“Watchmen” is really two movies: one for people like me, who remember the earthquake it was for comic books in 1987, when it first appeared, and one for people just looking for a good movie. In a lot of ways, it succeeds on both levels; in a lot of other ways, it doesn’t.
“Watchmen” arrived in 1987 as comic book that for the first time in the history of comics looked on the idea of superheroes as a real thing; what if in the real world these people actually existed, and what would happen? I first read it at 13, finding it on the bottom shelf of the comic stand in the back of the Cigar Store down on Sycamore – this when comics were still sold outside comic shops – and I didn’t understand it, but knew a comic – a funny book – with blood and murder and various other adult things was not normal. I found a lot of books there that were an absolute awakening to me, and make me feel very lucky to have been that age, at that time: “Swamp Thing,” “Sandman,” even “Cinder & Ashe” which no one remembers but made its own impression. I couldn’t afford any of them, only the Marvel ones that were still 75 cents, so I stood at the rack and read them in the store. I read the complete novel in college, appreciating it fully for the first time. It made a lasting impression on me, like it has so many others; I found the idea of the meta-textual here first rather than in the novels of M. John Harrison or David Foster Wallace. The book within a book idea appears in some of my own work, especially “The Book of Elizabeth,” which is to do entirely with a book inside a book.
That is nothing new, but in 1987, Alan Moore and Dave Gibbons set off an earthquake. “Watchmen” is to comics what “Ulysses” is to the novel; after that, everything changed. For the movies, though, “Watchmen” the film is just a good movie that could have been better. The basic plot revolves around this: someone is killing masked superheroes. Except superheroes are retired, by government mandate. And it’s 1985. And Nixon is still President. And the Cold War is getting hot, really fast. It seems someone is trying to make sure superheroes are not going to be around to stop Armageddon. And so at first it is a detective story – the Sherlock here an anti-hero called Rorschach, after the ink blot test (his mask features a ever changing menagerie of patterns) – and it leads him to the now retired members of the Watchmen, who he fears may be in danger. As it progresses from character to character – the Batman clone Nite Owl, the Punisher-esque Comedian and then to the Superman like Dr. Manhattan, it becomes alternately a love story, a war movie, and a 1950’s sci-fi movie where the good scientist gets transformed into something horrible. It’s a lot of different movies, none of them ever really congealing into something whole, other than the strange, pleasant shock of seeing Batman – I mean, Nite Owl – overweight and lonely. Of Superman distant and removed from humanity because they can’t ever understand what it is to be a god. I always thought the book would be better served by the time and detail of say a 12 part mini-series on HBO, and the film only confirms that. Zach Snyder does achieve what was once thought impossible, putting the book on screen; he manages to transplant the thread of the book in its – mostly – entirety to film, salvaging a myriad of the book’s most treasured scenes.
That so much of Dan and Laurie survived surprised and thrilled me, because it was my favorite part of the book. Except for the sex scene. That was laugh out loud bad. Showgirls bad. I also loved Manhattan’s trip through time and space, which with Bill Crudup’s spooky, detached narration, exists in a small, poetic way in the film. The performances are exceptional in some cases – Jackie Lee Haley is hypnotic as Rorschach – and in some cases not so much. As lovely as Malin Ackerman is, she never really gets to the bottom of Laurie, who in the book is a lot more of a live wire.
The film clings to the original 80’s setting, and the Cold War fear; as someone who grew up then and remembers “The Day After,” it strikes a chord. I wonder though if it would for anyone who grew up in a world without the constant thread of nuclear annihilation. After the film, Ben and my uncle PJ spent some time discussing this. I wonder if the film would have been better served by a more modern setting. “The Dark Knight” proved last year that ‘comic book’ movies can and do speak to the moral complexities of the present. The Watchmen, as it is, proves only a love letter to a book and a moment that seems squarely in the past. The World Trade Center still exists there, and its presence in the film – gratuitous at times – only speaks volumes to the schism between the film’s setting and now. The towers cannot ever exist in film or any art now as merely themselves; that they do in this film, and that they survive the devastation of the ending only reinforces my feeling that Snyder missed an opportunity to not just produce a slavish, religious adaptation to the source material but to advance it.
What if the Cold War was replaced by the War on Terror? What if Dr. Manhattan single handedly won the Iraq War instead of Vietnam? What if the Keene Act came out of a government seeking to quash superheroes whose independence and resources may be interpreted as non-state actors? What if Ozymandias plot to bring peace to a world on the brink of nuclear holocaust instead sought to bring peace to a world locked in the gravity of endless war? Of course the book still speaks to us, despite its setting; the film speaks to many different things, and never in one voice. It is a big film that in so many ways demands to be a small film; a tiny, subversive meditation on the lives of people who cannot live outside of their masks.