use... except for one. The muzak version of Tears for Fears' "Everybody Wants to Rule the World" playing in Ozymandias' [NOTE: thanks to Ed for the correction] office as he threatens fat cats with corporate buyout power was not clever, and the fact that Snyder tried to do it subtly simply made it worse.

True, the above are minor complaints, but I felt that they couldn't go without mention. To me, Snyder comes of as director with ambition and smarts, so it surprised me a bit to see him make such awkward decisions.

I'm an admitted outsider when it comes to the Watchmen source material of Alan Moore's and all of the admiration and fanship that surrounds it. As far as dialogue accuracies, the loyalties in character portrayals, and story lines matching up, I couldn't tell you, and, to be honest, I couldn't care at all. But from what I hear, the graphic novel of Watchmen is dense, and the fact that Snyder's film is dense in itself, I think, should please fans of the graphic novel. Though not great, Snyder's Watchmen is an encouraging example of a comic book movie that goes beyond the mask.

36 comments:

Rick Olson said...

Beyond the Mask ... go beyond the mask for the thrilling escapades of Rorschach and his happy band of misfits. SEE the Comedian -- is that name ironic enough for you? -- SEE the Comedian as he attempts to rape America's Sweetheart. HEAR the soundtrack as it labors to evoke a musically dead decade 1980s. FEEL the pain Snyder took to cram as much of the comic in as he could.

Still, I enjoyed it well enough, perhaps because I haven't read the comic.

Fox said...

Are you ok Rick????

Yeah. I'm very fine with Watchmen existing in my head as a movie and not a comic.

I wonder if Edith Wharton fans spazzed out when Martin Scorcese made The Age of Innocence.

Ed Howard said...

Bill and I were wrong I guess -- we both were betting you'd hate this film. That said, though I also liked this film, I disagree with you about Snyder. This film has convinced me that it's possible for a lousy director to make a decent film. Snyder seems very much tied to the quality of whatever source material he's adapting, which is why 300, based on a really shitty, nasty comic, was shitty and nasty, and why Watchmen, based on one of a great author's greatest works, is such a solid, smart movie. Most of what's best in the film is taken directly from Moore's comic, although I do have to give Snyder props for the very clever opening credits.

Oh, and it's Ozymandias, not Mothman, in that office, and I thought that scene was pretty heavy-handed and silly in general (and is not in the comic: see what I mean?).

bill r. said...

Well, I'm surprised. And confused. I don't see how this film, just by using featuring bad impressions of real people like John McClaughlin and Lee Iacocca, comes off as deeper than, oh, let's day The Dark Knight. Those scenes struck me as a shallow director's idea of going deep.

bill r. said...

Typos!!!

Fox said...

Ed-

Thanks for the correction... Mothman...Ozymkljljuis... I get lost, y'know?

Bill-

It's not just that he included "bad impressions", it's that by including them he made me feel more invested in the world on screen.

The Dark Knight takes place in a world that I don't care about and that I feel I have no stake in.

bill r. said...

How can you be more invested in the world of Watchmen? Because there's a guy with putty on his face playing a guy you've heard of? Besides that, the history it sets up is a different history than the one we know to have occurred, so shouldn't that distance you right there?

I don't know. I'm feeling like the rest of you did when the positive Dark Knight reviews started rolling in.

Fox said...

How can you be more invested in the world of Watchmen? Because there's a guy with putty on his face playing a guy you've heard of?

Bill, I think you're focusing too directly on me mentioning the "bad impressions" or characterizations themselves, and not how they helped lift me out of the typical comic book worlds that I typically find unappealing. I don't think Watchmen is a good movie because of its references to real life people and events, I just think it makes for good distinction between it and. say, Superman Returns.

Besides that, the history it sets up is a different history than the one we know to have occurred, so shouldn't that distance you right there?

I mentioned in my write-up how I find it interesting that I can still feel connected to a world that exists in some fantastical fork in the road.

I don't know. I'm feeling like the rest of you did when the positive Dark Knight reviews started rolling in.

