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Watchmen, or, Philistine, Thy Name is Ian

March 9, 2009 at 12:47 pm

This is the obligatory blog post where I jump on the let's-discuss-Watchmen bandwagon. It's also where I reveal that I belong to that strange minority of people who find Watchmen (both the novel and the film) to be way, way overhyped. Other brave souls have already come forward on this delicate and emotionally-charged topic, including Sarah Zettel over at the Book View Cafe, and Vic Milan. Watchmen isn't terrible, but in my humble opinion, it's not great  either. Below the cut, I'll try to explain why it doesn't work for me.

Spoilers ahoy!

Just to make this clear at the outset, I'm not attacking people who love Watchmen with deep reverence. To each his or her own! (After all, I saw Hudson Hawk in the theater and found it funny. Yes, I was the one person who liked that movie. What does that say about me?) What I'm trying to suggest here is that the hype around Watchmen, and the mythic status that popular culture has bestowed upon the graphic novel over the past 20+ years, systematically overlooks a number of flaws (like any artistic endeavor). For some people, those flaws are inconsequential, and that's as it should be; but for me, those flaws break Watchmen.

I've read the graphic novel twice. The first time was about 10 years ago. I enjoyed it very much in the beginning, but by the end I couldn't for the life of me figure out why everyone talks about it with such hushed reverence. I was told at the time that this was obviously because I wasn't steeped enough in comic-book lore to appreciate what a revolutionary thing Watchmen had been when it first appeared.

Okay, fair enough. I'm absolutely sure that's true -- Watchmen was a seismic event in the comics world, in a way I can't appreciate. And it's important to acknowledge that when discussing Watchmen. BUT... Saying that's why I find the story lacking is a feeble form of apologetics, because it sidesteps the issue of quality. Likewise with the argument that Watchmen is a product of its time, and that to fully appreciate it one has to interact with it as a reflection of the 80s zeitgeist. In addition to sidestepping the real issue, that argument is actually somewhat condescending. I remember the 80s very well, thank you very much. I was there. I remember suffering from screaming nightmares about nuclear annihilation through much of the Reagan administration. So let's take it for granted that I'm capable of sussing out at least the basics of Watchmen's cultural context. All of which is beside the point anyway, because there's cultural context, and then there's quality of the reading experience. They're not the same thing.

In preparation for seeing the film this weekend, I re-read the graphic novel collection about a month ago. And I have to say that I was surprised to find my reaction hadn't changed one iota in 10 years. The only difference this time around was that my attempts to learn the craft of writing have made it a little easier for me to express why Watchmen-the-novel doesn't work for me.

My problem(s) with Watchmen-the-film stem from the fact that great visuals (which the film has in spades) -- even coupled with great music (which the film also has) -- never, ever make up for a weak story. And since the movie is such a slavish reproduction of the graphic novel, it suffered the same problems.

(By the way, my friend Smofbabe has a great post describing the movie from the perspective of somebody who hadn't first read the graphic novel.)

For maybe up through the first hour, I was deeply impressed with the astonishing attention to detail and the way the film reverently recreates sequences from the novel almost panel-by-panel. The opening montage under Bob Dylan's "The Times They Are a Changin'" is very effective, walking the audience through decades of history in a couple of minutes. Nice. And it deftly hints at things that are addressed in passing the novel. (The only way I noticed any of it being because I had reread the novel so recently. And I'm sure I still missed a lot.)

But after a while that reverence toward the source material actually started to creak. Heretical philistine that I am, I strongly believe the film would have been better off with more departures from the source material. Nothing is perfect, no matter how well-loved it is.

Momentarily putting aside the ending (which in my opinion wasn't changed enough to help the film), the main departures from the source material that I noticed were justified simplifications to streamline things; obvious cuts where Director's Cut material will go; and places where they made the action MORE violent than in the novel. (Lovingly-rendered compound fractures, as Daniel Abraham has put it.) I can't imagine why we needed to see somebody's arms sawed off when (I think?) he's merely shanked in the novel.

