Steve J. Moore

I Watched the Watchmen.

In Film, Graphic Novels, Science Fiction on March 16, 2009 at 10:55 am

Steve J. Moore

Starting where Alan Moore left off in his epilogue, I  began writing what became this post directly after coming home from the theater. I am glad that I saw the film on a beautiful Sunday afternoon because my leaving the theater provided a very natural sense of closure to the story, which I’ll get to later. Watchmen is a film whose plot I was only moderately aware of beforehand. Inkhead friends and the internet served as my own watchmen to what I eventually discovered is an incredible and powerful story on screen.

watchmen

Moore was inspired by George Orwell’s 1984 before he put pen to Watchmen‘s plot. While I did purchase the book before seeing the film, I did not have the time to read it entirely. What reading I did do showed me that nearly every scene in Zach Snyder’s film was ingeniously lifted from between the book’s covers. Just like 300 and Sin City, this film is an adaptation of note. NPR’s Kenneth Turan does not agree with me on this. He called the film “pedestrian,” and argues that it was no one’s fault,

“It never should have been turned into a film in the first place.”

Please Kenneth. Don’t tell me that you’re one of those movie critics. That kind of commentary is acid to both the book’s authors and to directors everywhere. I suppose no one was up to the challenge? No human could have done this “landmark” justice in your eyes? This reminds me of something my cousin once said. We were a bit younger and X-Men had just come out. Being the collectors of comic lore that we were, we ran out to see the movie we had been waiting for since our sandbox days. While we both loved it, he had a rather strong opinion about one tiny detail, Storm’s eyes.

He complained that they weren’t white the whole time like hers are in the TV show, comics, and everywhere else.

Please. That’s your problem with it!? (WP won’t print me an interrobang, oh well) My cousin was only half-kidding, but he asserted this several more times, whether joking or not, and it stuck with me. Comic book fans tend to pick, pick, pick at their favorite things (it’s just out of love, I know). I can only hope that’s what Turan was up to when he so unsagaciously scolded Snyder’s work.

What the movie does well is tell a story that could span three seasons in an hour long prime-time spot on TV, in about three hours. Hyperbole aside, when I left I realized I had digested a staggering amount of detailed back story as well as the foregrounded plot. It certainly didn’t tire me as such. Bob Mondello disagrees with me too, but then again… I wasn’t a “rabid” Watchmen fan coming into the theater. I have a healthy appreciation of comics and superheros; but as I said, I had just recently purchased the book, not even reading it before I came. Even my beloved David Edelstein calls the movie “embalmed” due to over-reverence to Moore’s detail. Somehow these critics have suffered some sort of reverse-fanboy effect where the graphic novel’s artful traversing of mediums has left them hanging. I invite you to decide for yourself on this issue.

I feel compelled as a writer and English teacher to comment on the Percy Bysshe Shelley (Husband to Mary W. Shelley, mother of Frankenstein) poem referenced in the movie by its title’s namesake, “Ozymandias.” First, here’s the text of the poem you read in school at some point (most likely).

Ozymandias

I met a traveller from an antique land
Who said: Two vast and trunkless legs of stone
Stand in the desert. Near them on the sand,
Half sunk, a shatter’d visage lies, whose frown
And wrinkled lip and sneer of cold command
Tell that its sculptor well those passions read
Which yet survive, stamp’d on these lifeless things,
The hand that mock’d them and the heart that fed.
And on the pedestal these words appear:
“My name is Ozymandias, king of kings:
Look on my works, ye Mighty, and despair!”
Nothing beside remains: round the decay
Of that colossal wreck, boundless and bare,
The lone and level sands stretch far away.

This poem’s theme is, if I recall correctly from Introduction to Literature, man’s sense of hubris. The statue in Watchmen‘s pharaoh-obsessed billionaire’s fortress of solitude (pardon the possessive trainwreck) is more than legs of stone, but bears the same inscription. Maybe that’s what caught Turan, Mondello, and Edelstein off-guard, being weary at this point in the film (from looking on such works) they despaired…

Not I! This poem has always been a favorite of mine. It brings one’s humanity into the conversation. Even the greatest of superheroes in this alternate fiction are human (okay, please ignore the giant naked blue man, he used to be human). They all have faults, mortality, and an emotional attachment to life. The story deals with ultimate questions of life: what is right? How do we know good from evil, and when is evil or wrong necessary to do a larger good? The passage of time is introduced as the great equalizer (neither good nor evil); not even kings and their empires can withstand the hour hand.

