07 August 2011

Watchmen: A Very Belated Analysis

With the Zack Snyder film on Channel 4 last night, it was interesting to see Watchmen trending on Twitter. There were legions of derisive tweets scorning the film for being complex, ponderous, nasty, stupid, and dull; equally there were no shortage of people leaping to its defence by sneering at the people who didn't like it and calling them pretentious.

My favourite comments of the evening were one by a friend wondering whether the film's makers made a decision early on that as the film was to be long it should be dull too, one remarking that he'd gone to see it in the cinema when he was sixteen and had been forty-four by the time the film ended, one saying how it was weird to recognise every image from the comic but being retold by an idiot, and one pointing out that the film is not without merit, but is seriously flawed.

I think I'd go along with at least the last two of those two observations. The main problem with the film, as Pádraig Ó Méalóid concluded in reviewing it when it first came out, is that:
'It looks a lot like the original Watchmen book, but has none of its grace, or beauty, or subtlety, or sinuously beautiful timing. Watchmen is the most perfect graphic novel there is, and a huge amount of work went into making it that way, and attempting to streamline that for the big screen was never going to work.'
I know, we should judge films on their own merits, and not in comparison with the books they're based on -- even if that weren't common sense, Bill Goldman has proven the point with style in both Adventures in the Screen Trade and Which Lie Did I Tell?  --  but that's not to say that we can't analyse a film's strengths and weaknesses in comparison with the source material.

Watchmen is very much a comic about comics, a comic that tries to show just what comics can do, and that aspect of the book is obviously impossible to reproduce on the screen. Take, for example, the book's fourth chapter, where Doctor Manhattan is on Mars. This is an unparalleled instance of what comics can do, as it puts us exactly in the position of Doctor Manhattan himself: just as he exists in the present but simultaneously perceives all manner of points in his past and his future, so too we read the chapter, focusing on one panel at a time but always aware of and even able to see a host of other panels. In reading comics we are almost godlike ourselves, existing outside the universe of the characters in an eternal present but able to perceive all points in the characters' pasts and futures. They exist in a space-time continuum of their own, whereas we, beyond their pages, can see all points in their universe.

There's no way this can be reproduced on the screen. Snyder tries, but I think he fails. His Mars sequence is beautiful, but it doesn't even come close to achieving what the comic does in this chapter, and in some ways actually hurts his story. If the comics' reader is metaphorically divine, the cinema viewer is essentially voyeuristic, and in many ways it's hard to see the film's Doctor Manhattan as other than a standoffish voyeur.

Still, there's not much Snyder could do about that. What of the rest of the film?

Missing the Point
I think a huge part of the problem with the film is that Zack Snyder really doesn't seem to have understood the book. 300's glaring inconsistencies demonstrated beyond any reasonable doubt that Synder's not an intelligent film-maker, and while I don't dispute his visual gifts, a book as relentlessly intelligent as Watchmen deserved to be brought to the screen -- if that had to happen at all -- at the hands of a smarter director.

The first time I saw the film -- on an Imax screen on the morning of the day the film opened, with me not having slept the previous night -- I was almost immediately thrown by how Snyder directed the opening scene where Eddie Blake is assaulted by his mysterious attacker. In the comic this episode is understated -- we see it as a series of flashback panels, interspersed into a dialogue between detectives inspecting the wreckage of Blake's apartment. There are only seven such panels -- we see an eighth later on, revealing the assailant's face -- and as far as we can tell if we assemble them into a sequence, what they show is that Blake was punched once, hurled to the floor where he is kicked once, and then thrown out a window.The episode is retold three times, and we only see these few actions, so I think that's probably all there was to the event.

Anyone who's seen the film won't remember the film's fight as having been quite so straightforward. A glass is thrown, a gun is  fired, knives are hurled, and there are punches, kicks, and blocks aplenty with bodies being smashed into and through things before Blake is dashed through his window. Oh and along the way, Blake punches a colossal lump out of what appears to be a concrete wall...

... and is himself smashed through what must surely be a fairly sturdy counter-top.

When I saw the film in the cinema I assumed the counter-top was marble, and stared in horror, thinking that Snyder seemed to have given genuine superpowers to both the Comedian and his assailant. Even allowing that it's probably meant to be a glass counter, I'm still far from convinced that Snyder doesn't want us to think of these combatants as being preternaturally powerful.