The film's slavish devotion to the source material also wreaks havoc with pacing. The major characters' backstories are delivered in the novel in a way that became tedious (for me) when translated directly to screen.

Anyway. Here are my problems with the source material:

Watchmen has a "Ha, Ha, Made You Care" plot.

The resolution of the storyline suffers from a complete lack of emotional catharsis. The novel makes for an emotionally grinding read (more on that below). And how are readers rewarded for sticking it through to the bitter end? We find out that the protagonists achieve absolutely nothing. Literally. Nothing of consequence would have changed if Rorschach, Nite Owl, and Silk Spectre had stayed home clipping their toenails instead of engaging in this adventure. Their only "success" is in failing to achieve anything. Both the novel and the film make that point aloud.

Watchmen is emotionally monochromatic.

The story is relentlessly grim. That's not necessarily a bad thing, if the story leads readers through that bleak landscape in order to get somewhere. I have no problem with a dark story if it has a point. (And I'm a big believer in making characters grey -- I like my heroes with a little dirt on 'em.) But, because of the point above, it really doesn't have a point. It's merely dark for the sake of being dark. For me, that's not a rewarding reading experience. It makes me feel that I've wasted my time. The message is that the world is a festering shithole, and anybody who fights against that reality is a fool. But here's the thing: grim is easy. The braver, more challenging choice would have been to attempt an uplifting resolution. Instead, Watchmen takes the easy way out.

How grim is it? So grim that by the end, Rorschach -- the most driven, the most doggedly-determined character among the protagonists (and also the greyest of them all) -- commits suicide-by-cop. Or, in this case, suicide-by-omnipotent-blue-superhero. And it's very obviously a suicide. The character most capable of navigating through this bleak world, the one who is first and foremost a survivor, kills himself immediately after realizing his struggles are utterly meaningless.

Watchmen doesn't offer a single positive portrayal of women.

Women are consistently vicitimized throughout the story. Yes, Silk Spectre kicks ass. But does she have to dress as a fetish doll to do it? The rape scene is disturbing enough in the graphic novel; it was made even uglier in the film. Why was that necessary? I didn't need to see The Comedian shoot a pregnant woman dead (pregnant with his child, no less) in order to understand that he was a sociopath.

The tone of the graphic novel is unquestioningly misanthropic. That I can handle. But in places it flirts with outright misogyny, and that squicks me out.

Watchmen is deeply self-indulgent.

"Tales of the Black Freighter" veers way outside the realm of self-commentary into blatant padding. Yes, I appreciate the symbolism. Yes, I see the resonance between the "Black Freighter" protagonist and Ozymandias. But you know what? Watchmen goes way overboard in making that point. (Pun intended.) If I wanted to read a pirate comic, I'd buy one. I don't need an entire pirate comic dropped smack-dab into the middle of my superhero comic. There's absolutely no reason for taking the reader on such a long excursion through what a well-imagined but ultimately unimportant background character is reading.

I was deeply relieved that the Black Freighter stuff wasn't shoehorned into the film's theatrical release. I'd worried it might be, given the lengths Snyder and company had gone to in order to preserve the source material.

Am I saying the emporer has no clothes? Well, no. I wouldn't go that far. There are things I truly do admire about the graphic novel. It exhibits an astonishing attention to detail. The art and storyline combine to create the sense of a rock-solid world visualized down to the stuff we never even see, practically down to the crumbs in Nite Owl's silverware drawer. And I can't help but respect the rigorous attention to the metastory told through the "supplemental" materials at the end of each issue. It's all very impressive. But it's not enough for this reader.

Yeah, I know I'm in the insignificant minority. That doesn't necessarily mean I'm wrong, though.



