Hero, antihero, superhero

March 12, 2009

Amy Muldoon explains why there is so much excitement around the release of the new movie Watchmen.

WRITTEN IN 1986, Watchmen set the comic book world spinning by exposing the psychological and morally ambiguous inner workings of superheroes.

Told from multiple viewpoints--including multiple political and social perspectives--author Alan Moore and artist Dave Gibbons stepped out of the simplistic comic book world of good versus evil to pose much larger questions about power, morality and human nature. The story both revels in references to the style and history of hero comics, and exposes their contradictions and flaws.

Zach Snyder's current adaptation of Watchmen visually reproduces the art of the book and the broad strokes of Moore's masterpiece, but inevitably fails to fully capture the nuance and layering of the original. Despite this, the movie is mostly enjoyable and, even for devout fans of the comic, delivers a lot of what we have waited 23 years for.

Set in 1985, the story follows the investigation of the murder of former masked-adventurer/government operative Edward Blake (Jeffrey Dean Morgan). Blake was The Comedian, a cynical, thuggish crime fighter turned mercenary for the government. His character revels in what he calls the "true face" of society: its violence and chaos, and is a pointed commentary on the tradition of "patriotic" superheroes.

Dr. Manhattan in the film adaptation of Watchmen
Dr. Manhattan in the film adaptation of Watchmen

The mystery is pursued by fellow hero-vigilante Rorschach, a right-wing nihilist crusader who literally wears his distress on his face via a mask that morphs with inkblot patterns. His investigation reconnects him with the former members of a group of masked heroes, and uncovers a conspiracy of apocalyptic proportions. The narrative unfolds through a series of interlocking flashbacks and shifts in perspective to tell the story of two generations of superheroes.

The alternate universe New York that is the primary setting of Watchmen is riddled with crime and cruelty, and exists deep in the shadow of nuclear annihilation. President Richard Nixon is in his fifth term since winning the Vietnam War with the help of the superpowered Dr. Manhattan, and is on the brink of launching a full-scale nuclear war with the USSR.

Dr. Manhattan (a Billy Crudup-voiced, anatomically correct CGI creation) is the only character who is more than a person with a mask and a chip on their shoulder. The product of an experiment gone wrong, he controls matter and exists outside of time. His omnipotence, however, doesn't make him infallible, and the story examines how someone thus changed can cling to their humanity, and whether it is worth it.

Review: Movies

Watchmen, written by David Hayter and Alex Tse, directed by Zack Snyder, starring Jackie Earle Haley, Jeffrey Dean Morgan and Billy Crudup.

Each of the characters grapples with how to respond to an amoral and self-destructive world. Their responses range from passive acceptance to revenge to megalomaniacal plotting. All of them exist at the fringes of society, and none of them see a solution for humanity coming from within society, whether or not they see one at all.

IN CREATING the characters, Moore (who would have nothing to do with a movie adaptation, and called the book "unfilmable") wanted to challenge himself and the readers to sympathize with personalities that were in many ways repugnant.

Rorschach, who provides continuity through his investigation and narration, is morally pure in his intention but is driven by vengeance, and has the politics of Ron Paul. His creepiness is toned down from the book and loses some important subtleties, although Jackie Earle Haley's performance and appearance capture both the righteous depravity and appeal of the original.

Some artistic choices make no sense; the opening montage of generations of masked crime fighters set to Bob Dylan's "The Times They Are A-changing" is clever and pretty, but self-indulgent and tone deaf given the darkness of the ensuing story. The soundtrack can't make up its mind if it is sincere or ironic, veering from Nena Hagen's "99 Red Balloons" to Jimi Hendrix's "All Along the Watchtower" and into the much-overused Leonard Cohen's "Hallelujah."

Apparently, in an attempt to match the multiple cultural and literary references of the original, the choices come across as a crude attempt to sell soundtracks.

In Snyder's breakthrough directing job on 300--which Moore commented "was racist, it was homophobic, and above all it was sublimely stupid"--his adaptation from page to screen worked because there was no subtext to be lost in translation. Here, his bells and whistles and deep love of showy action sequences detract from the themes of the movie.

One of the most disturbing flaws of the movie is its escalation of the level of violence and the characters' apparent pleasure in its use. Graphic bloodletting and bone shattering add nothing to the movie, and imply the primary motive of the heroes is their affection for causing pain. This flattens out the psychology of the characters in important, and disappointing, ways.

The glamorized, Matrix-like interludes make the characters seem like much more than regular people driven by conflicted and questionable motives, it makes them seem like action heroes. More importantly, they also undermine the truly horrific violence that takes place, particularly against women, which stand out in the original because of the otherwise low level of violence.

While the writers do an elegant job of changing the ending without altering the impact of the climax, they strip out key ambiguities about the morality of the result. The movie makes an explicit case for one side of the argument, whereas the comic never does.

Similarly, because so much of the framing of the story comes from Rorschach's point of view, human society does appear irredeemable. This is not so in the original. While the people with all the power--be it moral, financial, technological or military--struggle to save the world from itself, a parallel story of survival unwinds on the street where peripheral characters intersect at a newsstand.

Despite the crushing threat of war and general alienation surrounding the drama, there does exist compassion and solidarity between strangers. A piece of the heart of the story has been excavated to make way for a more industry-friendly product complete with balletic fistfights and extended sex scenes.

The problem with this can hardly be laid at the feet of Zach Snyder alone when every action movie has to outdo the last with ultra-realistic dismemberments. However, in a movie that questions the ultimate morality of the means of violence in achieving just ends, it is a disservice.

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