Just as importantly, perhaps, the tone of this was radically different from the tone of the comic. The comic keeps us at a distance, watching the action in a detached way, far enough off to observe and understand what's really going on. We see more of the game that way -- but this fight sought to suck us in, just as all the film's subsequent ones would do. The film tries to involve us in the action, pulling us in so we can't really see what's going on. I'm not saying that's not a reasonable thing to do, but if you want to do that, go and come up with your own story. Watchmen isn't about involvement. It's an autopsy of the whole costumed-hero genre, and like any autopsy needs to be carried out dispassionately.

Or, putting it another way, if you want visceral thrills and excitement, there are plenty of other superhero stories out there. Watchmen's not about that, and the film insults the book by trying to make it into something so radically opposed to what it's meant to be about.

Still, my concerns were almost allayed by the film's superb credit sequence. Indeed, I'd comfortably say that the credits are the best thing about the film. Loaded with jokes, and playing with the iconography of the last half century, its superheroic tableaux offer a potent and sometimes hilarious commentary on how superheroes have developed on the screen -- silver or small -- over the decades. There's only one thing I was troubled by in the sequence, but that aside, the first time I saw the film the credit sequence almost banished my concerns.

What if Superman were Real?
Unfortunately, as the film progressed, and especially thinking about it afterwards, I realised just how massively Snyder has misunderstood the comic. Take, for example, the scene at the end of the film where Ozymandias, Adrian Veidt, explains his apocalyptic scheme to Rorschach and Nite Owl. Rorschach says that they won't let him do that, and Adrian looks at them as though they're idiots.

'Do that, Rorschach?' he says, 'I'm not a comic book villain. Do you seriously think I'd explain my masterstroke to you if there were even the slightest possibility you could affect the outcome? I triggered it thirty-five minutes ago.'

Clever, you might think. If only Bond baddies could resist their urges to tell 007 what they're up to, maybe they might just get away with their schemes. But here's the thing. In the comic, Adrian doesn't say that. Rather, he says something which is subtly -- yet crucially -- different.

A Republic Serial villain? Well, of course, nobody nowadays remembers the 1940s and 1950s movie serials, where the likes of the Phantom or Zorro would confront all manner of nefarious characters and thwart their diabolic schemes, so it makes sense for Snyder to change things. Everyone nowadays knows how the Penguin, Lex Luthor, Magneto, Loki, and so forth have a tendency to give the game away to their heroic antagonists, so why not mention comics villains?

Except that this misses the point of Moore and Gibbons' Watchmen to an astonishing degree. Just as Watchmen is, in terms of its form, a comic about comics, so in terms of its content it is a superhero comic about superhero comics. One of the things it considers and tries to answer in a sincere and intelligent way is what a world would be like if there were costumed heroes in it, especially if any of them had actual superpowers. An important parallel to the story in the original book is a comic-within-a-comic, this being a horrific pirate story. It seems there are no shortage of comics in the world of Watchmen, but they're not about superheroes. Superheroes exist in the real world, and so escapist fiction has to look elsewhere for its source material, rooting its stories instead on the high seas of the eighteenth century.

'I'm not a comic book villain?' Of course he's not. He's not a pirate.

Indeed, Snyder doesn't seemed to have perceived in any meaningful way the extent to which Moore and Gibbons grappled with how the existence of a godlike superhero like Doctor Manhattan would change the world. The Watchmen of the film is, like the book, set in an alternative 1985, but the texture of that world doesn't seem all that different from ours. It should be, however. The book has a scene in early 1962, where Hollis Mason, the original Nite Owl, learns just how world-changing Doctor Manhattan really is.

There's not a hint of an electric car in the film until pretty much the final shot, and neither are there any electric hydrants to power them with. This makes sense in some ways, of course, as the modified plot of the film in fact involves the eventual replacement of oil, other fossil fuels, and nuclear power with a form of energy based on Doctor Manhattan's own powers. That's fair enough, you might think, so what's this sign doing outside Hollis Mason's garage?

'Obsolete Models A Speciality,' it says. In the comic this is a reference to the whole automobile industry having been transformed, as well as being a metaphor for both Nite Owls being past their sell-by dates, but I'm not sure what it's doing here in the film. Sure, you might argue that I'm quibbling here, and that this might just mean that Mason fixes old-fashioned cars, but I don't buy that. Moore and Gibbons put an enormous amount of effort into building a real and consistent world, with its own distinct yet coherent texture, and that sign was a very deliberate part of that, a specific foreshadowing of just how thoroughly Doctor Manhattan's existence had changed the world; it seems to have little relevance here. It's just here, as far as I can see, because Snyder saw it in the comic and thought it should be there. I don't believe he considered why it was in the comic.

And yes, this is a small point, but it's these kind of details that reveal the depth of Snyder's incomprehension.