Elio M. García, Jr. March 10, 2009 at 9:57 am
Not yet seen the film, so I can't really remark on that. As to your points about the novel, though, I have some quibbles (similar, in some cases, to quibbles I had with Melinda's response to the film at her own blog). 'Watchmen has a "Ha, Ha, Made You Care" plot.' I don't have as much of a problem with this as you (and Melinda) seem to do. She phrased it as the protagonists not "protag"-ing, and it seems to me that literature has long moved past the point where plot problems have to be resolved if you're doing other things with the text. In film, we have things like American Beauty, where the whole point is not the "problem" but what the problem does to you. A million superhero comics open with a villainous plot and closes with a hero triumphant. Moore noted that the real world doesn't work that way, that sometimes heroism and bravery and good intentions don't solve anything, that sometimes they're entirely outside of the picture and that the big picture doesn't really care about the individual. Still, they do "solve" the ostensible problem: who killed the Comedian? They just didn't see the big picture, because little people pretending to be heroes think it's enough to solve a mystery and not think of the larger context. Yet there is emotional catharsis, at least for me -- the build up of tension is then released by ... well, by outrage, basically. By the outrage at what Ozymandias commits, and the inexorable logic that makes it seem the lesser of two evils. It's a catharsis that makes me think, and makes me feel that I've gained something from the narrative. Moreover, the characters themselves reach conclusions about themselves, or evolve their personas, or something because of this misadventure. Rorschach dies, unable to deal with the paradox of justice. Dan and Laurie are able to put aside their costumes at last, to find excitement in something other than running around like fools in suits. Manhattan accepts godhood. Veidt, that man so full of certainties in his megalomania, is left with the ultimate uncertainty. If Rorschach and Dan and Laurie had stayed home, they wouldn't have grown or changed or been revealed. So the narrative was necessary. "Watchmen is emotionally monochromatic." I don't quite think so. The interactions between Laurie and Dan, and Laurie and Manhattan on Mars when Manhattan comes to his revelation about the miracle that is life, and little moments in the comic like the newspaper guy and the kid reading his pirate comic are humanistic touches that belie the idea that it's a monochromatic narrative. It also, it seems to me, goes far away from suggesting life is a shithole -- after all, the world gets a second chance, glasnost comes early, and so on. I would disagree with your read on Rorschach, BTW. He dies not because his struggles are meaningless, but because his philosophy is false. He has the doctrine that everything is meaningless, a black abyss, and he's free to write his particular moral pattern on it and that moral pattern is, essentially, a deeply selfish and damaged result of his early life and the abuses he suffered. Corollary to that is that _anyone_ is free to write their particular moral pattern on it, Ozymandias included. And what is it that Veidt does? He makes a call not unlike the one that Rorschach lionizes Truman for (the bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki), that a few million deaths now are better than more deaths later. Rorschach can't handle it. He can't handle the fact that slaughter that takes place could serve a better purpose, and that the justice he demands could cause more suffering. I don't think he thought justice was meaningless, or that his pursuit for it was, but he realizes at that moment that the meaning of justice and the effect of justice delivered can be two very different things. "Watchmen doesn't offer a single positive portrayal of women." As I noted to Melinda, I think Moore is one of the more woman-positive writers in the industry, and he features plenty of strong female figures in his work (Halo Jones, Promethea, Lucy Harker). This doesn't mean Watchmen can't be a failure. Yet ... Laurie is more normal and together than just about any other character in the narrative. That she's a bit of a exhibitionist who's fetishized costumed adventures is true enough, but the marvellous thing at the end of it all is that Laurie and Dan are able to make love without their costumes on, in the end, and the last we see of them they're just civilians -- they have, to a certain extent, put aside childish things. "Watchmen is deeply self-indulgent. " This is, actually, true. The pirate comic really is Moore indulging himself. But genius is allowed its indulgences. Obviously, the flaws you perceive don't give the work that particular out, but I think the reason why most people have no problem with it is because they do revere it.
