American Culture

Yeah, I watched 'em….

watchmenLike 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.

6 replies »

  1. It felt like Snyder was so concerned that young viewers wouldn’t be able to connect with Cold War paranoia, that he was compelled to create an almost Gonzo quality for the film. At first, I wanted to dismiss his music choices as amateur, but the more I chew on them, the more they feel Gonzo … as though he wasn’t just trying to place the story in the time period, but trying to place the viewer in the setting via his persona. You can’t play “Flight of the Valkyries” during a Viet Nam war sequence without evoking memories of Apocalypse Now. Why play a muted, jazzy synth string while a noir, trenchcoated protagonist walks through a rainy night cityscape unless you’re trying to evoke memories of Blade Runner? Why remake the Ozymandias character into a Thin White Duke? At first, these choices felt cheap and tacky, but with a little reflection, they’ve started to give the film a resonance I didn’t expect.

  2. I don’t understand why many people complain about movies being 2 1/2 to 3 hours long. I want to get more bang for my buck. At $11 a ticket, I welcome 3 hour long movies.

  3. I’m with you, Rod. If I’m going to fork over that much cash for a movie, I want to get my money’s worth. Ideally, that means it’s at least two hours and it’s entertaining in some way. (I only have to cough up $9 instead of $11, although I think that’s bad enough.)

    Fikshun, I think you’re dead-on about most of the music (the “Hallelujah” song during the superhero sex scene was a bit much, though). The Vietnam scene, music, helicopters, orange sky…it was all intended to evoke Apocalypse Now for sure. In a way, it was one of the coolest moments of the film because there was so much folded into that image.

  4. I’ve never read The Watchmen comic. Spider-man was always my favorite followed closely by Batman. However, I plan on watching Watchmen simply because I think movie studios are doing a great job with the new onslaught of comics-to-movies genre. Some of the executives behind these movies are about the same age as most of us comicbook readers and they want these movies to be as great and fun as it was back when we read the comicbook.

  5. I liked the muzak version of “Everybody Wants to Rule the World” playing while Adrian Veidt talked about the pharaohs.

  6. @Rod, Sometimes it works, sometimes it doesn’t. The Woo version of the Hulk pretty much sucked. As did most of the Punisher movies. And Daredevil? I wanted to cry in parts of that movie. But sometimes they get it right. Like the last Batman movie and V for Vendetta. I have high hopes for the Watchmen since (as I recall) it’s written by the same guy who wrote Vendetta. At least the comic books were. Not sure about the movie scripts.