Monday, March 16, 2009

Finally got around to seeing the Watchmen movie...

and I really liked it. Despite some of the more widespread complaints (the one about the music is completely valid), I thought it did a great job trying to tell the general story. I thought the opening credits were among the best montages in a movie I've ever seen (and for some reason felt almost Scorsesean). Of course I had my little nitpicks (he was supposed to look like Clark W. Griswold, right?), but in the end it was a film and I enjoyed it. It definitely left me with a lot on my mind.
First of all, I think that if I hadn't read the book several times, I probably would have spent the bulk of the film either completely confused or bored out of my skull. I don't mean to say this in a pretentious literary catfight way, but maybe to illustrate my own ignorance.
The story itself is not all that tough to follow, I guess, but I think so many references are made to the book without full explanation that I'd spend too much time focusing on the wrong things. It took me a few reads of the book before I really grew to appreciate it for what it was, and I can't imagine things being much different with the movie, though sometimes the really obvious stuff goes over my head and I have to assume that you are a more astute viewer/reader than I.
But I also think that the biggest challenges to this film are the medium in which it's told and the time which it's released.
One of the things that I think works the most for the comic medium* is that the artist decides exactly the pace in which the story is told. You can set panels as rapidly as you want, and rely on the reader to use their imagination to fill in what happens between them. One of the most jarring things about any comic movie to me is the fight scenes. In reading comics, you really have to make every punch, dodge, kick and parry count, since the last thing the reader needs is to see every little motion. Celluloid makes things harder, since you have to fill in those blanks, and often times the director tries to do that as quickly as possible, thus making every fight scene look like a fast-forwarded kung fu movie. As someone who spent a lot of time watching martial arts films in his youth, I can stand to watch a real-time fight every once in awhile. The same can be said for the conversations that take place. The reader also can take seperate time to ingest both the art on the page and the dialogue/narration being read, unlike the movie where both eyes and ears must be alert and receptive. I don't think either medium is superior, but there are definite advantages to either.
As far as the timing... it can't be stated enough how dramatically this has an impact on the story. Even reading the book now leaves one slightly unimpressed unless they consider both when it takes place and when it was written, which are the same, but also wildly different. With that I mean that both were around 1986, but I'm reffering to the difference between the political landscape and the comic book landscape. While we certainly haven't ended terror and war from our national mindset, it's hard to compare to that of the cold war, which I think might have seemed a lot more terrifying at the time. I mean, I was 8. My strongest memories of the cold war were probably formed by Rocky IV, Iron Eagle, and a slew of Chuck Norris films more than the newspaper or talking about bomb shelters. I'll never know how the Cuban Missile Crisis** would have affected my life, as much as in ten years, young adults might not have any idea how badly 9/11 fucked us up.
The comic landscape is a whole other story. Because despite the ills of America at that time: the post-hippie malaise aroused by Watergate, the oil crisis, and whatnot, despite the appearances of crack and AIDS, despite the beginning of the end for American manufacturing... comic books were still pretty goddamned optimistic and, well, still pretty much written for children. With a few notable exceptions***, most comics were bound by the comics code not to mention anything happening in the real world unless veiled in allegory so thick that it you find yourself comparing vampirism to AIDS (seriously!). Watchmen, along with books like Frank Miller's first two Dark Knight stories were pretty fucked up. It's hard to explain the leap they made in terms of storytelling. Imagine never knowing any Batman other than Adam West. Imagine going your whole life with the ridiculous dialogue, dumb plots, dumber villains, and enough piffs and pows to make you hate life. Then, you see Batman Begins. Hell, even the Burton Batman would freak you out a bit, but we're talking so much more than that....
These books effectively brought an end to the bronze age of comics by themselves. To go back and read it now, one has to basically ignore anything that was written after them. I can't say that writers like Grant Morrison, Warren Ellis, Garth Ennis, etc... would never have existed without these books, but they certainly would have a different set of limitations on them.
I really don't even remember how I ended up on this tangent, but I guess my point is that it would be hard not to be a little underwhelmed by Watchmen, considering the decades of praise that have been heaped upon it. But it's such a massive milestone in the art of graphic storytelling that it can't be denied status as one of the all-time greats. The weird part is, I don't even think it's among my 3 favorite Alan Moore works. But that's a whole other post, and one which I might well have already written...

*(I'm not using the term graphic novel, because I think that this applies to more than that. A really great arc in a long-running comic deserves the same attention/respect that a graphic novel does).
**I'm sure I've mentioned this on here before, but one of my favorite professors in college used to love to tell us how during the Cuban Missile Crisis, he and his girlfriend lugged their mattress down to the basement of his apartment building, bought all the canned goods they could find and a case of whiskey and then spent the duration having as much drunken sex as they could. He always sounded like they were a little disappointed when after two weeks or so they emerged from that basement to find the sun still shining and kids playing on the lawn.
***The most obvious example is the incredible Green Arrow/Green Lantern series by Denny O'Neil and Neal Adams, which tackled some pretty racy stuff for the time, including drug addiction, untion busting, hippie cults, etc...

I really didn't want to go on and on like this about a movie that's already been covered to death. The worst part is, I probably could've written this long before I saw the movie, but it's what was sort of running through my head as I was watching it.


ricky said...

I think your reasons for why this was such a hard comic to adapt for film are fair. It's really hard to imagine a time now when superheroes WEREN'T given the "grim and gritty" treatment. I don't agree with the fact that you have to read the comic first to enjoy the movie, I have read in more than one review. I think that reading the comic will enhance your viewing of the movie, but to me, this comic was a twelve-issue self-contained miniseries (though it was based on established comic characters) that needed nothing to prelude or follow it. I guess I was most apprehensive that this movie would be Hollywood-ized (after Joel Schumacher's Batman movies, who wouldn't be), but was pretty happy with it. Would you believe my biggest problem with the movie was the gratuitous violence? When did I turn 70?

Cotton said...


No, you're totally right. It's wild how much violence was added to the book, but then I guess that also falls under having to film something as opposed to showing stills of the action.
I remember reading an interview with Moore where he sounded appalled that what most readers took away from Watchmen was Rorschach's brutality, and he didn't want to become a mascot of violence lumped in with Frank Miller. Like I just did. Oh well.

Ricky's totally right, of course, but when the Wonder Woman movie gomes out, and not even scripted by Gail Simone, we'll see how he takes it!

ricky said...

man, the worst thing about the Wonder Woman movie is I feel like its destined to be horrible.