Watchmen

I went to university in Northampton, pretty much by accident. (I think I thought it was near Southampton, and therefore closer to Devon. It’s not.) Alan Moore, legendary beardo comic guru, lives in Northampton. (So does Jo Whiley; I used to see her in a surf shop by friend worked in. A surf shop, in Northampton. The most landlocked town in England pretty much.) I doubt there’s much significance in this.

I didn’t read Watchmen until well after I’d finished university and fled back to Devon in a hurry, though. Which is kind of irritating, because my degree was Popular Culture with Philosophy, and while we did a module on popular erotic literature, which included a guest lecture by a Black Lace writer who lived opposite campus, none of our lecturers had the foresight to say “oh, Alan Moore, the most famous man in comics who isn’t a fascist called Frank; let’s get HIM to give a lecture, or at least use his proximity to inspire an interesting module”.

But I did read Watchmen nevertheless, several years ago. And I enjoyed it. I wasn’t madly blown away by it; I’m no fanboy. I just like comics a bit, and superheroes in particular (especially those of a little more human disposition – where’s the drama in an invulnerable flying alien with super-strength and laser-eyes?), and a little bit more thought and character than outsiders generally reckon the genre to have. I quite like that Dark Knight film.

I reread Watchmen recently, in anticipation of Zack Snyder’s film. I didn’t get all the way through, however, because memories of the stupid ending (a device halfway between those used more fruitfully in The Incredibles and Akira) started surfacing. But I did do that thing of skipping backwards through pages, studying past frames, noticing references, picking up clues, reading the news cuttings and other supplementary intertextual MacGuffins that give context to the world and emotional background to the characters. I’d be interested to know how many other people who’ve read Watchmen have read it as closely. I know that my own reading would be seen as remarkably shallow by many, not least Zack Snyder.

Snyder was an interesting choice of director. A self-confessed fanboy of the comic, he’s no Nolan, or Cuaron, or Del Toro, but he’s leagues ahead of, say, Paul W. Anderson, who perhaps could be seen as Snyder’s most analoguous contemporary. Except that where Snyder picks acclaimed comicbooks to bring to the movies, Anderson picks computer games. Clever.

I really liked Snyder’s remake of Dawn of the Dead, which I saw in the cinema. I’ve not seen 300 but I’m not really a Frank Miller fan and haven’t read it either. But there was no way I was going to miss Watchmen. Not after seeing the trailer last summer. (I should note that Moore refuses to have anything to do with film adaptations of his comics, to the extent that he claims he sim[ply shall not see Watchmen the movie.)

So I went on Saturday afternoon with my girlfriend and another friend, who is the closest thing I have to a fellow comicbook geek, except that neither of us is that into comics, and he has a doctorate in the representation of women in Victorian literature rather than in the representation of giant world-ending alien pseudo-squids in DC comics. I saw both The Dark Knight and Batman Begins in his company, too. (And X-Men: The Last Stand, but the less said about that the better.)

And you know what? All three of us walked out of the cinema at ten past four having thoroughly enjoyed ourselves; maybe it was the cheesecake brownie Ben & Jerry’s, or simply the giddy indulgence of seeing a film at a time when you can walk out into daylight.

But I think it was the film.

No, it wasn’t perfect. But the comic isn’t flawless either; the ending, as intimated, is pretty pants. Well, not the ending per se, but the final, explosive, “so this is what it was all for” culmination. The most notable thing about Snyder’s film is that they rewrote that final explosive culmination, and in doing so vastly improved upon the original. (If you didn’t know, the original ends with a giant world-ending alien pseudo-squid uniting the Cold Warring USA and USSR in peace and love. No, really.) I wont say what the new version is. But it works. And makes MUCH more sense, too.

