Most people probably hadn't heard of the comedy The Watch until the Trayvon Martin shooting in Florida on February 26. That's because the comedy about a group of flawed men unexpectedly fighting off an alien invasion in their quiet, suburban enclave was originally called Neighborhood Watch, but 20th Century Fox decided to change the name after it was revealed that Martin's killer, George Zimmerman, was the coordinator of his community's neighborhood watch. Zimmerman saw confronting and ultimately killing Martin as part of his watch duties and continues to claim that he's done nothing wrong.
This was a cautious, probably smart move by 20th Century Fox, even though the fact that Zimmerman was in a neighborhood watch has probably faded from most memories. And The Watch, which obviously has nothing to do with the Martin murder, ultimately succeeds as a good, silly comedy about a group of misfits getting more than they bargained for as they attempt to fill what's missing in their lives through supposedly manly pursuits.
However, there's a scene in The Watch -- which stars Ben Stiller, Vince Vaughn, Jonah Hill, and Richard Ayoade -- that did make me think of the Martin shooting, as well as a more recent tragedy that, in many ways, is still playing out. Watch the trailer for The Watch below.
Hill's character, Franklin, is a young man who lives with his mother and is described as the group's "wild card." Franklin -- who wears an army jacket, has a military-style haircut and has a habit of playing with and brandishing a butterfly knife -- has been deemed unfit (both physically and mentally) to join the police or any other law enforcement agency. And he clearly has a chip on his shoulder about it, evidenced by his testy exchanges with a smug local policeman played by Will Forte.
At one point, as the group prepares to confront the aliens, Franklin reveals that he has an arsenal of weaponry hidden under his bed. Like Franklin, Zimmerman was interested in joining law enforcement and was also known to be a hothead who'd been arrested for shoving a cop, had a restraining order taken out against him by his ex-fiancée and lost his job as a security guard due to his unpredictable temper. In that sense, it's easy to imagine Franklin acting a lot like Zimmerman, a guy who would bring a gun on a neighborhood watch patrol, aggressively confront someone he deemed suspicious and be willing to escalate a situation with deadly force.
And of course, it's hard to see Franklin's arsenal of ostensibly legally-obtained guns without thinking of the recent mass shooting in Aurora, Colorado, where a young man named James Holmes legally bought military-grade weapons, tactical gear and 6,000 rounds of ammunition and used them to kill 12 people and wound 58 in a crowded movie theater. In The Watch, Franklin's guns are used to try to prevent an alien invasion, but if there were no aliens, isn't it natural to wonder, especially after the Aurora massacre, if we'd really want someone like Franklin to have an arsenal like that?
I enjoyed The Watch and expect it to do well, both for the quality of its humor and the fact that it's the only comedy being released this week. I don't believe that violent entertainment causes violent behavior, and I actually believe that, like sports, they can be a safe and healthy outlet for aggressive behavior. After all, the world was plenty violent (probably more so) before violent movies and first person shooters were ever invented.
But no one can deny that America is a country uniquely obsessed with guns, to the point that one of our two political parties feels that one of America's most important freedoms is being able to own as many of whatever kind of gun you want with few or no restrictions on who can own them and where they can carry them. If American entertainment is seen as too violent, I see that as a reflection of our gun- and military-worshipping culture, not the cause of it. And if people copy the violence they see in movies, the problem is not the movies, but people who can't tell fantasy from reality, and the ease with which our gun laws allow those people to arm themselves to the teeth. The Watch is obviously fiction, but sadly, when unstable people can buy such powerful weapons, we need to do more than just hope that they'll only be aimed at bad guys and aliens.
I don't think 20th Century Fox was insensitive or remiss, and The Watch really is a lot of fun. It's just that, after recent events, the idea of angry, heavily-armed young men who stockpile weapons just isn't as funny as it used to be.