Having Watched the Watchmen

It's nearly 3:30 in the morning, and we are home from the WATCHMEN. And I can say as someone who has been near-obsessed with this graphic novel since I first read it in 1990: this movie is GOOD. I suspect, however, that America is too immature for this movie.

spoilers ahead

Dr. Manhattan is a great big blue man who doesn't wear clothes. He has a great big blue penis that moves when he walks, like a penis should. Now, I for one am glad they didn't do a "Ken" on him, and I'm also glad they refrained from hanging him like Michelangelo's "David" (the industry standard for acceptable "frontal") -- but I was disappointed to hear the giggles of 7th-graders coming out of the mouths of adults every time he took a step, no matter what was going on in the scene.

This was, for me, a sort of metaphor for how too many people are going to "take" this movie: the story offers its reality, with the ugly and appealing in equal parts, its art to make us question our expectations, our fantasies, and our idealism. Frankly, that's big-boy and big-girl grown up stuff. And I'm wondering if we can handle it.

Now I read some of the reviews before we went and saw it, and most of them were negative. I completely get what these reviewers were complaining about, but the reality is that they simply didn't get it. They thought they were watching something too dumb to meet their eye for art. But they were actually watching something that made fun of their eye for art. That might be why they didn't like it. But rather than complain that the movie upends their expectations, mocks their tastes, and makes fun of their ideals, they berate it.

Anthony Lane in the New Yorker
was naive enough to say:

Nite Owl [...] keeps his old superhero outfit, rubbery and sharp-eared, locked away in his basement, presumably for fear of being sued for plagiarism by Bruce Wayne.
As though he's suddenly forgotten that he's watching a story in which Batman and his ilk are being criticized and displayed.

AO Scott writes a several paragraph description of what he sees as the Watchmen's "ideal viewer":
The ideal viewer ... would probably be a mid-’80s college sophomore with a smattering of Nietzsche, an extensive record collection and a comic-book nerd for a roommate. The film’s carefully preserved themes of apocalypse and decay might have proved powerfully unsettling to that anxious undergraduate sitting in his dorm room, listening to “99 Luftballons” and waiting for the world to end or the Berlin Wall to come down.
The implication here seems to be that the "ideal viewer" would be someone young, ignorant, and angsty with just the faintest knowledge of comic books. Or perhaps an annoyance with them? Yet this flies in the face of actual evidence: real comic book lovers and real lovers of literature love the Watchmen.

He would also no doubt have been stirred by the costumes of the female superheroes — Carla Gugino and Malin Akerman, both gamely giving solid performances — who sensibly accessorize their shoulder-padded spandex leotards with garter belts and high-heeled boots. And the dense involution of the narrative might have seemed exhilarating rather than exhausting.

Here he seems to be missing the whole point the movie makes about the female superheroes dressing ridiculously -- something discussed more in the comic, no doubt, but not ignored in the movie. The men also dress absurdly. The whole idea of being a masked vigilante is absurd, but it's something comics (and now comics-based movies) long took for granted. I also wonder why he doesn't have a similarly snarky comment about the "lady version" of this "ideal viewer" being driven to distraction by the completely perfect male specimen strolling stark naked through the film? As for the narrative's "dense involution" -- all I can say is that it was notably pared down from what's in the original story, and that while I did miss some of the stuff excised, what was presented on screen was tight and compelling.

I’m not sure that this hypothetical young man — not to be confused with the middle-aged, 21st-century moviegoer he most likely grew into, whose old copy of “Watchmen” lies in a box somewhere alongside a dog-eared Penguin Classics edition of “Thus Spake Zarathustra” — would necessarily say that Mr. Snyder’s “Watchmen” is a good movie.
This is the part of his description that most mystifies me -- because I know many, many people who, like me, have a long-standing relationship with this story, who first read it in the late 80s or early 90s, who have re-read it and loaned it out and had the loan-out loaned out and ended up buying another copy because everyone who laid a finger on it was enthralled, and to suggest that this is a book most readers read through once and then shove into a box of barely-thought-of books is just absurd.

So it's pretty clear these mainstream reviewers just don't get it. And I don't mean that to say that they're stupid; they're not. I mean that to say that they just don't understand what this art form is doing, and they're looking for the wrong things.

In many ways, the WATCHMEN is hard. It is a story without heroes. Earlier today I read a Salon interview with Alan Moore in which the interviewer says this of Moore:

Unlike his evil "Watchmen" protagonist Ozymandias, Moore does not feel the spirits of history move him to fight injustice or destroy the world.
That sentence threw me. Ozymandias is evil? If he is evil, every character in the WATCHMEN is evil. Okay, if that's how you want to view it. But it seems to me that getting past the whole "good/evil" thing is what the story is, in large part, all about.

Ozymandias is an "enlightened" engineer of the world, willing to murder millions "to save billions." How does that make him worse than the Comedian, who commits wholesale murder on the government payroll? How does that make him better than a nearly-omnipotent once-man who can barely be brought to care about human kind? And how is that nearly-omnipotent once-man who "walks away" in Earth's time of need (because his girlfriend dumps him) any different from people like the Silk Spectre and Nite Owl who obey the Keene act and hang up their crime-fighting suits leaving only the near-lunatic Rorschach to do the work once done by all of them?

In other words, every character in this story is explicitly not a hero. And only Rorschach is an anti-hero. In the kingdom of the relativists, the man with one misguided but firm ideal seems to be the one we wish to follow -- yet we know we should not. We know this because he is horrible, he is a walking nightmare. We might glance from him back to Ozymandias and conclude that all idealists are nightmares. Jelly-spined compromisers like Nite Owl are much better dinner company, and much better members of a civilized society, thank you very much.

Yet the thing this movie did perhaps best of all was portray Nite Owl and Silk Spectre as icky. All the mainstream reviewers are booing the sex scene between them as a stink extraordinaire... without realizing that we should be grossed out by two people who get sexually excited by dressing up and playing vigilante. If you didn't see them as something akin to the duo from "Natural Born Killers," you had your "mainstream society filters" on (I'm talking to you AO Scott), and had them in "rose shades" because they are "good guys." That is what this movie is insisting you not do.

So our weak, coddled brains, used to latching passively to the character we're "supposed to" like and sympathize with, have trouble handling a story that asks a bit more of us than "Batman." And we giggle at the big blue penis. Sigh. Rorschach was right. About some of it, at least.

EDIT/ADDED: For a mainstream reviewer who does understand what's going on (despite having never read the book), check out Roger Ebert's two (2!) reviews of the Watchmen movie, here and here.

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