Remember when everything was black and white? Come to think of it, I think that’s when everything was in black-and-white. Remember when heroes were good and villains were bad, and we knew who to root for, and it was all cut-and-dried? There wasn’t any of this war-of-your-conscience stuff, philosophical awareness and introspective depth that there is with our superheroes of today. Yeah, Superman was deep and pondered his place in the world and his effect on it, but, come on, compared to these guys today, Superman’s momentary deliberation about whether to give up his powers so he can live a “normal” life seems like child’s play next to the psychotic, mind-bending, universe-expanding—and let’s face it, fate-of-humanity-deciding—questioning nature of today’s masked men. Yeah, it’s a burden to be a superhero in today’s cinema. Spiderman feels inferior, The Hulk is angry all the time, Iron Man has no friends, Batman is just downright depressed, and now come the most downtrodden, pessimistic, dark and morose bunch you could ever hope to be the salvation of the human race, if not our entire planet: the Watchmen. How about spending nearly three hours with THEM right now? Yeah. The line starts here.
But still…we flock. Why? Because these movies seem to feed something within us that we can’t feed ourselves, they satisfy us, help us live out fantasies in the most safe way, allowing us to accept them, and subconsciously be them. When Jodie Foster kicked the snot out of the bad guys on behalf of all of us in the vigilante flick The Brave One, we were supposed to all be channeling it, she was supposed to be representing all of us, but it just didn’t connect. But when we watch Dan and Laurie (not yet in their alter egos of Nite Owl and Silk Spectre but apparently still able to harness their super strength even as “ordinary folk”) be confronted by what seems like 20 REALLY bad guys in a dark alley and they kick the bejeezus out of them (I’ll put it really mildly for our squeamish readers), it feels SO much better. You can give a superhero heightened powers, and that, naturally, heightens their ability to do more, be better, stronger, faster, and more powerful. And isn’t that the definition of fantasy? You must check all reality at the door and just go with it.
But, at the same time, we must relate to our heroes. There is a disconnect with, say, James Bond. While he may be different than Jodie Foster’s character in The Brave One, in that he kicks so much more ass than her character ever could, and Bond is, in many ways, the ultimate fantasy, none of us could ever relate to him. None of us could or would ever be that suave, cunning, smart, sexy or engaging. He’s just perfect. These superheroes, on the other hand, are flawed. They question themselves, they have self-doubt, they feel pain, inside and out. They come from pain, they exist through pain, and they never shy away from pain. And they live in a cold, cruel world. These are things we can relate to. So, in a nutshell, superheroes=folks we relate to who live out our fantasies for us. Not hard to figure out why these movies make money.
But, sometimes, they can go too far, get too complicated, and lose us. The Dark Knight had moments of pushing that emotional and mental envelope, perhaps delving a bit too deeply into the conscience vault, asking one too many of the “big” questions—questions about humanity and the philosophy of good vs. evil. But it still worked. It worked because it stayed true to itself and made its point. It’s when you wander too far from the basic concepts of the superhero movie, the good versus evil—the black and white—that you risk becoming the worst thing a movie about serious men who dress up in tight-fitting costumes can be: silly.
The author himself of the original graphic novel Watchmen, Alan Moore said publicly, very publicly, that his novel was impossible to film and he refused to have his name associated with the film. And it is clear to see why Moore would think his novel would be difficult to film. There are elements in the film that seem to me, as someone who has no knowledge whatsoever of the novel, put there just because they feel they should be. A viewer unfamiliar with the book might ask “what’s that about?” whereas I’m sure a fan of the novel is sure exactly why that is there. It makes it all quite confusing.
Another complication is the breadth and scope of the story it needs to tell. I can’t even begin to cover it so I won’t even try. Let’s just say it all involves World War III, nuclear annihilation and electro-magnetic catastrophe. Intense enough for you? Oh, I haven’t even gotten to the complicated and mind-bending stuff yet. We’ve got superheroes who aren’t really superheroes. Well, they don’t really have any super powers, but they seem to be able to do a lot of super things. We don’t really know why or how they do what they do, we don’t really know who they are, it’s all a bit vague…. An opening montage tries to explain it all to us, but I’m so distracted by the tongue-in-cheekness of it all, I can’t really follow it. Then I’m spending the rest of the movie trying to figure out if they’re really serious about wanting to save the world or not, I still have yet to hear one of them utter a word about why they even do it… Hmmm…..
Oh, wait…I haven’t gotten to the really good parts yet! There is a lot of blood, guts, gore and really loud music. You know what Watchmen feels like? It feels like a pulp comic that’s come to life—which would be really cool, if it weren’t true only about half the time. Unfortunately, the other half is spent trying to tell a story and be serious. About something. I’m still trying to figure that out, the next day.
Watchmen is chock full of—a lot. You can tell the film-makers were trying to stuff as much in as they could, but we end up with summaries of characters instead of whole pictures or even whole characters. You would expect the storylines in a superhero movie to be outlandish, but some of these vary so wildly from ordinary to out-of-this-world that you almost need to take notes to keep up.
Maybe Moore was right. Maybe this novel was impossible to film. Maybe there are just too many metaphysical theories, too many characters and intersecting storylines, backstories, plot points and themes to cram into one little movie. When you’re watching a superhero movie and the two things you wonder are when will they get into their costumes and fight the bad guys and who ARE the bad guys? then maybe there’s a problem.
And no, I’m not ignoring the big giant blue elephant in the room. Sorry, I mean the big giant blue naked man in the room. Yes, there is an actual superhero with superpowers in Watchmen. Played by Billy Crudup, who is an actor I really like (but I must assume that’s not really his body in the blue CGI version or Billy has been REALLY working out and must be very popular), is Dr. Manhattan, a truly supernatural phenomenon who can bend matter to his will and is under the employ of the U.S. government. It keeps getting stranger the more I try to explain it, but let me just say the guy is very deep and carries the weight of the world on his glowing shoulders. His character is interesting, but unfortunately, he is forced to play most of his scenes with Laurie Jupiter, aka Silk Spectre II, played by Malin Akerman, an actress who has as much personality as a cardboard box and about as much acting ability. We finally get a female superhero and she’s this bad? Now I’m in a Depression.
Fortunately, there is at least one great performance in Watchmen, and it comes in the form of the resurrected Jackie Earle Haley, who was nominated for an Oscar two years ago, and who plays Rorschach, by far the most interesting and watchable of the Watchmen. Haley steals the show in every scene he’s in, thankfully, but also unfortunately defines this film to its gloomy and morbid core.
It is hard to love this movie. It does have eye-popping effects, but the rest of it is such a mess of story-lines, theories, philosophy, farce, pulp, violence and mostly cheesy acting that makes it a sad low point in the recent bonanza of superhero success stories. I guess there is something to be said for keeping it simple. It’s ok to save humanity, but don’t make it confusing. And don’t totally bum us out in the process