Well, let me be clear that I don't think Watchmen is a great movie, and definitely wouldn't place accolades on it to the extent that many people put on The Dark Knight. (ie "classic", "movie of the year", etc.)

I think Watchmen is a mess, but I really like how it addresses the cycles of conscience and ethics in mankind, and does so without taking a strict political agenda. From reading some reviews, I know some people feel that it does, but, to me, Watchmen is more about human behavior than a damning of our politicians, systems, or way of life.

Greg F. said...

Don't worry Bill, I bet I won't like it at all. And I did read and like the graphi... comic book. Sorry, graphic novel stills sounds stupid to me. Graphic/comic novel/book. I mean, really, what the hell's the difference? Why do people think to get respectability for a group or cause or art form you have to use euphemisms?

Fox said...

Sorry, graphic novel stills sounds stupid to me. Graphic/comic novel/book. I mean, really, what the hell's the difference? Why do people think to get respectability for a group or cause or art form you have to use euphemisms?

Glad you mentioned that Greg. And while I don't know nearly enough about the world of comics, doesn't "graphic novel" kinda seem like a conscious decision to separate oneself from "comic books" (which sounds much less hefty).

Though, maybe it's just like how I use "film" and "movie" off-and-on for no specific reason. I think it depends on my mood. Though, I've heard people say that they think usage of the words "film" or "cinema" can come off as snooty. I don't think so, but...

Greg F. said...

Maybe I should change my blog name to "Movie Styles."

Or "Picture Show Stuff."

Fox said...

"Picture show" is my favorite. I've always wanted to incorporate that into a sentence.

"Hey doll, that new picture show, ya know, dat one dey call Da Slumdog Millionaire?? Yeah... well is playing at da movie house on main street... wantsta go?"

bill r. said...

I don't know why I've never heard anyone mention this, but back when I was a regular comic reader, back in the 80s, "graphic novels" were one-shot stories, usually dealing with a pre-existing character or characters, that the writing/art team simply spent a lot more time on, and which was published in a larger, more expensive format, and which generally was more mature or thoughtful (or hoped it was, anyway) and whose storyling tended to be a "pretty big deal". The Death of Captain Marvel was, I believe, the first one. I don't know when the term started to be used to refer to the entire medium. Anyway, it used to just be a way of categorizing a particular kind of comic.

Ed Howard said...

I can understand why some comic fans have adopted "graphic novel" to distinguish more fully realized work from the average stupid Spider-Man/X-Men/whatever monthly title, but I still can't really get behind the term. It gets especially absurd when people start applying it to anthologies of short stories, or collections of a few years' worth of newspaper comic strips, or other things that are obviously not in any way "novels."

I just say "comics." I figure that comics are at the highest profile they've had since the 40s or 50s, and people are starting to realize there's lots of smart, sophisticated work out there and that maybe it's not so embarassing anymore to be caught reading a comic beyond the age of 13. So eventually "graphic novel" will go the way of the dodo.

Fox said...

Hey Bill-

What would you consider to be the peaks of your comic book reading, the ones that you'd look back on and think of as the best?

I like to pick the brains of comic book readers b/c I never read them as a kid....

Fox said...

BTW... that question to Bill is open to anyone else who read(s) comics.

Ed Howard said...

Bill, you're right that the term "graphic novel" used to apply only to stand-alone works whose creators aspired to creating "novelistic" comics. It first started appearing on comics in the 70s, most notably on Will Eisner's seminal Contract With God (which is, ironically, of course a short-story collection rather than a "novel").

Fox, you didn't ask me, but I'll provide some choices anyway:

Kyle Baker's Cowboy Wally Show (the funniest thing EVER)
Alan Moore & Eddie Campbell's From Hell (dense and brilliant)
Dave McKean's Cages (a moving magical realist fable)
Mary Fleener's The Life of the Party (sexy and funny)
Jaime Hernandez's Locas (an epic ongoing story)

A while ago I did a post about the best books for people who haven't read many comics, which includes a lot of my favorites.

