So, it’s here, it’s 2hrs 44mins long, and it adheres with almost religious zeal to its source text, but just what is the long-awaited Watchmen like?
First of all, let’s not kid ourselves that this movie featuring superheroes is for either children or adolescents: it gets an 18 rating, and deservedly so. It is, on occasion, extremely violent – we see people bloodily disintegrate, a character gets both arms cut off with an angle-grinder, and someone else get chopped in the head with a cleaver in a scene reminiscent of Crime and Punishment – and there is sex and nudity.
All these points were clearly at the forefront of Christopher Tookey’s mind when he wrote his vitriolic review for the Daily Mail, which I urge you to read here: http://www.dailymail.co.uk/tvshowbiz/reviews/article-1159801/Watchmen-Superheroes-sick-slick.html. I urge you to read it because I’m about to take it apart, line by line, with joy and enthusiasm.
It is worth saying upfront that I don’t rate Tookey as a critic. He was spectacularly wrong about David Cronenburg’s Crash (1996) (he called for it to be banned) and he was about the only mainstream newspaper critic in the UK to consider the recent epic The Dark Knight a failure. He has a real problem with violence on screen (which is not necessarily a bad thing), but his arguments don’t hold up under scrutiny. I feel I am qualified to make such comments as my PhD focuses on the problems of representing violence and, from a theoretical point of view at least, I think I know what I’m talking about.
Let’s turn to his review then. He starts off by saying the project has defeated other directors, and that Alan Moore, the author of the original graphic novel, called it unfilmable. All this is perfectly true. Moore, in some respects, set out Watchmen to demonstrate what comics can do that films can’t. And other Moore adaptations have been…well…not very good. The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen was simply a travesty; From Hell, the story of Jack the Ripper, became a whodunnit when that was precisely what the graphic novel so assiduously avoided; and V for Vendetta, though the best-looking (and probably best-adapted) of the three, upped the Hollywood spills ‘n’ thrills at the expense of the subtle and complex political argument at the heart of the novel. So Watchmen‘s cinematic pedigree isn’t all that it might have been.
Director Zack Snyder therefore took possibly the least commercial but most fan-friendly approach available: his adaptation is extraordinarily faithful to the novel. And this is where Tookey’s criticisms begin to show their prejudices.
“It all feels woefully dated, as well it might – the film is doggedly faithful to a graphic novel published more than two decades ago, long since overtaken by political events.
And it’s one too many movies – after X Men, The Dark Knight and Push – set in a world where crime-fighting superheroes have been outlawed”, he writes, and in so doing demonstrates a cataclysmic failure to understand the film’s context. Ignoring, for a moment, his dismissal of the superhero genre in its entirity (if you can face the prospect, search his other posts on other superhero movies to see this displayed), he shows us that he doesn’t understand what Watchmen represents and that, therefore, he cannot possibly understand the purpose of this movie. Watchmen is a pivotal comic in the history of comics because it was the first to reimagine heroes as being un-heroic. We tolerate Batman putting on a cape and a mask to beat up villains because as a boy he watched his parents’ murder and we sympathise with his need for vigilante-based catharsis. What Moore does is to explore the psychology of his vigilantes (only one of whom is a true superhero with superpowers) and to use his conclusions to enable readers to draw parallels with the ‘heroes’ of everyday life. It is no coincidence that Snyder said of his movie that he wanted the look not only to invoke the novel Watchmen but also the films Taxi Driver and Se7en – both movies featuring characters whose actions and motivations remain troubling to the viewer long after the film has finished playing. The ‘heroes’ of Watchmen are not meant to be emulated: Nite Owl (in some respects Watchmen‘s Batman) is impotent until he has worn his costume and saved some lives; The Comedian is morally bankrupt (at the end of the Vietnam war he shot a pregnant Vietnamese woman rather than having to remain a father with an irrevocable link to a country he can’t stand) who shoots protestors and has on at least one occasion attempted rape; and Rorshach is to all intents and purposes a functioning sociopath. These are not commendable individuals. It is to Snyder’s credit though that they become ambiguous for the audience – our loyalties are divided. We know The Comedian is (if you will excuse me) a bastard: we watch him brutally put down a riot on American soil. The problem is, he looks cool while doing so. His fight moves are straight out of The Matrix. This, I suspect, is where Tookey has his problem. You can’t look good doing bad things. That generates a level of complexity Tookey does not want to deal with.
In fact, society in general doesn’t want to deal with it. There was an interesting article in the Guardian about a year ago (http://www.guardian.co.uk/artanddesign/artblog/2007/apr/18/whynaziartisadangerous) that discussed the problems of Nazi aesthetics. For instance, the black uniforms of the Waffen SS were designed to look elegant, tailored…attractive. But because of what the men in those uniforms did – and I have no illusions about that, no one who reads as much WWII military history as I do could possibly have any illusions about that – I suspect I would find myself on the receiving end of flame comments if I was to say those uniforms remain attractive. It is the same problem. The nazis looked good while doing unspeakable things.
Anyway, back to Tookey. He criticises a novel written 20 years ago for not being contemporary (when in fact the deeper themes of both the novel and the film resonate all too well – to paraphrase (slightly) one character at the end of the film, “There must be sacrifices if we are to put an end to terror”), and says that after a string of films outlawing superhoes this is one to many. As I said above, this is because this the story that started all that, but there is one other point I wish to make here. One of the examples Tookey chooses is The Dark Knight. The Dark Knight is based at least in part on the graphic novel The Killing Joke. The author of the Killing Joke is… Alan Moore. Tookey criticises an Alan Moore story… for being reminiscent of an Alan Moore story.
He comments on the brutality of the film without considering that Snyder’s objectives were not to impress 14-year-old boys but rather to highlight that this is a sick society with troubling parallels to our own. My comparison of the ‘cleaver in the head’ incident to Crime and Punishment was not accidental, and was (I suspect) in Snyder’s mind too – that scene is very different in the Watchmen book (there is no cleaver – the book’s version I find, on a personal level, far more troubling). The death of the little girl that brings about the cleaver retribution also generates in full in Rorshach his sociopathic personality and his dismissal of God (“He saw everything that went on that night and he didn’t seem to mind, he did nothing to stop any of it”) – which is in itself a criticism of a current American society that sees retribution as a cure-all and christian political fundamentalism, divorced from any form of sensitivity, as an indefatigable campaign of moral victory.
Make no mistake. Watchmen is a smart film, a film that through representations of violence, through questions about the nature of good and evil, and through an exploration of characters’ backstories (in a manner reminiscent of the metanarrative of The Canterbury Tales), explores complex psychological terrain and poses difficult questions about the use of force. Watchmen is brilliant, complex, fierce and provocative. It is a film for grown ups.
No wonder Tookey didn’t get it.
Finally, your moment of Zen for today: