October 7, 2008

I watched the Watchmen

Below is a simple cut-and-paste job from a post I wrote for Time Out New York's blog. The Man's got me, what can I say?


Last night, I was among the TONY contingent at the Time Warner Center, attending an exclusive event debuting footage from this March’s comic-book-movie Rapture (say it with me), Watchmen. The greatest graphic novel of all time. The unfilmable superhero masterpiece. The Catcher in the Rye of comics, as it were. You’ve seen the preview, you’ve heard your boyfriend blab about it, you’ve leafed through the Entertainment Weekly cover story. Watchmen the movie exists, and it is a Hollywood picture. And if that statement starts to chill you after a couple of moments of consideration, then don’t be alarmed. A feeling of intense and crushing religious terror at the concept indicates only that you are still sane. (Sorry, geek joke.)

Director Zack Snyder was our MC. I liked Dawn of the Dead, despised 300 (even though I never saw it). But from everything I read, I knew that Snyder was approaching this project with the demanded seriousness, and had managed to get the studios to do likewise. So my hope was measured. Snyder spent the evening proving why he’s stayed behind the camera with his rambling introductions, his logorrheic plot explanations—yes, yes, there were media there who haven’t mainlined Alan Moore and Dave Gibbons’s original work as I have, who needed the explication. but still. I mean, come on. It’s Watchmen.

Joined by Gibbons (the original series’s artist), Snyder gave a Q&A, fielding predictable queries from members of the Nit-Pick League of America (the ending "will not puss out," Gibbons does not want to speculate what disgruntled writer Alan Moore will think of it, the budget shall not be named but it was adequate). But first, we saw three excerpts:

– The first 12 minutes of the film. A shadowy figure breaks into the Comedian’s apartment, beats the crap out of him and tosses him out of the window to the street many, many floors below. A little worrisome: I mean, in the book, the violence is incidental. Here, every punch, every table smash is lovingly rendered and lingered upon. Big, muscled guys lustily beating up on each other. Action porn, as it were. But immediately following, we were treated to an awesome opening-credits sequence, visually relating the superhero history of Earth-Watchmen to the tune of "The Times They Are A-Changin‘." The Minutemen, all that good stuff. This is what I like.

– Dr. Manhattan appears on Mars, flashes back to his origin story, his relationship with Janey Slater and hooking up with Laurie. Beautifully done, excellent use of flashback technique. Sure, the scene had trouble building narrative momentum, but that’s sort of the point when dealing with a character who views all time as occurring simultaneously (trust me). Great voiceover by Billy Crudup.

– Dan and Laurie, as Nite Owl and the Silk Spectre, bust Rorschach from jail during the riot. They meet up with the vigilante just as he murders the Big Figure (played by the same little person who portrayed Kramer’s sidekick in a late season of Seinfeld). Way too much action porn here. I mean, Dan and Laurie are supposed to be semi-washed-up baby boomers questioning the very sanity of their actions, nervous about what to do with the bat-shit Rorschach when they find him. Dialogue and personality, not action, is what made this scene fly in the comic. Here, they’re not heroes, they’re superheroes, you know?

You might say I’m too prescriptivist, that I’m one of these unbearable comic nerds who’s ready to take a shot at Snyder if the film deviates from the comic book by one panel. I’m not. Moreover, I’m with Snyder, when he said in the Q&A that it’s puzzling how some fans will go crazy if a comic book film deviates from its source material, yet no one seemed to be upset that No Country for Old Men didn’t follow Cormac McCarthy line for line. No, the transgressions that bother me are more in philosophy than content; making the Watchmen heroes more typical slam-bang demigods than fuckups in costumes. And the thing is, Snyder apparently agrees. He repeatedly said that he doesn’t want this to be a regular superhero movie, he wants it to remain the story of what superheroes would be like if they really, actually, truly existed. He and Gibbons want it to be a real, "serious" superhero film, the kind the world is finally ready for now, possibly for the very first time.

I hope that’s what we get. There was some strong encouragement last night, but also some troubling signs. TheCitizen Kane of superhero films? Probably not. The movie we all dreamed of in the tenth grade while we read Watchmen for the first time while slacking off from our pre-calc homework? Perhaps…