One Thanksgiving, a friend and I had a long, involved conversation with his uncle about the origin, history, and development of the sport of racquetball.
It’s a conversation that we still like to make evil fun of. Racquetball was once a game of finesse, we learned. But racquetball was never the same after Marty Whatshisname came along in the seventies, added power, and changed everything. Good ol’ Marty Whatshisname. Love him or hate him, you couldn’t give your playing partner a red spot on the leg without him.
For the 33-year-old comic book fan who lives in your basement, Watchmen is Marty Whathisname, the before and after moment, which he will obsessively discuss with the same mockable enthusiasm. In the world of the “graphic novel” – an exalting Orwellian term like “exotic dancer” or “body art” that I use grudgingly – Alan Moore’s 1985 creation might as well be the Dead Sea Scrolls. For these afflicted souls, it is more than just a good read. Watchmen is their sole chance to dignify their favorite waste of time.
If it sounds like I’m not part of the target audience, well, obviously. As large crowds go to see Zack Snyder’s beautiful, bloodless screen version this weekend, those who wouldn’t know Rorschach from his evil twin cousin Ink Blot will likely drown in the density of the winding stories and flashbacks. But passionate fanboys likely will find it a bold, stunning dream come to life.
While dabbling in the usual gore, ultra-violence, misogyny, and revenge fantasy of the graphic novel, Watchmen feels more like a thermonuclear apocalyptic soap opera, or perhaps a backstage musical for caped crusaders. By order of law, the defunct Watchmen, a superhero consortium along the lines of The Justice League, have ditched their masks and moved on to normal lives in an alternate reality version of 1985. Both at present and in the past, the all-too-imperfect members are dogged by human frailty – petty rivalries, romantic anxieties, and competing ideologies. This group of dress-rehearsal superheroes, like the rest of us, never could agree on a functioning moral theory, leaving their “heroic” activity shrouded in layers of ambiguity.
Long past his cynical itchy-trigger-finger prime, “The Comedian” (Jeffrey Dean Morgan) dies in his apartment at the hands of an intruder. His death attracts the paranoid attention of the illegally active Rorschach (a wild, wry Jackie Earle Haley), a Sam Spade-Travis Bickle combo hidden underneath a mask of shifting inkblots. Convinced of a plot to kill the former Watchmen, he warns first Dan Dreiburg (Patrick Wilson), aka The Nite Owl, the nicest vigilante hero you’ll ever meet, who has changed permanently into Clark Kent. He’ll also seek the help of the world’s smartest man (Matthew Goode), the former Ozymandias, and Laurie Jupiter (Milan Akerman), whose role as Silk Spectre runs as a family legacy.
There’s that tricky little business about the world being on the brink of World War III, with President Richard Nixon, in his fifth term, debating whether to launch the nukes. The only thing discouraging Soviet aggression has been the real superpower – ex-Watchman Dr. Manhattan , a clairvoyant, omnipotent, usually naked product of a nuclear malfunction. Stuck using his immense powers for drab human tasks, this unjolly blue giant has wearied on the human race. He soon retreats to Mars, leaving the fate of humanity in nuclear-tipped uncertainty.
As he has advanced beyond the powers of men, Dr. Manhattan has lost most emotional contact with the world that surrounds him. All computer generation and largely bland acting, Snyder’s filmmaking has joined him. This is easily seen in its love triangle. Yet the lack of passion extends to the action scenes, more concerned with their immaculate facade than their visceral thrill. For instance, the centerpiece slo-mo, freeze-frame slugout down a cell block might “look cool,” but it lacks the panting, chugging, human intensity of the famous Oldboy fight that it recalls. Watchmen is designed for the eye. Not for the gut. Not for the heart.
Watchmen is filled with a dizzying array of high and low references. Its dig-into-the-past structure, for some reason, brought to mind The Great Gatsby. The ending, I would note, is reminiscent of the deal at the end of Jean Renoir’s Rules of the Game, an agreed-upon lie to preserve the social structure. Yet to get there, the story indulges in the weird depths of trash eighties nuclear scare tv programs, with the utopian idea that with nuclear disarmament, international relations would suddenly be sunshine and unicorns. And only a few million people had to take a glowing green one for the team in order to make the world a better place. If this is meant as morbidly ironic, the delivery doesn’t match.
But, but, but … the fanboy will say … you haven’t wrestled with Watchmen’s themes. You haven’t mentioned the fact it deconstructs the inherent fascism found in superhero tales. Fantastic. I’ll alert Aquaman. Perhaps the film will give him a moment of self-reflection. Otherwise, it’s not exactly news you can use.
And yet the visual spectacle is undeniable. The broad Martian skyline to every last crevice on a human chin–mind-blowing. And reading other reviews has persuaded me that there are some worn but challenging ideas at the story’s core. However, the duty of a filmmaker is not just to flatly present ideas, but to enliven them with his or her filmmaking. For all of its splendor, this is Snyder’s ultimate super-failure.