Paul P. Mealing

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Sunday, 11 October 2009

Watching Watchmen

Yes, I know it was released over 6 months ago, but I’ve just seen it. I don’t normally review movies on this blog – in fact, I’ve only done it once before: Man on Wire (refer The philosophy of Philippe Petit, Oct. 08), and that’s a completely different kettle of cinematic and philosophical fish.

But Watchmen is such a good movie on so many levels, and it encapsulates so much of the American psyche, especially the not-so-recent paranoia of the Cold War, as well as our universal infatuation with violence. And the cinematic references: Apocalypse Now and Dr. Strangelove being the most obvious; both relevant to the cold war era. I am an outsider, regarding America, so my perspective may be different to those who imbibe and live its culture every day.

In Australia it got great reviews, with one notable exception: Evan Williams panned it for its gross glorification of violence as he saw it. Even the pacifists in this movie seem to thrive on violence. One can’t help but compare it to Sin City, which is an iconic movie for technical reasons rather than story content, not to mention a stellar cast. It was clearly influenced by Quentin Tarantino, whereas Watchmen probably owes more to the Matrix trilogy. But both films explore the moral landscape and both are based on comic books or graphic novels. It seems that this genre is becoming increasingly obsessed with violence, with a particular emphasis on the ‘graphic’ in graphic novel, and this is reflected in the movie renditions of the same.

I think the violence in movies has had one tragic consequence in real life. In the last 5 years, in Australia, there has been an increase in alcohol-fueled street violence with people receiving life-long and life-losing injuries. I think movies portray an unrealistic expectation that you can belt the crap out of someone and only inflict superficial injuries. In the case of super-heroes, the story can justify it, but the violence is part of the entertainment in these movies – it doesn’t really condemn it the way we do in real life. Cinema has replaced the Roman gladiators without the leftover corpses upsetting our sense of fun.

One of the characters in the movie, The Comedian, is quite literally a psychopath, yet he is clearly tolerated by his brethren because he’s on the side of 'good'. He is an allegory for the darker side of the American psyche, in particular, what Dick Cheney referred to as the ‘dark side’ of foreign operations. There is a scene in a bar in Vietnam where The Comedian shoots a pregnant woman, apparently pregnant with his child, but first he delivers a diatribe on why he hates her country, even though he’s supposed to be there to ‘help’ it.

Back in America, he continues the same psychopathic behaviour towards what he sees as America’s internal enemies. The Comedian pretty well encapsulates the contradictions that the rest of us wrestle with when we observe the dialectic in America between extreme right wing and liberal politics that inevitably overflows onto the global stage.

I’ve said in a previous post on Storytelling (Jul.09) that comic books are our equivalent to Greek mythology, and, like all mythology, allegory should be its core ingredient. In this regard, I felt Watchmen doesn’t disappoint, especially with the character, Doctor Manhattan. Named after the Manhattan project (as the movie reveals for those who don’t make the connection) which effectively ended WWII with the construction and deployment of the atomic bomb.

One of the advantages of reviewing a film so long after its release is I don’t feel guilty about giving away the ending. Doctor Manhattan effectively becomes an allegory for God, especially when it’s his ability to destroy on a cataclysmic, even biblical, scale that finally achieves world peace. This is a particularly pessimistic view of humanity, exemplified by the Bible in my view. We are inherently self-destructive by nature and only a fear of a superhuman (therefore supernatural) force can stop us from achieving our genetically determined destiny (in biblical terms, original sin). So, in a way, it’s a cautionary tale – but the moral of the tale in my view is that paranoia is what will lead to our self-annihilation and not Divine vengeance.