Missing the Magic between Panels
One thing Scott McCloud talks about at some length in his stunning Understanding Comics is that much of what makes comics work is what goes on between the panels -- the gaps in time that we fill with our own imagination. Cinema's brilliantly capable of doing this too, of course -- we need only think of the shower scene in Psycho, in which we see the knife being raised but never actually see Janet Leigh being stabbed to death.

Unfortunately, Zack Snyder's anything but a subtle director. He doesn't like to leave things to our imagination. I suppose the film's opening fight scene pretty much made that clear, but still, take, for a more gruesome example, the episode where a gang of 'Top-Knots' attack Dan and Laurie in  an alleyway. It happens in the third chapter of the book and fills just a few panels over five pages -- indeed, there are only five panels showing any fighting at all, and it can hardly be said that these panels shirk the violent reality of what's happening. Here are the first two panels, juxtaposed to make a point.

In the first panel Laurie breaks one mugger's arm with her knee and elbow; if you've any doubt of that, note the commentary from the TV interview with which this sequence is crosscut -- 'make it snappy,' says the interviewer, talking about something else entirely, but as part of this panel serving as a counterpoint to the image. The agony on the mugger's face is obvious. You can see him wailing on the ground in the second panel, as Laurie turns to a second assailant -- a third panel shows him clutching his broken arm. Dan, meanwhile, has grabbed another mugger's jacket with his right hand in the first panel, and in the second slams his left hand upwards, breaking the mugger's nose in a manner that is, as the interviewer's commentary tells us, 'quite sudden and quite painful'.

But how does Snyder render this? Well, he has Dan breaking an arm too. Like this.

Gory, eh? I'd say unnecessarily so. That's the mugger's forearm being graphically snapped, such that his radius -- and quite possibly his ulna too -- rips through his flesh, with blood spurting everywhere. This same sequence will also feature a neck being broken with a horrendous crunch, and Laurie driving a knife into the neck of another mugger. For all that the fight in the comic is violent, it's nothing like this. Gibbons' art was matter-of-fact, realistic without being showy, whereas Snyder, as in 300, glorifies in violence. Frankly, I think this is -- at least by James Joyce's definition -- pornographic.

And that, of course, brings us to perhaps the film's most gratuitous episode, a cringeworthy minute-and-a-half long sex scene, moodily lit and acrobatically performed such as to put the puppets in Team America to shame, and all conducted to the exultant strains of Leonard Cohen's Hallelujah, with the volume turned up to eleven. Perhaps you'd like to see how it appeared in the comic?

And then, following that little Hitchcockian gag, reminiscent of North by Northwest and To Catch a Thief, we had to turn the page to see...

Well, not a whole lot, actually. And doesn't that work better? Don't get me wrong: I'm not saying I've got issues with Malin Akerman's pretty face, comely form, or shiny black boots. I'm just saying that there's no need for this scene in the film. The comic merely implies it, and allows us to fill in the gaps in as tasteful or tasteless a way as we see fit. The film, on the understand, reduces us to the status of voyeurs, watching an absurd sequence as devoid of necessity as it is of art.

Issues with Women
I've heard it argued that Moore has issues with women, and that this really comes out in his work, but having been weaned on Roxy in Skizz and especially The Ballad of Halo Jones, I just don't accept this. Horrible things sometimes happen to women in Moore's work, certainly, but horrible things happen to men too, and I think it's telling that he dedicated From Hell to Polly Nichols, Annie Chapman, Liz Stride, Kate Eddowes, and Marie Jeanette Kelly, all five of them victims of Jack the Ripper, saying, 'You and your demise: of these things alone are we certain. Goodnight, ladies.'

There's an attempted rape in Watchmen, and this has enormous consequences to the story of both the book and the film, but the way it's handled in the film differs from that in the book, in such as way as to somehow be both trite and offensive. Snyder at times charts a course that differs from Moore's, in such a way as to hurt the work. And in the credits sequence, he does this:

Is that in the book? No. No, not really. The book details the death of the Silhouette in a text section -- an extract from Hollis Mason's autobiography -- as follows:
'After that, things deteriorated. In 1946, the papers revealed that the Silhouette was living with another woman in a lesbian relationship. Schnexnayder persuaded us to expel her from the group, and six weeks later she was murdered, along with her lover, by one of her former enemies. Dollar Bill was shot dead, and in 1947 the group was dealt its most serious blow when Sally quit crimefighting to marry her agent.'
Dollar Bill's death is also shown in the credit sequence, with him sitting dead with his cloak caught in a bank's revolving door, as mentioned elsewhere in the story. That tallies with the story. But this image? Sure, the book says nothing of how the Silhouette and her lover were murdered, so some imagination is needed here, but was it necessary for them to have been killed in bed, in underwear and suspender belts, with the words 'lesbian whores' scrawled across the wall in their blood? This seems an image designed to titillate and horrify in equal measure, and seems a classic example of how profoundly different Snyder's vision of Watchmen is from that shared by Moore and Gibbons.

