Read and Seen: Watchmen
The second simultaneous book and film review by LiteraryMinded’s Angela Meyer and Celluloid Tongue
Mar 25, 2009
The second simultaneous book and film review by LiteraryMinded’s Angela Meyer and Celluloid Tongue
The second simultaneous book and film review by LiteraryMinded’s Angela Meyer and Celluloid Tongue’s Gerard Elson.
Reading a graphic novel is an experience already half-way between literature and film. The opening ‘frames’ of Watchmen are like a series of shots from moving cameras, with the ‘voiceover’ of a character we will soon come to know, Rorschach. Immediately, the picture of this world is grim, skeptical and bleak – ‘…now the whole world stands on the brink, staring down into bloody hell, all those liberals and intellectuals and smooth-talkers’. His words here and throughout remind me somewhat of Taxi Driver’s malcontented, morally and politically ambiguous Travis Bickle.
Rorschach (whose guise is indeed a transforming inkblot image) is one of the few remaining active masked vigilantes in a city that outlawed their activity via the ‘Keene Act’ in 1977. The vigilantes are introduced soon into the story, after the Comedian is murdered at the beginning. Rorschach suspects a conspiracy against masked vigilantes, and that someone is picking them off, one by one. Each chapter gives the reader a detailed background of one character, while keeping the present action rolling – exiles to other planets, love and deception, more deaths, secrets revealed from checkered pasts; and what the washed-up superheroes do with their outfits, their ships, their basements, their spare time, money and their minds. The story is rich and full at the time of writing I predict the cinema version will have nowhere near the amount of detail contained within the pages.
The format of the book is also interesting – along with each chapter is an informative/interesting fragment from the world of the story – such as an extract from the original ‘Night Owl’ Hollis Mason’s biography Under the Hood; sections from a right-wing newspaper running stories on the vigilantes being the only hope against ‘Red Armageddon’; extracts from the new Nite Owl’s ornithological articles, and so on. The book is set in 1980s New York, an alternate Cold War era, and the characters are all uncomfortably ambiguous in terms of what they stand for, and how they stand for it. Most are far, far darker than the dark knight, Batman. Skewed notions of justice, righteousness, peace and anarchy are all brought to the fore, but not so much engaged with or ‘solved’ – merely presented to the reader. It makes for compelling, but uncomfortable reading. I’m not sure I was rooting for anyone – what drew me on was the compulsion to know more about their motivations, to see if my fears would be confirmed, to find out if there was any hope.
And I was completely gutted by the ending.
I must mention some other points of interest. The character of Jon, or Dr Manhattan, recreates his own molecular structure after a radioactive accident (his father was a watchmaker, it all makes suspended-imagination-sense). What I enjoyed about his chapter (Chaper IV) was the way he introduced his awareness of non-linear time. This is always something that has fascinated me. And as his story is recounted, the panels change between past, present, and even future – ‘Perhaps the world is not made. Perhaps nothing is made. Perhaps it simply is, has been, will always be there.’ And everything that is revealed about the characters, and the different (and distant) ways they view life, time, the world, and humanity will have relevance in the final pages.
One last point of interest, and I seriously wonder if this can be translated to film, is the scenes which have a newspaper vendor waxing lyrical about the state of the world to customers, to the air, to the unseen reader. While he talks (and talks) and doesn’t get through to anyone (it’s oh so bleak), a young man reads a comic book beside him. As he reads, parts of this seafaring story are relayed simultaneously, with the vendor’s rants. In some ways, the two characters are beside each other, and attempting to find out the same things on different levels, through different mediums. Then in their one chance for connection, the vendor is misunderstood, and it is missed. The streets become filled with fighting – people turning against each other – people misunderstanding each other’s personal struggles and personal values – and soon the streets are filled with much worse.
One thing that irked me was a definite lack in developed female characters. The females are all clichéd caricatures – sexually and emotionally vulnerable (or else lesbian) – which is a real shame. But, it’s not as though any of the male characters are truly rounded anyway. Their detailed backgrounds conveniently explain every tic, but by the end, it’s an outcome of competing concepts. The only character who felt three-dimensional to me was Rorschach, but I’m not sure if this is a subjective, comparative, recognition of aspects of the drawn character, or that he was written with more depth by Alan Moore. Much of the writing and dialogue is also bordering on corny – the laments about the scum of the earth and a dying world etc. – a little clunky, but nonetheless relevant to the overall themes.
The above points are not at all to say I didn’t enjoy the book – it was compelling and darkly entertaining all the way through. The story is rich, and most definitely resonant. The drawings by Dave Gibbons are really spectacular and remind me to read more graphic fiction. I would also recommend Alan Moore’s V For Vendetta (which you may also have seen the film of).
