Watchmen opened big over the weekend, well-positioned as an event movie by this stunning trailer. But how does it play as people learn what it's about?
Watchmen is finally here. The legendary cult graphic novel about a group of mostly retired or discredited superheroes in an alternate 1985 America burst onto the screen over the weekend, grossing more than $55 million in domestic box office despite its R-rating and near three hour length. But will it be the next comic book movie blockbuster?
It has a big act to follow in The Dark Knight, the most successful movie of the decade. The latest Batman picture captured the zeitgeist perfectly. Despite an unintentionally amusing effort by a far right writer in the Wall Street Journal to claim that Bruce Wayne/Batman is a stand-in for George W. Bush, it's actually one of Barack Obama's favorite movies. He watched it on his Hawaiian vacation in the midst of last year's campaign.
The second Watchmen trailer began to show the darkness and complexity of the tale.
Watchmen is bigger, darker, and much more brutal and overtly political than Dark Knight. It's a mostly very faithful adaptation of Alan Moore's legendary '80s graphic novel. Directed, ironically, by the man who did the neocon fave 300, Zack Snyder, it presents an alternate history America in which costumed vigilantes are real, Richard Nixon is in his fifth term as president, and a very dark and foreboding America is sliding towards a first strike nuclear war with the Soviet Union.
Watchmen lays out this alternate America in a stunning opening sequence of flashbacks that presents the mid to late 20th century as a relentless slog of war and murder. Its universe is one of chaos and corruption. If hope is on the menu, it's in short supply.
Watchmen is genre fiction, something not infrequently used to promote a political agenda. In Hollywood, naturally, it's usually on the left. Though not always. The now classic Dirty Harry attacked what many saw as an overly permissive counter-culture. The Lord of the Rings trilogy, perhaps as much by circumstance as anything else, came to be a post-9/11 cultural rally point. 300 was an overt rendering of the neoconservative belief in a clash of civilizations. Watchmen is clearly on the left.
Creator Alan Moore discusses Watchmen.
Unlike other superhero movies, which construct a narrative around a familiar archetype, usually a familiar character in the culture, Watchmen presents a group of unfamiliar characters, none of whom are particularly heroic.
And the story's narrative is lengthy and multiplex, probably better suited to a miniseries than a feature film. (Snyder has a director's cut, an hour longer, that should prove very interesting.)
While they are all familiar archetypes, they are all deconstructed archetypes, defined by their troubles nearly as much as by their deeds. Actually, a burning-building rescue is the only act of genuine heroism performed by any of the superheroes, and that was undertaken as part of a midnight whim, in turn part of a courtship ritual between two characters. Most of the time, these heroes are a bunch of, to be blunt, weirdos acting out in spectacularly destructive or self-aggrandizing fashion between bouts of depression and sex.
Only one has superpowers, the now familiar figure of the scientist transformed in a lab accident -- re-monikered here as Doctor Manhattan to remind America's rivals of the Manhattan Project -- and he has become so detached from humanity that he barely relates to the fate of a world in extremis.
The narrator, a vigilante detective calling himself Rorschach, is a brutal, misanthropic reactionary idealist wearing an ever-changing patterned mask.
So who's the hero? If there is one, it's not very clear. Which is part of the point, though not something that makes it easy for the audience to gobble the movie up.
Creator Alan Moore, whose works have been turned into the movies From Hell, League of Extraordinary Gentlemen, Constantine, and V for Vendetta says Watchmen was meant as "a meditation upon power."
While the question of who-is-the-hero, if anyone at all, is not so easy to discern, the question of what's-the-agenda is easier.
Not all politically-inflected genre fiction is on the left, as this scene from Dirty Harry reminds.
While Doctor Manhattan is actually a rather passive figure for all his abilities to bend time and matter, another character, the so-called "world's smartest man," has a clearcut agenda. That's the Alexander the Great worshiper who calls himself Ozymandias, a super-rich, sexually ambiguous figure who, notwithstanding the blonde supermodel type assistant, may be the first gay superhero.