Fox said...

But Ed! I did ask you!

But I have a question about this:

"...the average stupid Spider-Man/X-Men/whatever monthly title."

Are those really "stupid"? Is there any value to them at all? I'm sincerely asking b/c I don't read comics.

So Ed, I'd also be curious to know if you like any "traditional" DC/Marvel stuff? Or, if you did as a kid, are there any that still hold up?

bill r. said...

Fox, although I was an avid reader of comics in my youth, I wasn't all that varied in my tastes. I read a lot of Batman, in other words. Having said that, off the top of my head, From Hell is a true work of genius, as Ed points out, and is easily the best comic I've ever read. As a kid, I was also a huge fan of a comic called Alien Legion, which was an SF/military/combat comic. It's first 20 issues (and the graphic novel!!) are all that matter (it extended past that, but it wasn't worth anything after the original writer -- Alan Zelenetz? -- left). I also enjoyed pretty much anything that artist Brian Bolland drew, because his stuff just looked great, and he could draw himself some girls.

Frank Miller and David Mazzuchelli's (sp?) run on Daredevil was pretty great, especially the Born Again story -- great use of the medium in that one -- and...what else. Dark Knight Returns, obviously, since that hit right when I got started in comics, and Arkham Asylum was pretty harrowing. It hit on the new dark tendencies in the Batman character and went full-out.

There are others I'm forgetting, I'm sure.

Greg F. said...

My choices:

Richie Rich, #74 Hoi Polloi at the Weenie Roast

Gee Whiz Comics, #15 Doing Your Homework is Fun!

The Adventures of Little Lotta, #29 Why Do I Tingle When I Touch Myself?

Those are the top three best comics of all time.

ALL TIME!

bill r. said...

There's a lot of value in them, Fox, and I have a feeling Ed meant more what those kind of comics have become.

bill r. said...

Sorry, when I said "Brian Bolland", I meant "Alan Davis". But Brian Bolland was/is good, too.

Also, Berni Wrightson and Bill Sienkiwicz.

Fox said...

Bill-

I've been curious to rent From Hell since I saw you and Ed talking about it one day. But I can't remember if you guys said the movies sucked sh*t or not.

Do you still buy comics now?

And Jonathan-

Some of those Richie Rich comics - in hingsight - look really creepy: evidence

Fox said...

Oh oh oh... I forgot to mention my favorite part of Watchmen... Here.

Aren't those the same dogs he kills at the child murderer's place???

bill r. said...

Fox - the movie From Hell is okay. It's a decent Jack the Ripper thriller. But it is not the comic. Just get a copy on-line and give it a read. Seriously.

I don't really buy comics anymore, but not because I think I've grown out of them or anything. It's just been so long that I don't really know where to begin. I did read some of this zombie comic called The Walking Dead that was supposed to be brilliant, but it was actually not brilliant, so I stopped.

bill r. said...

That's the same picture, Fox...

Fox said...

dammit!!!... I keep screwing the pooch today... grrr... and now I don't know if I can find it again...

Ed Howard said...

Fox, not all mainstream Marvel/DC is lousy. I used to read a lot of it as a kid and there are still some of those books that I love. It's just that the vast majority of them are very "lowest common denominator." The mainstream artists and comics Bill mentioned are very good; I'd also add James Robinson's Starman and Brian Michael Bendis' Alias, two very understated takes on superheroics. Many of the books released through DC's Vertigo imprint are also quite good, like Preacher and Doom Patrol and 100 Bullets.

Bill, The Walking Dead is pretty good but I'd never call it "brilliant." All of Robert Kirkman's comics tend to be fun, breezy quick reads with strong issue-by-issue storytelling and character development. I always enjoy reading his stuff but it's not exactly substantial. I don't read many ongoing monthly series these days; I tend to get mostly book-length works and archival newspaper strip collections, especially since there are very few monthly series outside the mainstream anyway.