So, a list of quick positives…

1. Dan Dreiberg, aka Niteowl, was played by the creepy paedo guy from Hard Candy, and he was terrific. It really was as if the character had walked off the page and onto the set.
2. The Dr Manhattan effects were great (with the possible exception of the wang), particularly the illuminated dust floating in his aura. (For those who don’t know, Dr Manhattan is an atomised physicist who reunites his molecules at a sub-atomic level and in doing so becomes… well, pretty much omnipotent. And blue. So powerful is he that he parades around naked, like a Greek god made of radioactive sapphire.)
3. All the effects were great, actually, and the set & costume design were faithful enough to the source material to give anyone with a decent familiarity to it several gasp-inducing moments of déjà vu that were really quite enjoyable.
4. The sex scene was the funniest, most awesome sex scene since the one in Team America; Wold Police

Actually, yes, the sex scene. How you react to that scene says a lot about your understanding of what this film is trying to achieve, I think.

The original Watchmen isn’t just a comic; it’s a commentary upon the comic genre, a satire and a parody of it, and also a love-letter to it. The characters are deliberate archetypes taken to extremes, the universe a fully-defined alternative reality that posits superheroes as “costumed adventurers” out for justice with just masks and martial training rather than laser-eyes and mutant regeneration factors (Dr Manhatten very obviously excepted). I’m assuming you know it’s set in 1985, that Nixon is still in, that a giant radioactive blue god won Vietnam for the USA, that nuclear terror pervades the whole of society, that “costumed adventurers” have been outlawed (hello The Incredibles, again), that someone is plotting to save the world by making everyone think it nearly ended, etc, etc, etc…

But it’s not really about that. It’s about… misanthropy, and violence, and the nature of humanity, and the way we experience time, and sexual deviance, and the justification of bigger-picture politics, and the nature of altruism, and many, many other things, most important of all being comicbooks as a genre, as an artform, in and of themselves.

So Snyder’s film cannot deliver the same experience as reading the book. It cannot have all the appended press cuttings and book extracts and so on. You cannot flick back a few pages and study the graffiti scrawled on a wall in that one panel where the guy with the “end of the world” placard appears. It cannot be a commentary upon and a satire of comicbooks. But it can be a comment upon and a satire of comicbook films. Because, you know, we’ve had a few of those recently, and far more people seem to watch the films than read the comics.

And so Snyder transposes from comicbook to film, and it nearly works; Ozymandias’ suit has nipples, a clear reference to George Clooney’s lampooned Batman costume. Niteowl’s suite even more closely resembles Batman’s than it did before. Both Silk Spectre costumes reveal as much real flesh as Jim Lee’s figure-hugging illustrations ever did, and in doing so become remarkably unsexy; cellulite and camel toes not really doing either incarnation favours.

But it’s not just comicbook films that are referenced and satirised; Lena’s appearance on the soundtrack transforms a cod-romantic dinner scene between Dan and Laurie into a Pretty in Pink moment. Hendrix’s use for the flight from Mars echoes Marwood’s drunken awakening on the motorway in Withnail. And that sex scene… the flamethrower / orgasm synchronicity, the Leonard Cohen hideousness of the soundtrack, the cheesy, sleazy camera angles, the clichéd climax faces; John Connor’s conception in The Terminator has nothing on this for sublime, laugh-out-loud (and completely deliberate, on Snyder’s part) bathos, two uptight ex-heroes who can’t get turned on until they’ve dolled up like latex gimps and pummelled a ne’er-do-well or five.

Critics of the film seem to orbit around the point that Snyder, as fanboy, is too faithful to the source; that you cannot understand the film without attending undergraduate seminars on the comic; that he is so obsessed with recreating the aesthetic that he loses the depth. Some will cite Nixon’s prosthetic nose, but this isn’t a Ron Howard biopic; it’s a comicbook film with a giant blue naked atomic god as one of the main characters, for goodness sake. If you want po-faced realism go and see The Reader. If you want total cartoon hijinks go and see Bolt.

I could go on, but overstaying a welcome is never a good idea.

I’m not saying Watchmen is a terrific film; I’m saying it’s a very solid one, a fantastic addition to the superhero / comicbook oeuvre, far better than most but not quite the Citizen Kane of the genre that people wanted. Is it as good as the book? Is cheesecake brownie ice cream as good as either a cheesecake or a brownie? I can’t wait for the Watchmen DVD. And I never liked Citizen Kane much anyway.

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