Home » Cinema and Television, March 2009

Watchmen vs The Dark Knight

12 March 2009 4,988 Views 30 Comments author: Alex M.

darknightvswatchmenSeriously, my world just turned upside down.

Early in the year I forced myself to sit through Christopher Nolan’s painful but much hyped follow-up to the dreadfully mediocre Batman Begins.  You know Christopher Nolan, the guy who made the brilliant and ambitious movie, Memento, following it with one of the decade’s smartest American movies, The Prestige.  As a Batman fan, sitting through The Dark Knight was a physically painful affair: dire, clichéd rubbish, an overly traditional man vs terrorist setup soaked to the brim in an unquestioning philosophy a mile or two to the right of Ann Coulter.  The film’s parallels between the Joker and Al Qaeda were painfully obvious, and Batman’s “by any means necessary” method simply turned the character into an unthinking Jack Bauer and the movie into an apology for the Bush regime. None of this is helped by its traditional, laboured A to B blockbuster structure, which constantly eschews things like characterization and thoughtfulness, instead willing us to leave our brains at home and enjoy the high octane action.  Now, there’s nothing wrong with the occasional thrill ride, but Batman’s tired car chases and fuzzy fight scenes don’t try very hard to offer anything new or creative.

After this, I did not approach the big screen adaptation of Watchmen with enthusiasm.  The fact that it was to be directed by Zack Snyder was certainly a factor, since his directorial efforts up to this point had been an indifferent, watered down remake of a Romero movie and 300, a movie so awful in every sense of the word that the English language has no expletives strong enough to describe it.  Not content to bask in the glories of its technical incompetence, its atrocious acting, its chronically retarded slo-mo sequences and an eye-bleedingly revolting CGI colour palette, 300 has to be one of the most offensive works ever to hit the silver screen.

No, I was not really looking forward to seeing Snyder’s massacre of Alan Moore’s revered graphic novel, Watchmen.  But the hype machine, that sinister engine, somehow managed to arouse my curiosity to head to the cinema, bracing myself for an evening full of either pointing and laughing at the screen or cringing and wailing in despair.  I was somewhat surprised, then, to find that the movie’s first scene gripped me by the throat , shoved me into a car, then sped me off on a rollercoaster ride lasting what felt like a very short two hours and forty minutes.  Quite simply, I was putty in Snyder’s unclean hands, and by the time I left the theatre, I was convinced that Watchmen was one of the most important American films of the decade.

Moore and Dave Gibbons’s Watchmen appeared roughly the same time as Frank Miller’s legendary Dark Knight Returns.  Together, so it is claimed, the two miniseries spawned the modern graphic novel and subsequently forced the comic book to grow up, bringing with it to a new, maturer audience.  Whilst it’s not entirely true that there were no adult comic books on the stand at the time (Dennis O’Neill, for instance, is well known for bringing a darker, rawer edge to the Batman comic in the 70s) Miller and Moore managed to position themselves as intellectual juggernauts testing the limits of the form, making lesser comics (like the increasingly incomprehensible X-Men) look childish and puerile.   These books weren’t just dark, they were also cynical and challenging, injecting a measure of postmodernism into the comic book form, presenting characters who were tired, world-weary and truly struggling to find their place in an increasingly difficult and alienating world.  Nowadays, reading these defining works, it feels as if they are an attempt to put a close on the whole spandex-clad obsession with superheroism, questioning the clean-cut image and unthinking black-and-white moral logic of earlier comics.  Traditional writers like Chris Claremont looked increasingly idiotic beside this new, sophisticated brand of comic book writing, and a new generation of skilled artists and writers (Grant Morrison being a prime example) moved into the superhero genre and reinvented it from within, with groundbreaking titles like The New X-Men and All Star Superman, exploring a far more cultivated perspective that combined clever narrative with a more modern and complex viewpoint on the subject matter, which even sometimes included feminist angles aimed at reaching out to a new brand of female readers.

Then Hollywood caught on.  As usual, the American blockbuster acted as a brake on creativity.  Many of the new films re-embraced dumb franchises built around unimaginative re-imaginings of superhero origin stories.  Even though Tinseltown tapped auteur directors and producers to take charge of the properties, the subsequent offerings were infantile, patronizing and sometimes coma-inducing (notable exceptions are Spiderman 2 and X2: X-Men United, both perhaps the result of studios desperate enough to take risks in the hope of obtaining a summer hit).  Superman Returns made even the Christopher Reeve movies look good, Batman Begins made me wish Joel Schumacher actually had another go, and the horribly plodding Hulk made me wish Ang Lee would just stop making movies altogether.  Let’s not even talk about Fantastic Four, a film so bad that even if we’d actually seen the beautiful Jessica Alba naked I probably would have gouged my eyes out anyway.  These high profile, big budget slices of mediocrity were supplemented by strings of unwatchable titles that actually managed to be even worse: Catwoman, Daredevil, Elektra, The Crow, Iron Man, Ghost Rider, Constantine, The Punisher…  a list long enough to give you repetitive stress injury just typing it.