Oh and Fox, just read From Hell. From what I've heard, the movie strips out everything that makes the comic unique and just turns it into a generic Jack the Ripper story.

bill r. said...

Ed, the thing that drove me up the wall about The Walking Dead was the dialogue. Nothing is ever left unsaid. Nothing is ever quiet or subtle. If any two survivors find themselves disagreeing with each other, then they start shouting, and, most likely, punching each other. I just really didn't think it was all that good. Plus, in first trade paperback, Kirkman's introduction is fairly arrogant. He claims that The Walking Dead is not a horror comic. Really? Then you should probably go easy on the zombie attacks.

Fox said...

What do y'all think about Y - The Last Man and Transmetropolitan?

Some friends of mine swear by those two series. One friend used to tell me how much he loved the writer of Transmetropilitan. Isn't by the same guy that wrote Preacher?

P.S. This is some serious geek talk. If any new readers wants to go back to Watchmen (the movie) please don't feel that you can't.

Ed Howard said...

Bill, I don't necessarily disagree with you about Kirkman's dialogue (subtle he's not), and I get the impression he thinks he's a lot cooler/smarter than he actually is, but I still find his books very entertaining. The series does get better after the first volume, too, IMO.

Fox, I haven't actually read Transmetropolitan, but it's by Warren Ellis; the similarly named but otherwise very different Garth Ennis did Preacher. I like some of Ellis' other work (Apparat, Fell, Planetary) OK but haven't gotten around to that one yet. Ellis tends to be hit-or-miss; about half his work is interesting and the rest is kind of half-assed and forgettable.

Y: The Last Man is fantastic. Really fun, enjoyable genre fiction.

bill r. said...

I did read Walking Dead past the first volume -- I got up to four, I think -- because, you know, zombies. But I think I'm done.

And I didn't like the one volume of Preacher I read, either, by the way. It seemed very keen on being hip and shocking to me. Ellis seemed to be saying "I'm going to offend you! WOO!!" which I find very boring. Sorry.

Never read Y, but I heard it's really, really good, and Brian K. Vaughn is now writing some darn good stuff for Lost. Y and Fables are too comics I really want to check out.

Ed Howard said...

Oh well, different strokes. Preacher is all about being as offensive as possible, and so is Garth Ennis in general. It's funny as hell though. His stuff, like Kirkman's, falls into the category of big dumb fun: no one would ever accuse either of them of excessive subtlety but I love the energy and intensity of their storytelling.

On the other hand, I read a few volumes of Fables and found it insufferably slight and cutesy and one-joke. I've heard it gets better as it goes along but haven't had the patience to give it another shot.

And as long as we're talking comics, anyone ever read Cerebus? Lots of movie references in that, including some of the funniest Marx brothers material this side of Duck Soup.

Fox said...

Well...

I gotta say you guys have me interested in some of these comics now.

Maybe I will go to the downtown library tomorrow and see what I can find.

bill r. said...

Never read Cerebus, and I feel bad about that, and have only read a little bit of Concrete, which I also feel bad about. And I didn't know Fables was cutesy, which makes me sad. I was flipping through one volume and there was a really bloody crime scene! How is that cute? Maybe you're wrong, Ed! MAYBE YOU'RE WRONG!!

Well, whatever. You probably just saved me money.

Ed Howard said...

Seriously, Cerebus. The book High Society is the most fun you can have with a talking aardvark and a Groucho Marx stand-in. It gets a little, um, crazy, when you start getting to the later books (which still have their own peculiar charms), but the "early, funny ones" are great without qualification.

I've read the first volume of Concrete. It was OK, didn't exactly push me to need more though. I think its rep comes from the fact that it came out when there really weren't that many quality comics on the market, so it stood out at the time; not so much anymore, maybe.

Yeah, Fables has crime scenes and violence and blood but it still strikes me as really cutesy and overly impressed with its own cleverness. Like "oooh look it's the Three Little Pigs being all bad and stuff." Maybe it gets better, but I read the first four volumes or so and that was enough for me.