He disdains corporate capitalism fueled by oil and nuclear power and wants to end the politics of scarcity and stop the US/USSR rivalry by creating endless renewable energy.
His fellow Watchmen aren't exactly all on board. Two attended to the ascension of Richard Nixon. One, a sardonic murderer and rapist dubbed the Comedian, who delights in wearing a smiley face button, is an all-out Nixon henchman. He assassinated JFK and took care of the Woodward and Bernstein problem. The other, Doctor Manhattan, used his superpowers to win the Vietnam War.
With those historical obstacles out of the way, Nixon was able to remove term limits and win five terms in the White House, keeping a grim America in an ongoing stand-off with the Soviet Union.
So, underneath all the pyrotechnics, this is an anti-fascist, anti-corporate movie. Which is no surprise, as it's rather faithfully adapted -- but for an altered ending which has many fanboys up in arms -- from Moore's original. And Moore is a self-described anarchist.
Moore, incidentally, is a Brit who says he hates Hollywood and disavows the various movie adaptations of his graphic novels. Watchmen is the first of his adapted for the movies stories originally set in America. All the others are British stories.
From Hell is a reworking of the Jack the Ripper story. League of Extraordinary Gentlemen a tale of some of the greatest Victorian adventure heroes banded together. V for Vendetta about an uprising against a fascist British government triggered by a man in a Guy Fawkes mask. Even Constantine -- played in the movie version by Keanu Reeves and moved to an LA setting -- is a British story, with a protagonist supernatural detective meant to look like Sting.
Given all these yeasty elements -- complicated story, controversial politics, no stars, familiar archetypes but unfamiliar characters, R-rating, dour atmosphere, gory violence, Dr. Manhattan's full-frontal male nudity through most of the movie -- how will it go down with the mass movie-going audience?
Not all fanboys believe that the film version of Watchmen is quite as faithful as it should be to the graphic novel. Hitler is incensed to learn that the faux alien giant squid from the ending of the original is absent from the film adaptation.
Watchmen is both like and not like The Golden Compass, another adaptation of a cult classic by a British author, Philip Pullman. The characters were unfamiliar, the story mostly dark until the end. Which comes in the third book of a trilogy.
The Golden Compass adaptation was overwhelmed by the story's complexity, choosing to dash through its elements so quickly that the audience was never able to dwell in its fascinating alternate reality.
Watchmen doesn't have that problem. It lingers enough to allow its world to breath, and actually works even if you are not terribly familiar with the original. (I read it once, and skimmed it again last year while the movie was in production.)
But it does have those other hurdles for an audience to overcome. And this dark and rather demanding movie comes out at the height of a recession. It will be easier for most to find something more consumable for their dwindling dollars.
It will be fascinating to see how it does after its big opening. Though I have no doubt that the DVD, with the longer director's cut we may yet see later this year on the big screen, will be a spectacular success. Unfortunately, this is a movie that begs to be seen, at least the first time, on the big screen, preferably in IMAX.
For decades, Watchmen was said to be unfilmable. Several directors took a crack at it, but couldn't make it work. Several big stars were attached, too, starting with Arnold Schwarzenegger, who was to have played Doctor Manhattan back when producer Joel Silver had the property.
But this version shows it wasn't unfilmable. Watchmen illustrator and co-creator Dave Gibbons essentially storyboarded the movie within the panels of the comic book.
Perhaps the biggest obstacle for this film becoming not just a hit, which it is, but a sensation at least approach Ironman levels is its grounding as an alternate history story.
Alternate history is about what ifs. What if the Confederacy won the Civil War? What if Japan invaded Hawaii instead of merely bombing Pearl Harbor? What if liberals surrendered to Islamists and America was governed under sharia law? What if America disappeared? It's very popular on the right, as those examples suggest. Which I should probably write about.
Watchmen is alternate history of the left.
An alternate history in this moment-by-moment 24/7 culture that requires people to think all the way back to 1985. To remember the Soviet Union. To recall the very real threat of all-out nuclear war. To get the joke of what a joke the McLaughlin Group TV show was.
That's a tall order these days.