This thing all things devours
Birds, beasts, trees, flowers

Gnaws iron, bites steel,
Grinds hard stones to meal,

Slays king, ruins town,
And beats high mountain down!

I won’t ruin any part of the plot for you, but the transitions between light and dark–between good and evil–play a significant role in Watchmen‘s deeply literate contemplations. Just as Gollum and Bilbo exchanged their own riddles in the dark, so do characters like Nite Owl and Rorschach go back and forth as close, but estranged, friends in battle against–well, you’ll see just what against. The message of the clock, of the metronymic timeline, and the bloody smiley face clockall help to mark time to the apocalypse. The iconography of time is at the heart of Watchmen; Dr. Manhattan (also called John) is the son of a watchmaker. His floating Martian fortress appears to be some sort of chronos-driven, gyroscopic monolith. In 1984, at the inception of this story, the Atomic Scientist’s Bulletin, had its symbolic “Doomsday Clock” reading at only 3 minutes to midnight, the closest it had been in thirty years. You can see that today the night a bit younger, but not by much (though I wouldn’t advise subscribing to a second-counting fear over the graphic gesture of the clock).

When I left the theater after a 3:50pm show, I had almost forgotten the time. My brain was expecting a parking lot illuminated by streetlights and a glowing marquee; what I saw was fluffy white puffs, a celadon sky, and a round yellow circle whose visage was covered not by a linear blood splatter, but by clouds.

sunset That’s how the film left me feeling too: in a surprisingly sunny place. In all of Watchmen’s nearly three hours, I was never bogged down by apocryphal details (though they were there for the discerning eye to see) or by chinsy action movie cliches. Sure Snyder loves his blood, but there was exponentially less than in 300. Being the queasy type that I am, I appreciated it too. There was a moderate amount of sex in some parts, but it didn’t pervade the entire plot as though a 13-year-old directed it. Rather, it was just enough to be steamy and R-rated. While movies like Fantastic 4 are filled with dumb one-liners, Watchmen takes its time before speaking. Several characters get the chance to narrate at different times, which is what I think makes its length so tolerable and productive. You get to see two generations of vigilantes and villans, as well as two different Americas, one real, and one alternate history.

Tyler Bates does the score, and well too. The soundtrack is filled with Bob Dylan, Leonard Cohen, Nat King Cole, and (my favorite) Phillip Glass, but Bates’s orchestral tapestry makes the other works vibrant as placeholders for character emotion. The last track brings me easily back to my sunset sky. “I Love You Mom” is the Miles Davis-esque guitar tune that closes the film before the credits as Silk Spectre II and her ex-vigilante mom share a moment. It’s the same kind of song that made me buy the Finding Forrester soundtrack; (featuring Bill Frisell on guitar) it’s transcendental, spookily beautiful, and feels like warm sun on your face.

Just as Roger Ebert intends, I too want to see Watchmen again in theaters.

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  1. I didn’t much care for it. It was way too long and just not what I was expecting at all. It was also very violent in parts also and some scenes were just pointless, they didn’t add to the plot. The language was crude at times, not that I object to that. But when good movies use it, it doesn’t distract from the film. The highlights were the two gorgeous female characters which also at times seemed out of place. It needed an hour chopped off the length.

  2. Hi this blog is great I will be recommending it to friends.

  3. Nice write-up Steve. I have not seen it yet mainly because I don’t know anyting about it and haven’t taken the time. Your review is intriguing enough to make me want to see it now. Even if I end up not being wild about the story, I can get blown away by nearly three hours of graphic novel artistry.

  4. It’s true, the art is incredible. Go see it digitally projected if you can, it’s worth it. I think you’ll like the story too though.

  5. Interesting blog, I’ll try and spread the word.

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