There are 2 things that make Watchmen an exceptional movie. Firstly, it’s cinematic rendering is close to perfect. A combination of film noir and graphic realisation that sets the standard above anything else I’ve seen, including The Matrix and Sin City. But it’s the rendering of the characters that really sets this movie above the norm for comic book movies. The romance between Nite Owl and Silk Spectre is completely believable. Only Bryan Singer’s Superman Returns compares in the genre and Singer is a master storyteller. But all the characters, in particular, the deeply, psychically wounded Rorschach, have a psychological depth one doesn’t expect in these movies. Again, I would reference Singer’s original X-Men as one of the few comparable movies in the genre, and of course Heath Ledger’s memorable rendition of The Joker in The Dark Knight.

But it’s as allegory for the American psyche, in all its contradictions, that I feel this movie delivers. It competes with Apocalypse Now and Dr. Strangelove on that level, both of which it unashamedly honours, and that’s the highest praise I can give it.

Oh, and I almost forgot to mention the soundtrack - from Philip Glass to Leonard Cohen to Bob Dylan to Jimi Hendrix - what more could one ask for?


larryniven said...

You must know, right, that Alan Moore has completely dissociated himself from the film adaptations of his stuff? I have a hard time blaming him - "From Hell" was okay, "League of Extraordinary Gentlemen" was terrible, and "V for Vendetta" was really weak compared to the original. I think "Watchmen" was the best movie thus far, but it really did have its own problems.

First, like the graphic novel, it didn't draw a clear enough line between admirable graphic violence and despicable graphic violence. This is sort of the Frank Miller effect, so it's no coincidence that he showed up in your post, too: the violence in "Watchmen" isn't supposed to be cool, but we're so used to giving superheroes carte blanche that we have a hard time interpreting it any other way.

But also, and I think more egregiously, they took Dr. Manhattan's closing line and gave it to somebody else. The potency of "Watchmen" rests on each and every character failing to find a morally comfortable place to be by the end of the story. For Nite Owl and Silk Spectre, this almost goes without saying: their moral frameworks are so poorly defined that they'd question themselves no matter what the outcome. And Rorschach paints himself into a corner, so they would've had to try really hard to screw that up. Likewise, the Comedian's breakdown is crucial to the development of the plot, so they couldn't very well leave it out.

But Ozymandias, at least in the movie, is never confronted in any forceful way with the fundamental error in his thinking. So far as the (movie) audience is concerned, he will one day succeed in feeling the pain of all the deaths he caused and thereby reach a state of moral equilibrium. It will obviously be an unpleasant process, but in the movie he receives no indication that such equilibrium is in fact impossible. (Dr. Manhattan, of course, is "beyond" believing in moral equilibria in the first place.)

Without that consistency - the recognition by each and every "hero" that they failed to achieve their goal - the story loses much of its punch, I think. I could also complain about the vast amounts of background and detail that the movie omitted, but for me that pales in comparison to the way that it unnecessarily found a creative way to miss the point of the original.

Paul P. Mealing said...

Thanks Larry for your comments.

I thought you might have something to say on the subject. Certainly your knowledge of the original helps to put it into perspective.

I suspect the movie was a disappointing experience for you. I have to admit, I put off watching it for some time because I'd read different (mixed) reviews.

I'm not a huge graphic novel reader, so my perspective is different again.

Regards, Paul.

larryniven said...

Actually, I quite liked the movie ^_^

I mean, it had a lot of upsides. The soundtrack, as you say, is really very good. The opening credits deserve to be included in probably every film class. The acting, by and large, was really good. It's not as good as the original, but it couldn't possibly have been, so I try not to be too upset about that.

Paul P. Mealing said...

I also think you make a good point about Ozymandias. I didn't pursue that, partly because I thought I'd leave some secret for those who haven't seen it.

But since you bring it up, I find it interesting, as he's supposedly the smartest person on the planet and this is his resolution. Is this tongue-in-cheek or what?

But maybe the film is saying not everyone gets their come-uppance. Did the original resolve it differently. From what you're saying, I assume it did. Obviously, the audience wouldn't agree from a moral perpective, and maybe the writers left it like that to emphasise the point - make the audience think about it. That's how I saw it anyway.

Regards, Paul.