Monday, March 9, 2009
The most anticipated movie of the year opened this weekend. That thud you hear is the sound of Watchmen hitting the ground after its precipitous fall from a stunning opening weekend to face what will no doubt be one of the largest drops in attendance on its upcoming second weekend in the box office. With little to appeal to the mass audience, and grand disappointment for its loyal fanboys, word of mouth on this movie shall be less than enthusiastic. Director Zack Snyder has delivered a beautiful reenactment of the comic book that even Max Fischer could be proud of. But all of the sly satirical elements that author Alan Moore so cleverly imbued his story with have been lost in its translation to the screen, leaving behind a hollow shell that doesn't vivify the greatest graphic novel of all time as much as mimic its appearance. It is 1985, Nixon is on his fifth term and the world is quite used to the idea of masked vigilantes running around. But they are mostly retired or in hiding now, due to the Keene Act, passed to restrict their activities after they arrogantly started operating under their own violent code. Rorschach (Jackie Earle Haley) investigates the murder of a retired "mask," the Comedian (Jeffrey Dean Morgan). Dan Dreiberg, the second Nite Owl (Patrick Wilson), leads a dull life as a civilian, often meeting up with his predecessor to swap stories about the good old days. Billionaire Adrian Veidt (Matthew Goode) releases ancillary products capitalizing on his former fame as "mask" Ozymandias. Laurie Jupiter (Malin Akerman) deals with her identity as Silk Spectre, a legacy left to her by her mother, Sally (Carla Gugino), while her marriage to the godlike Dr. Manhattan (Billy Crudup) slowly crumbles. Rorschach's obsessive pursuit of the "Mask-Killer" will soon reunite the group in order to uncover the truth. Moore's Watchmen was the apotheosis of the superhero genre in comic books. It was Moore's comment on the new realism encroaching into the violent comics of the eighties, comics such as Frank Miller's Batman: The Dark Knight Returns, where Batman was depicted as just south of fascistic, an elderly Dirty Harry exacting revenge on Gotham's criminals with little regard for justice or public safety. When Rorschach uncovers a secret vault at a murder victim's apartment containing the Comedian's costume, it could easily be confused for a Bondage closet with its array of leather trappings, represented primarily by a full over-the-head leather mask often seen in fetish art. When the Nite Owl and Silk Spectre use an airship to save some folks from a burning building, Spectre's admonition to one of the victims is, "Listen, I don't care about your 'allergies' or your 'medicine'. Just get in the ship, you asshole." Moore was sharply criticizing superhero comics' loss of innocence, using new characters he created to give the reader some perspective. But he still made them close enough in spirit to allow us to see what Batman, Superman, etc. (actually his characters are based on the Charlton characters, i.e. Blue Beetle, Captain Atom, Peacemaker and the Question) could be perverted into in this new trendy wave of darker stories. Snyder seems to have missed these underlying clever touches in adapting the graphic novel to the screen. Ironically, he seems slavishly devoted to most of the book, duplicating the look and feel of many classic panels of art from the book. Our first encounter with each of the characters is virtually a straight visual quote of pages from the book. But when it comes to the substance, there are some fatal lapses of judgement that eviscerate the story. Gone is the Comedian's S&M inflected leather mask, replaced by a traditional Robin-like diamond mask. So is the inferred thematic point that it takes a depraved lunatic to get off on the feeling of power associated with donning a superhero costume. Gone is Laurie's statement towards the victim of the burning house. Along with it goes the irony of having the Silk Spectre and Nite Owl "save" the victims without viewing them as people with individual needs requiring special attention. Worst of all, Snyder seems to glorify the violence that Moore was so adamantly denigrating. When the vigilantes take on street thugs, bones snap violently, bursting through skin. Rorschach's dousing of a convict's face with boiling oil is given a lingering closeup. And the murder of the Comedian, amongst other violent incidents, is given the now-trademark Snyder treatment, the stop-start fast-then-slow-motion effect so prevalent in his previous film, 300. All of these have the effect of beautifying the gore and brutality, the very thing that Alan Moore sought to undermine with his thoughtful commentary on then-current superhero comics. If there's any indication of what kind of success lies ahead for Watchmen, there's this. The 7 p.m. Saturday showing I attended had only been full to a fifth of its capacity despite agreeable weather. And the audience that was present - all geeky 24 of the fanboys - were reduced to a stunned silence as they tried to figure out whether Snyder's cliched use of "The Sound of Silence" in a funeral scene was a sly dig at cinema as a vehicle to promote a soundtrack, or just another hollow signpost used in hopes of evoking an emotion from a technically proficient but artistically untalented commercial director.