17 March 2009


Medium Review: Cinema: Watchmen

I'm no literary scholar. I don't claim to understand postmodernism and what "deconstruction" really means. I have a few ideas about such, but they're likely half-baked. I do know that some refer the graphic novel Watchmen as a postmodern work that "deconstructs the comic book idiom." Not anyone's exact quotation that I know of, but not far off from several descriptions I've, you've, likely read.

I read it many moons ago, in the late 1980s. I used to put my name and the place and date of purchase in books, and my copy says "Tim Wilson // Cambridge, Massachusetts // 28 NOV 87," so likely I gave it to myself as a birthday present that year. And I liked it immediately, for its surface-level plot with its pirate-comic story within a story; for its oh-so-complete story world—which just so happens to be our world, excepting one where Nixon is still President; where there have been costumed heros, currently outlawed; and where there is one super being resulting from a freak scientific accident— for its oh-so-complete sense of how that world looks; and for the added pseudoartifacts from that world that complete each chapter (individual funny book).

I thought the trailers for the flick looked awesome from the get go, and I awaited the movie's appearance. I'm 52: I hardly run and see movies the first day of release any more, but I do like to catch 'em in the theater. And through the miracle of spring break, I finally got to see Watchmen today, in a theater with four other people.

I thought it was wonderful, and I'm having a hard time understanding what all the grousing was about.

First, it looked fantastic. If Warren Beatty captured the look of the Sunday funnies down to the ink colors in Dick Tracy—and yes he did—then so did Zach Snyder in Watchmen. There's just little I could find to complain about visually. Yes, one could argue that it was a little too literal in using the comic as a storyboard for the movie, but there were so many arresting but integral images in the comic, one would shortchange the flick not to include them.

Second, it followed the surface-level plot pretty closely until the much discussed absence of the squid at the end (and I'm pretty sure that anyone who knows what "the squid" means already knows of its absence from the flick). The change of plot is quite crafty, even if it has been used in numerous Superman vs. Lex Luthor stories previously, albiet this time with a vastly different result. Yes, it lacks the Tales of the Dark Freighter comic within a comic, although the two Bernies do make an appearance, and sure that ensures it can't have some of the literary depth that the graphic novel does (although I am made to understand there is to be a DVD of Tales which will also include Behind the Mask by the original Night Owl; that is, both the sub-story and some artifacts. I also expect there will be an even longer "Director's Cut," which I can already imagine including the two Bernies, the shrink's wife, etc. If none of this matters to you, I'm telling you, it won't matter to your enjoyment of the movie, since it's just piling on details above and beyond the what's already there).

Third, it does for the super-hero movie much of what the original story in comic book / graphic novel form did for the comic book / graphic novel form. Snyder has been criticized for the gratuitous violence—and there was one instance I was happy to close my eyes and not see, but I don't much care for explicit depictions of violence or its results in movies or on TV (so someone please explain why I liked "CSI" so much)—and it is there, upfront, and accompanied by Foleys suggesting the breaking of bones and passage through skin of such. But, since none of the heroes in question excepting Dr. Manhattan, the super being created by the freak accident, really have super powers, then for them to engage in the action and adventure they do, they would have to be sufficiently strong to break bones, etc., in the course of conducting their masked-adventurer business. This, to me, is where Snyder gets it precisely right. To highlight the masked adventurers' superhuman strength and speed by changing the frame rate and by cranking up the sound effects is necessary, otherwise there's no distinction with what you see on Extreme Fighting.

The acting was just fine; complaints about Malin Akerman are overblown. Billy Crudup and Patrick Wilson are fine, and Jackie Earle Haley really is damned good.

We live in a cultural world where some were wanting The Dark Night to be nominated for best movie. Where its comic book story featuring a man who dresses up like a bat, another who has the face of a clown, and a third whose face is distorted by acid into a perfect split image, was taken as a Serious Metaphor worthy of Serious Thought about Serious Times by some Serious People. No doubt, it was a fun flick, very exciting, with some good performances (one particularly thought provoking for its ethereal portrayal of real nihilism), but it was not a particularly deep reflection on government abuses, wiretapping, torture, or whether the Batman should break his code and kill the Joker. It was fairly true to its source, averaged over the years, and a good entertainment.

Watchmen is sufficiently over-the-top—in its violence, in its sole sex scene (and the Leonard Cohen is appropriately ridiculous, not to be taken seriously, which I think many have missed), in its truth to a story where mass-murder is intrinsic—to take the super-hero movie apart, show its pieces (not unlike those of a disassembled watch), and put them back together again. Like its source, it provokes the thought about what a near omnipotent being who had once been human might do in this world, about how madness and purposeful direction coexist within one being, about how megalomania might delay the end of the world, about how nearly ordinary folks muddle through the days making tough moral decisions, and about how in the end, nothing ever ends. It is a good piece of cinema, and it is a good entertainment.

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