YAWR – Yet another watchmen review

Ok. So now I’ve seen the Watchmen movie. It’s about as good as I could imagine the movie being, and I followed Scott Knaster’s advice: I enjoyed it for what it is.

Yes, the movie had faults, but it’s hard to imagine how those faults could have been corrected without major departures from the source material, which would have been devastating in its own way. Rock, meet hard place.

Now, for my take. I’ll try not to cover ground that has been beaten to death elsewhere. (mild spoilers ahead)

A mystery without clues

The narrative heart of the Watchmen is a detective story. It starts out with Rorschach literally playing detective, and the mystery unfolds from there. “Who killed the Comedian” turns into “Who is killing the Watchmen” to “What the f*ck is going on?” In making the jump from comic to movie, I feel that the Watchmen lost the driving force of the core detective story.

In the comic, the mystery was fueled by clues scattered throughout the comic: in pieces of paper lying on the street, in extra bonus material, and in tiny bits of dialogue.

Watching the movie, I was left with the feeling that the question was posed (“Who killed the Comedian?”) but the rest of the movie didn’t follow through in keeping the mystery alive. Where were the clues leading you to suspect one person or the other? Sure, there were scenes of Rorschach beating people up and asking questions (“what is Pyramid Transnational?”) but did that really cause anyone to be drawn into the mystery? Was anyone sitting in the movie theater trying to figure out “whodunit?”

Central premise, part 1 – costumed heroes

The central premise of the Watchmen is this: “What would the world be like if superheroes were real?” Part 1 of this premise has to do with costumed heroes. What kind of people dress up and beat people up at night?

As in the book, the movie portrays costumed heroes as, shall we say, less than perfect. Ok. They’re mostly psychopaths. In some cases, that was done brilliantly, as in Rorschach, who I thought was portrayed almost perfectly. In other cases, I wish there were a bit more gray instead of black and white. Yes, the Comedian is an A-hole, but what about showing us some heroics in a flashback scene to before hitting us with the fact that he is an A-hole?

Without the gray area, the costumed heroes seem like lawless thugs, and the Keene act seems like a really good idea, as opposed to a difficult moral question that would inspire actual political tension.

As for the over-the-top action, I am a fan. Sure, it makes absolutely no sense whatsoever that Adrian Veidt could crack a marble countertop with the Comedian’s head, but hey… it’s a movie.

Central premise, part 2 – actual superheroes

Part 2 of the “what if superheroes were real” question concerns actual superheroes with actual powers, aka Dr. Manhattan.

Watching Dr. Manhattan on a movie screen was a revelation to me. In the comic, for some reason, the idea of a near-omnipotent being becoming detached from humanity seemed, well, plausible but not believable, if that makes sense. I couldn’t get into Dr. Manhattan’s head because he’s not supposed to be all that human.

Meanwhile, seeing Dr. Manhattan on the movie screen, rotating CGI-generated widgets around in the air and talking in his “I can barely remember what it’s like to be human” voice made that omnipotence seem all that much more real to me. I could imagine what it would be like to live in a world that had a Dr. Manhattan in it, and it was kind of scary.

There were other aspects that didn’t work so well — how could anyone fall in love with something so alien? — but overall, it deepened my appreciation for this character.

Central premise, part 3 – political ramifications

The third part of the “what if superheroes were real” question has to do with politics and the world as a whole.

In the comic, America has morphed into something only barely recognizable. Tricky Dick is still in power running a quasi-totalitarian version of the US government (shades of Philip K Dick?) and there are lots of specific details about modern life that are just, well, different. Blimps and curry, anyone?

In the movie, the same elements are there, but it just doesn’t provide the same mindf*ck as the comic. The main reason for the discrepancy, I think, is that the comic was set in the 80s and published in the 80s, while the movie was set in the 80s and released over 20 years later.

If you were one of those folks who read the comic in the 80s, you found yourself tripping out over little ways in which the world of the Watchmen was different than your world, and it was interesting to think about how the people in that world dealt with contemporary issues like the possibility of nuclear holocaust.

In order to update the “feeling” of those comics to the world of today, imagine a comic about an alternate world in which Ronald Regan was still president for a sixth term when 9/11 happened, and how people in that world used a government controlled version of Microsoft Windows to spy on civilians.

Having those contemporary touchpoints (e.g., 9/11 and Microsoft Windows in my analogy) was essential, I think, to the feeling of vertigo you got in reading a comic about an alternate universe in which certain things were just different.

In watching a faithful movie 20+ years later, I found that the “real” cultural touchpoints (e.g., the birth of MTV, 3 1/4″ floppy disks, and nuclear armageddon) were almost as alien to me as the supposedly “trippy” weird stuff (e.g., Gunga Diner)

Perhaps this is just an unsolvable problem. I don’t think I would want to see a Watchmen movie set in 2009 unless Alan Moore was doing the rewrite. Still, the fact that the movie version of Watchmen was set in a foreign land (the 80s) meant that a lot of the political and cultural questions just didn’t feel relevant.

The ending

Meh. I was actually not a huge fan of the ending in the comic to begin with. It just didn’t feel plausible to me. The ending in the movie was in exactly the same spirit as the comic, and felt slightly more plausible, but not really. (Everlasting peace? Because these cities got destroyed? Really?) There are perhaps some slightly more interesting questions raised in the movie version of the ending (is fear of Dr. Manhattan akin to fear of God?) but only barely.

So the ending is fine. Meh.

In a nutshell

Like I said originally, this is probably the best movie that could have been made, given the circumstances. I’m a huge fan of the Watchmen (as if that weren’t already obvious) and it’s gratifying to see the story be told on a big screen with big production values. I loved the portrayal of Rorschach and the movie Dr. Manhattan was actually better for me than the one in the comic book. The movie didn’t stray too far from the comic book, and I think that was a good thing.

In my heart of hearts, when I go to a movie like this, I want it to blow my brains out. I want to leave the movie theater in a bit of a daze, my head full of a thousand thoughts, and my eyes not quite sure if the world around me has changed in some subtle way that I can’t quite perceive. The first Matrix movie did that for me. Mulholland Drive did that for me. This movie didn’t do that for me, but I wasn’t expecting it to. Like I said, I enjoyed it for what it is.

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