Jason March 14, 2009 at 11:22 pm
I think the idea that Moore is GENIUS is just well.. taking it a bit far. Have you READ Promethea? Seriously. It's not genius, it's a diatribe. It was INSANELY boring and a throw away of a perfectly good idea for a bash-you-over-the-head didatic story. FYI, I don't think Promethea came off all that strong.. She doesn't do much her entire comic. I mean at the beginning she STARTS trying to own herself as a hero, but seriously.. she spends the majority of the 20+ Issue series talking. Heck, SHE SELLS herself for information, literally. How empowering is that? Have you read League of Extraordinary Gentlemen? Cause I have. He spends the entire series having Mina Harker WHINE about how the boys treat her like a girl.. and yet she does absolutely NOTHING. She's supposedly the leader of the team, but she just gets in the way. Besides all that, I find Watchmen insanely boring. It goes out of it's way to degrade and make fun of the Justice Society (Moore turns the entire team into a bunch of lunatics in costumes, who accomplish NOTHING). You're idea that Moore is pointing out that reality doesn't work out that becuase you do heroic deeds that nothing changes, well that's bull. We've seen it happen IN REAL LIFE. The truth of the matter is that sometimes you do things that effect others and sometimes you do things that don't. You do not do things in a vaccuum. Watchmen seems to CREATE a vaccuum that essentially nothing you can do will change anything. I'm not a fan of Watchmen and I do NOT think that Moore is an unrefutable genius. He's done some great works and he's done some works that are just OK and he's done some stuff that is almost unreadable (Sorry, Promethea was unreadable.. I TRIED so hard and it was like reading a dictionary.. only less informative). The man worships a snake god.. Need I say more?
Jason Powell March 16, 2009 at 5:37 pm
Hmmm, I like both "Watchmen" and "Hudson Hawk." WHAT DOES THIS MEAN??? For what it's worth, Moore's worshipping a snake god is, to some degree, a deliberate statement about the nature of religion. The "snake god" in question is Glycon, basically a hoax that was debunked centuries ago. His point is that all religion is built around fiction, so why not worship something that is unquestionably, acknowledgedly fiction? It is, in context, quite a shrewd and witty statement. Which is a long way of saying, "Need you say more? Yes -- need you do." Out of context, it makes him sound like a madman, when in fact the whole "snake god" thing is quite cogent. I am really in love with all the formal elegance of Watchmen -- the structure and symmetry of it. And the origin sequences for Dr. Manhattan and Rorschach, I find very moving. I don't think the story is relentlessly grim. Chapters 7 and 9 are both deliberately redemptive, for example. I do agree about the treatment of women in Watchmen. They really get short shrift in that story. The Moore of that period seems to have had some trouble with positive portrayals of women. "The Killing Joke" is from the same period, and it's got one of the classic "Women in Refrigerators" moments -- the quintessential one, perhaps (outside of the comic that actually put a woman in a refrigerator, I suppose).
Victor Milán March 24, 2009 at 5:53 pm
As you've so generously pointed out (thanks) I've had my say on Watchmen the comic, although I've yet to see the movie and intend to. I'm largely in accord with your comments. One stands out: "It's merely dark for the sake of being dark." I feel the same way, and wonder if that might account for some of its appeal. Adolescents tend to be gratified by ratification of the common adolescent "everything is shit" worldview. Which is, thinking about it, a great all-purpose excuse, yes? A comment or two on the comments, if that's cricket: while I'm not so sure Moore isn't a genius (I'd admit to flashes in WATCHMEN for all my problems with it) I wonder to what extent his stuff is over-regarded by reason of contrast to the overall state of comic-book writing? "[L]iterature has long moved past the point where plot problems have to be resolved if you're doing other things with the text." How does that differ from saying, "movies have moved past the point where characterization or sense matter, so long as shit blows up"? And, "The man worships a snake god.. Need I say more?" Wait, what?
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