Scene 16 – Watchmen

This weeks movies we delve into the comic universe that is Watchmen. Personally speaking Watchmen, along with a lot of Frank Milller’s work grabbed my attention. This was mainly due to the roughness or the characters, worlds, and plots etc etc…just check out the Batman: The Killing Joke, written by nine time Eisner Award winner for best writer, Alan Moore….who also wrote Watchmen.

Firstly, a little bit about the graphic novel itself. In the mid-1980s, revered comic-book writer Alan Moore and artist Dave Gibbons got together to collaborate on a graphic novel called Watchmen, which became an instant phenomenon with comic book fans; selling in the millions, inspiring countless imitators and establishing the graphic novel as a legitimate literary form.…wining the first Eisner Award.  So almost as soon as it was published, movie studios lined up with their chequebooks out, only to shuffle quietly away once they had actually read the thing.  It was a vast, meta-textual post-modern story about a group of ‘damaged’ people pretending to be superheroes, set in an alternative 1984 universe, where Nixon is still president…which is scary enough as is,  and nuclear war looms on the horizon. The book was deemed ‘unfilmable’ for over twenty years by movie exec’s. That was, until Zack Snyder took the reins, having proved he could handle this sort of material with his frame-by-frame adaptation of Frank Miller’s 300….but lets not mention his later ‘I’ll take the reins’ movie..Man of Steel…but lets never talk about that!

Snyder delivers a beautifully opening montage credit sequence that sets out the breathtaking visual scheme and establishes an alternate historical context, while also showing the brutal murder of The Comedian (Jeffrey Dean Morgan), a retired super hero…in one of my favourite opening sequences, that relays and depicts comic books panels through film so well. The story picks up with a cursory police investigation that goes nowhere, so it falls on Rorschach (Jackie Earle Haley), a masked vigilante and our gravel-voiced narrator, to find out who killed his former colleague. Having reconnected with his now-outlawed crime-fighting group, Nite Owl (Patrick Wilson), Ozymandias (Matthew Goode), Silk Spectre (Malin Ackerman) and the only true ‘super-powered’ hero, the atomically-mutated Dr Manhattan (Billy Crudup). Rorschach uncovers a vast conspiracy to kill off all the remaining superheroes in an effort to provoke a nuclear war.

Snyder’s take on the book runs a lengthy two hours and forty minutes,  but accurately follows the complicated contours of the source novel it has to be said,  gracefully portraying the mechanisms that builds its multi-layered philosophical core.…ie, keeping the mad comic book nerds happy. Watchmen the movie is  visually dazzling…quite the mouthful. Snyder uses Gibbons’ original panels as a storyboard and somehow connects the narrative as accurately as graphic novel to motion picture has been, having seeing a series of disastrous adaptations with League of Extraordinary Gentlemen being as low as it got. Between these poor adaptations and Moore general perception of the film industry, Moore now refuses to take a screen credits and wants no involvement in the scripts. Gibbons is a supremely talented artist but Moore is the storytelling genius and Watchmen is probably his masterpiece.

One thing that does bother me with this whole fascination or trend of turning comic book/graphic novels into movies is the transparence between the written work and the scripts…Artistic liberties, is what some people call it.  I feel the same about these ‘based of a true story’ movies…how much is actually based? He had the same colour jumper…I think that counts. It leads to instances like Christopher Nolan’s staggeringly successful Dark Knight , which offered a simple binary relationship between order and chaos, good and evil, while Watchmen presents a vast spectrum of moral positions and character perspectives….and kinda goes under the radar. Watchmen asks ‘why people want to be heroes in the first place?’, ‘what drives ordinary men and women to fight crime?’ and ‘whether or not they are suited to the task of delivering justice?’ It doesn’t sugar coat the fact that they are human,  exploring both their good and bad sides, their altered-egos, their private and public lives. We see their memories and dreams. The third act does counter all this being based primarily on Mars, and containing far to much of Dr. Manhattan…if you know what I mean.

The novel is constructed like a Tamagotchi, a recurring symbol, delicately establishing and expanding ones-self into seeing the world in numerous different ways, and in turn helping them to figure themselves out….ok well not a Tamagotchi, but it my world that ranks pretty high. This is the ultimate self goal in every self-help book and isn’t really possible in cinema, which unfolds at a set rate, twenty-four frames a second, and abhors eternally parallel narratives. You cannot flick back through the pages of a movie if you miss something or fail to make a connection. You have to get it the first time…unless you rematch and so on.

Snyder’s version grinds through the gears of the story as he directs slow-motion fight scenes combined with intellectual tussles. He stages the major incidents of the book with a perfectionist eye for detail, guided by his own fanboy reverence and a team of special-effects imagineers. And I think it is his fanboy-isim that is the glue for his page for page graphic-storyboard, that’s inventive and attractive, that comes together in a satisfyingly-nerdy way. It doesn’t matter if you haven’t read the novel, as is the brilliance of Alan Moore’s writing, which transfers seamlessly to film, all you need is one nerdy fanboy and a few hundred-million dollars.

To conclude, Watchmen is a noir-influenced crime drama, set in a fascinating alternative history of America. At its core is the value of heroism portrayed in a blood-soaked giallo-horror. It is as close an adaptation of the original novel as it could possibly be, which to any fanboy or comic book fan is all that can be asked for, depicting a sense of existential malaise and a fear of the future. Having made minor adjustments to the ending…minor as in Christopher Nolan’s Batman has only and man dressed in a suit, a cave and an old butler; you can tell wants to punch the head of Christian Bale in, in common with the original novels. Don’t get me wrong, I really like the Batman movies, it’s that personal quarrel I have with ‘Artistic liberties’ that I mentioned earlier. Anyway, so in order to maintain some sense of realism, Snyder makes what some may say mistake, myself included, of allowing his anti-heroes take on some of the characteristics of the supermen the original story is attempting to subvert. Regardless, Watchmen is for fans of the novel; an essential film, to others; a brave, bold and beautiful comic sci-fi.


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