“Who Watches the Watchmen?”
I do, motherfucker! Four times so far! And I’m buying the Special Edition DVD, with the Black Freighter featurette. I’m going to spend days out of the remainder of my life watching that perfectly flawed film, showing it to my grandkids (“Close your eyes, Timmy, the man’s about to explode.”) and I will die with the movie playing on my eye screen (‘cause in the future, they’ll have eye screens.)
Sure it’s being panned. Critics were sharpening their knives the moment Mr. Snyder got the green light. Even Alan Moore, the un-credited co-creator of the series, my personal hero and private dancer, claimed that there could be no possible movie to be culled from his masterful work. (Mr. Moore, from my very distant awareness of him, has always struck me as a transcendentally generous creator, and at the same time, an occasionally punitive and unyielding human being, evidenced by his falling out with Steve Bissette and Bill Sienkiewicz, and his side-line potshots regarding The Watchmen.)
None of that matters. It’s a great movie. I’ll explain…
The first thing we must deal with is the persistent comparison of the movie to the graphic novel. Almost every review I’ve read or heard begins by praising the comic, and then following it with a line such as “The movie, however, fails to deliver on the promise of the blah, blah blah…” Thus begins the litany of all that The Watchmen isn’t.
I get that. I agree completely. The movie is not as good as the comic book. But here’s the thing—I wouldn’t want the movie to be as good as the book, because I’d be tempted to stop reading that incredible series of comic books. Moore and Gibbons pulled out every stop, from front cover to back-up features, to create a multi-level, multi-media bombardment of hyper-reality. The result is a mystical house of cards that won’t fall down, or to use Dr. Manhattan’s analogy, a multi-faceted diamond. Movies, more limited in how they tell a story (they won’t even let us do flashbacks or voice-overs anymore, for chrissake) can only show us one side at a time.
But movies can provide the visceral, cinematic experience of The Watchmen, and that’s exactly what we got. A pared down, chopped, channeled and exquisitely realized version of the perfect graphic novel. We’re looking down our nose at that? I’ve got an idea—let’s try enjoying it instead.
The other challenge that Mr. Snyder bravely took upon himself, and one that the critics missed entirely, was the medium gap. The Watchmen is about nuclear war and power, but at its core, it’s about comic books, like no other book has ever been about comic books. For one of the first times, the art form regarded itself. How could a movie create the same paradox? Every character would have to go, replaced with movie stars from the 40s and 50s. Humphrey Bogart, Fred Astaire, Jimmy Stewart and Bette Davis band together to fight Mel Gibson, who is controlled by the ancient Kate Hepburn. That movie would have accurately captured the subtext of The Watchmen.
Think the critics would have liked that one? Think anyone would have liked it?
An audience seeing a movie like that would have laughed their asses off. And this is the key point I want to make, and the real reason that critics have snubbed my movie.
Film has often been called a visual medium. It is also the medium of irony. A voyeuristic detachment has grown over time in American film audiences. People don’t give their hearts to characters the way they used to. Every once in a while, a movie breaks through the defenses. We call them “tearjerkers,” an ironic appellation. Irony makes us laugh at horror films when we should scream in terror. It’s made Tarentino’s career a possibility, where the film reference is as important as the film itself. Studio executives compliment each other with the word “smart,” (“Oh, you had a meeting with Jim? He’s very smart.”) The industry drips with irony, the #1 national export.
There’s very little irony in The Watchmen. The heroes don’t wink at the camera as they put on their costumes. No one jokes about tights and long underwear. Mr. Snyder never apologizes that his characters wear costumes, and with one exception, he never bothers to explain why they do it. He wastes little time with origins, accepting the heroes with comic book innocence. The few self-referential jokes are either lifted directly from the comic book, or tightly adapted from the same. (“I’m not a comic book villain, Dan.”)
Nope, no irony here. Just love. That’s what The Watchmen movie is, a labor of love. A wide-eyed, open-hearted declaration of fealty and devotion, from one true fan.
Let others snipe at the movie for what it isn’t. I love The Watchmen for what it is.