(directed by Zack Snyder, screenplay by David Hayter & Alex Tse, 2009 – now on DVD/blu-ray)
USA, 1985: With the nation on the precipice of nuclear war with the Soviets (the protracted Cold War about to turn hot), and Richard Nixon still in office, nervy finger on the button, America’s in the direst of straits. The costumed avengers who once marshalled the streets are long outlawed and now out of action, returned, for the most, to lives of anonymity, left to watch impotently on as society devours itself. And the world’s sole honest-to-godliness super-powered miracle-man – at once both national security policy and walking WMD – is growing increasingly apathetic to the plights of humanity; the existence of life is a highly overrated phenomenon to the indestructible inhabitant of a quantum universe, after all.
Welcome to the darkly imagined world of Watchmen, arguably comicdom’s most analogous offering – in both esteem and complexity – to the meticulously weaved intricacies of The Lord of the Rings. Much like Tolkien’s sturdy tome pre-Kiwi can-do, writer Alan Moore and artist Dave Gibbons’ ambitious fusion of superhero subversion and societal treatise had long borne the branding ‘unfilmable,’ with an enviable inventory of Hollywood hit-men left vexed and perplexed in its wake. Enter Zack Snyder, geek auteur du jour, who proved keenly attuned to the idiom of the medium with his operatically absurd/deliriously enjoyable big-screen mounting of Frank Miller’s 300. Now, credit first where credit’s due: that Snyder’s Watchmen even made it to cinemas is alone nothing short of a coup, the relative novice succeeding where many more seasoned (and venerated) reputations had failed, having joined the grumbling Moore, slighted by cinema’s high-profile muck-ups of his works in the past, in his unswerving belief that his serpentine opus is a tale tailor-made for exclusive existence on the panelled page. Yet film the unfilmable Snyder has, and cause for greater celebration is the simple truth that Watchmen is far from the unintelligible mess it so easily could have been. In fact, the filmmaker has shown a fanatic’s reverence for his source, shepherding Moore’s blockbuster-unfriendly ideas into multiplexes relatively intact, and Watchmen stands cowled head and caped shoulders above expectations.
When thoroughly distilled, at Watchmen‘s heart beats the jigsawed intrigue of a noir-ish whodunit. A mask’s been murdered – the cigar-chomping misogynist, The Comedian (Jeffrey Dean Morgan), one of the few vigilantes left active by engaging in government-sanctioned political subterfuge. Pitilessly pummelled to within an inch of his life before being dealt a spectacular death by defenestration, it’s not long before the city’s lone still-illegally-practicing disguised gumshoe, Rorschach (Jackie Earle Haley), arrives at the scene to investigate and the murky shadows of conspiracy start to rise all around.
Though as with Watchmen in print, this isn’t that simple, with Snyder and scripters David Hayter and Alex Tse boldly shunning the acute narrative streamlining of the more-or-less successfully Moore-sourced V for Vendetta and making an admirable effort to allow ample exploration of their colourful cast’s spider-webbed geneses and individual backstories. So there’s Dan Dreiberg, AKA Nite Owl II (Patrick Wilson), mild-mannered Clarke Kent-alike, with his inability to get it up unless garbed in his now-closeted costume; Laurie Jupiter, alias Silk Spectre II (Malin Akerman), former torch-carrying stiletto-filler for mother, Sally, the original Silk Spectre (Carla Gugino), herself a crimefighter cum pinup babe back in the roarin’ ’40s; Adrian Veidt, or Ozymandias (Matthew Goode), pinnacle of Aryan perfection and self-styled ‘Smartest Man in the World’; and cerulean super-being, Dr Mahattan (Billy Crudup), atomic age danger made manifest and boyfriend of Laurie – not to mention particle-manipulating straddler of his own concurrent personal timelines.
It sounds like a lot to swallow, but Snyder brings neophytes swiftly up to speed with an ingenious opening credits montage set to Bob Dylan’s ‘The Times They Are a-Changin’, presenting a crash course in Watchmen‘s alternate history in which costumed heroes have had a hand in momentous modern American – and indeed, world – events; iconography re-dressed in spandex. But from here, Snyder ditches the neighbourly concern for the unconverted and launches into a no-punches-pulled, near blow-for-blow rendering of the meat and potatoes of most heavily lauded graphic novel of all time, which, despite its estimable exertion to realign the kapow-to-character ratio in support of the latter, still feels perversely snipped short at 162 minutes. In this theatrical cut (we’re promised two lengthier iterations further down the line), it should be clear to aficionado and virgin alike where the pruning’s occurred, for, after the leisurely measure at which Watchmen develops its first two acts, the dash it makes for the finish feels all the swifter by compare. But even the most ardent of purists should find no cause for lament in the film’s skilfully reworked finale, which – fans will note – plays out sans calamari but to equally conflicting effect, managing both organic thematic and narrative culmination whilst providing the period setting a welcome jolt of immediacy by tapping into the contemporary fears of the zeitgeist.