And then there's Rorschach...
I really think Snyder gets the characters wrong in this. There's no way that Snyder's Dan Dreiberg could be deemed a 'flabby failure who sits whimpering in his basement,' as the book's Rorschach dismisses him, and his Doctor Manhattan is more an softly-spoken voyeur than an aloof god who's almost paralysed by his near-omniscience. The film's Ozymandias, as played by Matthew Goode, looks so effete that the phenomenal strength he displays in the movie is wholly inexplicable unless we assume he has superpowers. And as for Rorschach himself? Well, I think Snyder almost gets him right, but in cutting the most self-revelatory lines the comic Rorschach utters, he deprives Rorschach of the paradox that makes him breathe.

In the book there's a horrific sequence where Rorschach executes a child murderer after having realised the child's fate; it's a flashback scene, with Rorschach telling a psychiatrist how he became who he is. The film features the same episode, but even more graphically, and with some liberties taken in the action, and then has Rorschach say:
'Whatever was left of Walter Kovacs died that night with that little girl. From then on there was only Rorschach. You see Doctor, God didn't kill that little girl. Fate didn't butcher her. Destiny didn't feed her to those dogs. If God saw what any of us did that night he didn't seem to mind. From then on I knew. God doesn't make the world this way. We do.'
That's not bad, but the book has him saying something far more bleak, far more nihilistic, and far more determined than that:

Look at that. The Rorschach of the book doesn't merely say that if God's up there he obviously doesn't care; he says that there is no God, and indeed that there's no purpose to life, and no objective meaning to anything other than that we choose to impose on it. Rorschach sees this the world as a world of brute facts, without meaning or purpose or pattern save what we imagine. In a universe consisting purely of 'is', it's impossible to construe an imperative 'ought', and yet Rorschach does it anyway. What meaning does he chose to impose on his universe, and does he ultimately chose to die for? In both book and film, he answers that question in his diary:
'Millions will perish in sickness and misery. Why does one death matter against so many? Because there is good and evil, and evil must be punished. Even in the face of armageddon...I will not compromise in this.'
Why must evil be punished? There's no meaning or purpose to life, after all, so why bother? The answer, ultimately, is simply that Rorschach is certain that this is true: this is the design he is determined to scrawl on this morally blank world.

In the film, if you want to, you can read Rorschach's disagreement with Veidt as a Kantian refusing to accept the views of an utilitarian, scorning the idea that evil can be done for the sake of a later and greater good, and then ultimately sacrificing himself, hoping that good will prevail but unable to countenance having not tried with every fibre of his broken being to overcome evil. But in the book, Rorschach's morality is his own.

Evil must be punished, he says, and in this he will not compromise, not even in the face of Armageddon. But what is evil and what is good? Rorschach believes the world is, in itself, morally blank. Strictly speaking, he doesn't believe in good or evil, save as what he chooses to call good and what he chooses to call evil. And yet at the end, he realises that one man cannot have a personal morality, as distinct from and as superior to everyone else's. Either all moralities are equally valid -- Veidt's and Dreiberg's and Laurie's and Manhattan's as much as his -- or else there's a higher one, that transcends our own.

Either way, Rorschach, who has lived his life without nuance, having battled so hard and so long with monsters that he has become a monster, gazes so deeply into the abyss that he sees the abyss gazing into him, and realising  his own inadequacy removes his mask, so that at the end, facing death, he stands again as a battered and broken Walter Kovacs.

You'll notice I've not taken issue with the film's climax, which is significantly different from that of the book. To be frank, I didn't mind it. I thought that was an imaginative rethinking, and I'm not hung up on the film being a carbon-copy of the book. What I have issues with is films adapting books or comics or whatever and not even attempting to recreate the feel of the source material. If you just throw out the tone and theme of whatever it is you're trying to adapt, why bother at all? Surely the essence of the source should be the one thing that's sacrosanct?


Anonymous said...

Watch it again and see it as a deconstruction of the superhero movie instead of a movie of a 80's graphic novel that was a deconstruction of the comic book and I believe you might see it a bit differently.

The Thirsty Gargoyle said...

I saw it as that initially - indeed, that was one of the things I loved about the opening tableaux, which remninded me, in part, of the 1960s Batman TV show. But I felt it just didn't work after that. It was, I thought, too slavish to the comic to serve as a deconstruction of anything else.