My friend Deepak saw that I looked like a dog anticipating a long walk while on line for Watchmen last night. I told him that I had never been so excited to see a movie. Hurm, he said. Wasn’t I setting expectations too high? Not at all. The simple fact of the film’s improbable existence — cue Jon’s meditation on humanity to Laurie on Mars — meets them. Imagine finding El Dorado. Exploring through it would be fascinating. But would it really match the revelation of discovering, finally, that it actually exists?
Watchmen is a great film. It’s a nearly-three-hour movie of narrative economy. A legendarily unfilmable epic, the most innovative in the history of comic books, is presented mostly faithfully, making Zach Snyder’s digressions, subversions and recastings impressively impactful. The metatextual aspects of the story survive and are amplified — most impressively, the sheer fact of being a film allows for a deeper commentary on pop culture and cultural memory than comic books, a marginal storytelling medium, can offer.
What I’m going to do first is explore three elements of the film that are false moves or missed opportunities — or may be. In at least one case I’m not so sure. Naturally, don’t read further if you don’t want any spoilers. Like one of the SWAT team says to his comrade as they prepare to bring in Rorschach (it’s not in the film, don’t worry): here be tygers.
1. Adrian. He’s icy and menacing throughout the whole film, rather than detached and outwardly gentle, which diminishes the impact of the big reveal. (Of course, it heightens the irony of his condescension to Dan, "I’m not a comic-book villain.") My friend Dana, who hasn’t read the
graphic novel comic book (no euphemisms! even in the face of Armageddon!), identified him as the Baddie from the start. Making him and not Captain Metropolis the leader of the Crimebusters/Watchmen team in the 60s makes him appear to be ruthless. It’s not obvious that Adrian really does want to save the world — and perhaps Zach Snyder decided he doesn’t; he wants to rule it. Hence the Tears for Fears "Everybody Wants To Rule The World" background music in his meeting with Lee Iacocca (noticed by Attackerlady); the absence of his line, referencing the achievements of Alexander The Great, "…ruling without barbarism!"; and the presence of Veidt Construction cranes in the craters of New York. That would make for a more coherent portrayal of Adrian. But also a far less interesting one.
2. Laurie. I truly can’t decide if this is a mistake or a clever inversion of gender roles on-screen. The film doesn’t present Laurie Juspeczyk. It presents Laurie Jupiter. By getting rid of the refusal to de-ethnicize her name — you know, and adopt a secret identity? — Snyder gets rid of a lot of Laurie’s anger at her mother, with the exception of an early scene where Sally Jupiter is drunk and they have minor fight over Eddie Blake’s memory. In short, Laurie is the most functional character in the film, where in the comic, she’s one of its most broken. Laurie Juspeczyk resents her mother, is desperate for a father, and is unable to function as a normal human being. Laurie Jupiter is extremely hot and kicks the shit out of a bunch of criminals. It sucks for her when she finds out who her dad is.
But is that a necessary deviation that’s actually in keeping with the spirit of Watchmen? There aren’t any fucking superheroines in movies. The Wonder Woman project went straight to DVD. Women in supporting roles in superhero movies are passive characters, waiting to be hurt by men and then saved by them.Moore and Gibbons’ Watchmen complicated every aspect of superheroes. Maybe Snyder needed to decomplicate Laurie in order to complicate a broader cultural point about women in genre movies. I can’t make up my mind; help.
3. Rorschach. The portrayal of Rorschach is excellent. He’s terrifying and sociopathic and chillingly compelling for his twisted integrity. There is no character like him. And if you know Brian from Catharsis/Requiem/From The Depths, you’ll be disturbed by how much Rorschach’s voice literally sounds like Brian’s.
But Rorschach’s fascism is out of the film. Yes, he makes a number of derisive references to the liberal effeteness of other characters. But ask: why is Rorschach so invested in resolving the death of the Comedian? In the film, he tells Dan, "an attack on one is an attack on all!" But Rorschach hasn’t believed anything like that since the night he was reborn after the child-murderer case. Indeed, the mask-killer-theory presents a self-preservation impulse. But the real reason Rorschach cares about the Comedian is he admires the Comedian. Or, rather, he admires what he thinks the Comedian stands for — not Eddie Blake’s actual nihilism, but the perceived willingness to kill for the greater principle ("…men like my father and President Truman…"). Remember, Rorschach sees only what he insists he ought to see, "free to scrawl own design on morally blank world." His politics are a function of his broader vision of a world in which brutality keeps justice narrowly off the precipice of total collapse. The drop-off of his journal at the New Frontiersman office doesn’t make sense in the movie.
(But perhaps that just sets up Watchmen 2, in which Godfrey and Seymour combat Veidt’s charnel-house utopia through the power of the press, or at least until the free availability of information renders the New Frontiersman‘s business model unsustainable and the paper has to shutter.)
At the theater in which I saw the movie, there was a curious outburst during the prison-cafeteria scene in which Rorschach scalds his attacker with hot cooking fat. A huge cheer bursted out as he delivers the line, "What none of you understand is that I’m not locked in here with you — you’re locked in here with me!" Why? Did the audience just like the bad-assed-ness of the scene? Or did they identify with Rorschach’s embrace of brutality, justified after the fact as self-defense? Free to scrawl own design on morally blank world…