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.
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.