Last year’s The Dark Knight seemingly hit the superhero jackpot, with Heath Ledger’s tragic death guaranteeing the film media attention before it hit screens, and award success afterwards.  Critics and viewers alike trumpeted it as some kind of masterpiece, though in many cases with scant evidence beyond “Well, Heath Ledger was a great actor.”  Box office figures were through the roof — more than $530 million at last count.  Nolan is indubitably a capable, if not a great, director, but there’s little of his distinctive vision in this film and still less of his brilliant narrative playfulness; instead what we have is an appearance of the auteur without the substance, a name that viewers can hold up as evidence that what is essentially a fairly average Hollywood blockbuster is a Masterpiece of Cinema worthy of immediate canonization.  Try the same thing enough times in enough different ways, hit the audiences over the heads with it until they bleed and soon enough they’ll not only accept a new kind of cinema, they’ll grow to adore it, particularly if they can feel smart for preferring The Dark Knight to the (frankly appalling) quality of other Hollywood offerings.  Viewers will undoubtedly descend upon the inevitable next movie in the Batman franchise like hungry wolves, tearing it to shreds for having too many villains! Being too stupid! Being not quite dark enough! For not having Heath Ledger in it!

On the back of this huge success comes Zack Snyder’s Watchmen, a movie that has been in production hell for nearly as long as Guns N Roses’  Chinese Democracy.  Moore’s novels do not have the kind of popular profile that can guarantee a mass audience in the same way that the name “Batman” or “Superman” can.  Watchmen was not an obvious, low risk cash cow for studios, a fact formally recognized in the decision to allow it to garner an R-rating, normally seen as financial suicide as it guarantees only a limited audience in the domestic market.  But the niche market for this work is also a minefield.  Watchmen was previously proclaimed unfilmable after defeating the efforts of high-calibre directors like Darren Aronofsky and Paul Greengrass to bring them to the screen. The disastrous and universally derided attempts to film some of Moore’s other novels, V for Vendetta, From Hell, and The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen, added to skepticism around a Watchmen movie, while Moore’s understandable and vociferous distaste for screen adaptations of his work has become a kind of purist snobbery in the hands of fans who refuse to believe that any director could possibly do their writer-hero justice.   As with any other adaptation, there is an inevitable sense of mismatch between a reader’s imagination of the story and the director’s: some feel that a sequence is too brutal, others dislike a piece of voice acting; some feel that Snyder follows the comic too dutifully, others are pissed that their favourite moments had to be excised to fit everything into a three hour time slot. Of course, the truth of the matter is that Moore and Gibbons’ novel makes a great storyboard for Snyder to use, but manifold decisions have to be made during filming to translate that into a well-paced movie.  Extraordinarily, Snyder and Co. have made good decisions.

The first thing to state categorically is that the Watchmen graphic novel is all about examining superheroes in a more adult way than most other comics, and that Snyder’s movie is right to try to emulate its success here.  Lest you are tempted to produce the counter-argument that involves the words “Batman,” “Nolan,” and “DAAAAAAARK,” I’d like to point out that deciding to dress up as a bat because you once aroused a cloud of them when you fell into a well is not exactly persuasive character creation.  For the first time in superhero movies, Snyder has taken a central character and stripped away the usual cod psychology, the gusto, the bravado and the popcorn action sequences and instead presented us with a smart, jaded film so cynical that it is almost painful to watch.

Stylistically, the film is a tour de force.  Some viewers have complained that Snyder overuses slow-mo, but they are missing the central point, which is that the film is not about the action sequences, and that the stylization has been deliberately designed to make the action jar, creating a sense of hyper-reality and cynicism.  The action sequences look cool, but are also supposed to look wrong. They are brutal, nasty and difficult to stomach from a moral as well as a visceral perspective: there is no attempt to hide the fact that Dr. Manhattan and the Comedian slaughter innocents in Vietnam under the government’s request with a fight sequence so beautifully choreographed that the audience loses any sense of death, destruction, or ethical compromise.  Instead, characters interact with bitterness and irony: Silk Spectre and Night Owl, for instance, save themselves from muggers and then free Rorschach, a psychopathic vigilante, from prison.

Nor does the film have a conventional superhero plot.  As in the graphic novel, the conventional saving-the-world superhero narrative is relegated to a backdrop.  Even then, it is presented in the form of the kind of deeply disturbing compromise that you find in B-movies: a character called Ozymandias decides to save the world from apocalypse by destroying millions of lives.  But this is just a beautiful piece of window dressing, a jaded look at what the world might become, which provides an excuse for the movie’s major theme: an in-depth look at what superheroes might really look like if they were average people, with real psychologies and engrossing, yet ordinary problems.  As the story unspools, Snyder weaves in the backstories of each of the superhero friends with considerable panache.  Their induction into the world of crime fighting is more mental than physical (they lack obvious bodily “powers”), involving none of the silly origin myths that have plagued the genre.  Each of them is also shown to have become disillusioned with the fight, hardened and changed by their lifestyle.  Their stories are loosely woven into an overarching plot, which involves an external threat to their number by a mysterious killer who appears to have a fetish for dead caped crusaders.