If you’re starting to feel Snyder’s proved himself up to the task, you’re certainly not far off the mark, though the director’s stylistic tics might have been better left checked at the door, as the self-conscious showiness of his ‘mid-shot ramping-then-decelerating frame rate’ routine is here both intrusive and counterintuitive; to sex up the violence of Watchmen is to negate its purpose – it’s hard to feel appalled whilst thinking ‘Gee, whiz!’. Thankfully, it’s a gimmick the filmmaker keeps on a fairly tight chain, trotting it out only so often enough as to re-rouse those attentions attendant in hopes of a high-octane serving of superheroics from the man who made a limb-lopping ballet of the Battle of Thermopylae, using his God-given aptitude for ocular opulence to sugar the pill of Moore’s cynicism for the folk in the cheap seats.
Of equally varying success are the tunes Snyder lays down on the soundtrack, which careen wildly from the dubious (witness a behemoth Dr Manhattan stride the Vietnam warfields to ‘Ride of the Valkyries’ and think only of Apocalyspe Now; watch two Watchpersons’ nigh-on gratuitous induction to the mile high club advance on the cringe-worthy as they tenderly boff to the strains of Leonard Cohen’s ‘Hallelujah’), to the flat-out inspired (Philip Glass’ suitably sci-fi sounding ‘Pruit Igoe & Prophecies’ is the pitch-perfect accompaniment to Manhattan’s origin-exposing Martian sojourn; a violent riot’s lent irony by KC & The Sunshine Band as The Comedian struts his stuff to the funk of ‘I’m Your Boogie Man’), with the more triumphant inclusions going some length to atone for Tyler Bates’ wearily perfunctory score. Crucially, Snyder’s knack for filling a role is much more reliable, Watchmen‘s casting perhaps its strongest suit. Best of the bunch are an emotionally aloof mo-capped Billy Crudup, letting it all hang out as the faultlessly-sculpted blue demigod, a va-va-vooming Gugino as the sexy Silk Spectre (a vision in girdle and garters), and, second to none, Earle Haley as Rorschach, the film’s hardnosed and stiff-tongued morally unflinching epicentre. His masked face an oscillating inkblot symbolic of the tumult inside, the actor’s guttural growlings the aural equivalent of Gibbons’ squigglingly-scrawled comicbook word balloons, if the character doesn’t come off as alarmingly bigoted as he is on the page, blame the script: Earle Haley is Rorschach.
Definitive judgement’s reserved for the Ultimate Extended Collector’s Edition, in which Snyder will presumably reinsert as many of the experience-enhancing and here-jettisoned subplots as he was able get away with arranging before cameras, but, taken as is, this is a graphically spectacular and staggeringly faithful translation from celebrated page to screen. Akerman’s acting chops may falter, critical plotlines might feel shortchanged, and we’re never quite given enough of Dean Morgan’s brilliant embodiment of The Comedian, but the sheer conceptual density and the filmmaker’s tightly-packed frames will ensure return viewers are richly rewarded. This is blockbuster moviemaking with a capital ‘Ballsy’ – and Synder’s to be commended for erring on the side of fidelity to the book.
And of Moore’s sour promise to never sit down for a viewing of the most loyal take on his work yet put to screen? Ask Snyder and he’ll likely borrow a line from Watchmen‘s most despicable realist: ‘Bitter? Fuck no – I think it’s hilarious!’
Angela’s post-film notes…
Watchmen worked as a film. Two highlights for me were the casting and the soundtrack. Music is one of the only things literature can’t do, and in most parts the choice of classic songs (it was almost the soundtrack for Easy Rider) had mega impact, and often humour. Only a few times were the choices slightly off, and the score for the film itself was unremarkable – nothing like the moody, memorable soundtrack of The Dark Knight. Rorschach, The Nite Owl, Dr Manhattan and most other characters were perfectly cast – giving suitable voice and expression to their individual tics. I still haven’t gotten over the fact that I find Nite Owl so incredibly attractive (sensitivity/awkwardness with whiff of danger/toughness? – but then I hate his weakness also!). Silk Spectre was a little young, and her character just as one-dimensional as in the book. I have more to say on one other character but it could give away the ending, so I won’t. It was an entertaining ride – the opening and credit sequence gave me chills (I’m sure Gerard has described in detail). All fans of the book will agree that it is a shame a few things/characters were shunted, but you can understand why for narrative’s sake. The extended cut on DVD will be much richer for those who have read the novel. Ultra-violence and nudie scenes bordered on schlocky. The moral dilemma is in tact in the ending, but feels quicker (even though some parts are played out longer) and not as bleak somehow. Rorschach seems more heroic than he should, and less disturbingly complex. Overall, enjoyed, and would definitely watch it again.