Like a lot of other people, I watched the Watchmen this past weekend.
Despite lukewarm reviews and a running time that nearly hits three hours, the movie still managed to pull in a hefty $55.7 million dollars. While that’s apparently at the low end of industry expectations, the movie exceeded my fanboy expectations.
What I didn’t expect, though, was the spectacular time capsule-on-a-movie screen that Watchmen turned out to be.
As ground-breaking as Watchmen was as a comic book back in 1986-87, it was also very much a product of its time, infused with Cold War sensibility and anxiety, set in a crime-and-slime-ridden Times Square atmosphere writ large upon the world. As a topper, America’s Conservative government runs amok. (What’s the only thing worse than two terms of Ronald Regan, the book posits? Five terms of Nixon.) The story itself is grim, and it embodies a pessimistic view of human nature. The graphic novel manages to evoke sick-to-your-stomachness with its examinations of society’s self-degradation and man’s personal darkness.
Film director Zach Snyder chose to keep the movie set in the same time period of the original comic. He resisted attempts to update the script to reflect the war on terror and clung loyally to the Cold War zeitgeist. That choice, to stick with the graphic novel’s original setting, makes the movie feel a little like a wax museum on performance-enhancing steroids.
For most young people, the Cold War means little or nothing, so the movie carries little or no Cold War dread for them. I’m probably too hopeful to think that the film might inspire Millennial moviegoers to learn more about the Cold War (the way that films like Gettysburg or Glory inspired people to visit battlefields and learn more about the Civil War or the book and film versions of John Adams inspired people to learn more about the most overlooked Founder). Of course, that’s not the movie’s job. Watchmen is meant as entertainment—and thus far, all the Millenials I’ve talked to who’ve seen the movie have raved about it. And many have been inspired to read the book, which is pretty cool in and of itself.
For people my age or older—Gen X-ers or Boomers—the Cold War evokes pretty specific anxieties about annihilation, but the alternative world of the Watchmen keeps those anxieties at an observable but unengageable distance. Snyder is almost Brechtian in his insistence at keeping his audience disengaged from the political context of the story—which, in turn, keeps audiences from engaging in the story emotionally. I always felt like I was watching the story rather than really connecting with it. (The overall spectacle of the movie, though, certainly provided lots of cool stuff to watch.)
Theses will be written about the relationship between the movie and the book—what armchair movieviewer or fanboy doesn’t enjoy the ol’ fashioned compare-and-contrast?—but ultimately,Watchmen, the film, really has little to do with the book itself. Some moveigoers have no relationship with the graphic novel at all and can just enjoy the cinematic spectacle. Others, like me, have so much baggage and so many fanboy expectations that it’s nearly impossible to walk into the theater and enjoy the movie as a movie. And so, like any art, the movie’s meaning is largely drawn from the personal experiences of those who see it.
For me, that relates to one of the criteria of great art: How does art make us engage in discussion with ourselves? How does it force us to critically challenge our ideas and assumptions (and decades-old anxieties)? How does it help us see the world?
In that regard, I’ll argue that the movie serves as a more relevant form of art than the graphic novel (at least for the moment). I always found Dave Gibbons’ artwork to be underwhelming and uninspired; Snyder’s onscreen extravaganza, on the other hands, seems highly inspired—even if that inspiration comes from the graphic novel itself. Writer Alan Moore claimed his graphic novel was unfilmable, but Snyder did a damn fine job of proving Moore wrong.
Even if the movie doesn’t capture the bygone zeitgeist of a world that never existed, it captures something. It’s of-the-moment—a stylized, Hollywoodized moment—in the same kind of way the graphic novel was of its own gritty moment in the mid-80s. Whether it’s great art or not, Watchmen makes a fascinating time capsule and a great spectacle in the best ways movies can be.