Another central objection to the movie is the Cheesy Sex Scene.  The fact of the matter is that too many people are having flashbacks to 300, remembering (possibly with some trauma) that gloriously misogynist scene where Gerard Butler nails his hot, obedient wife in skinemax-style softcore.  Sex in Watchmen is a different beast entirely.  I agree that it would have been good to see a more graphic and dispassionate style to the Silk Spectre/Dr. Manhattan encounter, but the central point was clear: Laurie was a woman with sexual and emotional needs that were simply not being met.  When she finally hooks up with Night Owl, the extended sex sequences (including the full nude body shots on Mars) show a jaded couple coming together and finding an improbable slice of happiness.  The narrative impact of that means that I can forgive the fact that it was one of the weaker moments in the film; more importantly, we should cut it some slack for embracing a feminist perspective.  Not only can Silk Spectre hold her own alongside her male comrades, but Snyder refuses to fetishize her, instead calling into question the sexual provocativeness of her mother’s kinky clothes.  I’m struggling to think of another superhero movie that comes close to this evenhandedness in gender terms. [2 My editor informs me that a recent Wonder Woman animation also has some great female kickassery included.  This maybe a step in the right direction, but it also leaves one lamenting, again, what a big budge Joss Whedon Wonder Woman picture might have achieved]

If The Dark Knight is the movie equivalent of 24, it’s also gratifying to note that Watchmen has shifted the superhero political scale a few notches back to the left of Sarah Palin.  Okay, you won’t find a red call to arms in Watchmen, and this isn’t a movie pushing a hard-line socialist agenda.  But Snyder has certainly eschewed the reprehensible individualist philosophies of 300 and the Batman films in favour of presenting us with a well-rounded look at how those so-called individuals are actually manipulated by the society around them.  As the movie starts, we learn that Nixon has been in power far longer than he was in our reality, and that the Cold War has reached such an alarming point that the time humanity has left is counted on a doomsday clock, which points to four minutes to midnight at the start of the film.  As the movie progresses we learn that the Watchmen (like the previous generation of heroes before them, the Minutemen) have been manipulated by their government into being right wing stooges.  The Godlike (or Superman-like) Dr. Manhattan single-handedly won the Vietnam War for Nixon, but The Comedian plays the part of an off-the-rails soldier (a la Platoon), seeing any Vietnamese life as ripe for American abuse, and coldly gunning down the woman who is carrying his child when she demands justice.  Like The Dark Night, Watchmen evokes parallels with the current war on terror, with the sinister Cold War standoff easily matched in doomsday potential by the new terrorist threat of Al Qaeda, the situations in Iran and Iraq or the nuclear standoffs in India/Pakistan or North/South Korea.  Unlike The Dark Knight, however, Watchmen offers no justifications or excuses and doesn’t even openly condemn the superheroes for what they may have done.  The movie simply watches over the scenario and lets the ticking clock do the talking.  When tensions are finally resolved with Ozymandias’s bombs destroying millions of lives, allowing an uneasy peace to resume, again there’s no judgment or congratulation, just a detached sense that things are now able to continue as they did before.

Watchmen is unquestionably a great movie, but why claim it as one of the most important of the decade?  Hollywood blockbusters have been disappointing of late.  Superhero movies are attractive to studios in a time of falling box office returns because the comics are established properties, involving much-loved characters.  Attaching an auteur to such projects, then micromanaging the hell out of them, ensures that the movies are competently shot without ever creating space for them to do anything that interesting.  The bloated budgets of these movies are matched only by the hyperbole of the hype around them, while the audience’s brains dribble out of their ears.   Watchmen became the most important comic book ever by loudly proclaiming, “Enough!”  Zack Snyder’s Watchmen seems set to do the same thing for cinema.  It is an attempt to reboot the concept of the blockbuster, to allow cinema to assert itself as a potent, relevant cultural force with something intelligent to say.  So please Nolan, if we must have more Batman, as a why not at least film Frank Miller’s opus, The Dark Knight Returns.  This should both please fans of right wing individualist narratives, of which there are clearly many, but would also give the rest of us something provocative and interesting to get our teeth into, something not afraid to veer to the political right and yet still critique the world as it sees it.  It would be a much more fitting, complex vehicle for Nolan the auteur as opposed to Nolan the hack, and would stimulate the market in the same way that Watchmen so desperately wants to do, rather than giving us more big budget fluff of the variety that could easily be left to Michael Bay.

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