Watching The Watchmen

14 Mar


When I walked out of the small one screen theatre and onto the rain-slick street I at first felt depressed.  After the painfully accurate analogy the movie ended on, I couldn’t help but feel down — but in a good way.  In the way a sad poem is beautiful.  It felt good to feel down.  But then, as I walked towards the sky train station with the chatter of other moviegoers behind me, I fell into a very real depression.  “Why did he go to Mars?  That was kind of gay.”  “That sex scene was retarded, haha.”

It was something I hadn’t considered — nobody can’t at least appreciate Watchmen.  Wrong.

Now, understand that I’m not a fan of the comic.  That is to say, I picked up the comic and read half of it (in the way in which I half-finish so many other things) on the recommendation that it was something special.  I picked it up not as a fan of comics, but as a fan of good stories.  From what I read (and I do plan to finish it) it was obvious this was no normal comic — this was not the cheeseball capes and cowls story that I’d started reading and shoved away before long so many times before.  This was deep, and chilling, and beautiful in its depiction of imperfection.

So, when I saw the film I had read just enough to know what was going on and who everyone was, but I didn’t know enough to be miffed by the film’s different ending.  That was my experience.  Even my mother has read part of the graphic novel, and is now excited to see how it works on the big screen — and she hasn’t gone out to see a movie in…forever.

I’m not the target audience.  Neither is my mother.  But we can both see, to varying degrees, what Watchmen is trying to say.  You don’t have to be a comic fan to see that.

But the problem, I think, is that quite frankly the moving picture is no longer a niche, has not been for a long time.  To be a comic fan you have to want something from comics; to be a videogame fan you have to want something from videogames.  The vast majority of moviegoers don’t want anything from movies; it’s just something to be entertained by on a weekend.  Dance clown, show me some tricks.  I’ll sit here with my popcorn and drink and laugh at farts and cheer at wild action scenes.  

They want the formulaic plot progression and the archetypal cast — a property like Watchmen that intentionally breaks the mold for breaking’s sake is an oddity that they cannot understand.  They refuse to get close to it.

It is a surprising turn of events when it is not the comic niche that comes off as immature; instead it is the general populace who giggles at the sight of an exposed penis.  It is the general populace who don’t find the message Watchmen delivers as striking, even if it’s not a message they’ve actually seen before.  It is the general populace who can’t get past the superhero motif and step into an alternate history, who can’t stare in wonder at the surprisingly accurate portrayal of a man that lives in a quantum state.  To them the twisted vigilanteism of an abused crime fighter is not an exceptional character study, it is just silly.

In all honesty I don’t know what the Watchmen as a whole means to these people.  I can connect with what it means to comic fans, but I cannot really understand the people that shrug it off.  I can only assume it’s the ignorance of the masses, and that is a depressing concept I had never confronted fully.  It’s hard to understand that an artistic medium has a mainstay audience that does not want artistic expression, but instead prefer the masturbatory wringing of the medium itself.  What the big screen displays is inconsequential as long as it conforms to a familiar formula — I can only assume that these people watch movies for the sake of watching movies, and nothing more.

What’s worrying though, is that these people are the arbiters.  They decide if this movie was successful.  Dan Trachtenberg of the Totally Rad Show has expressed his concerns that this is it: this was the chance this sort of Alan Moore comic got to be a big hit, and it looks like it’s failing.  This is the best the comic medium has to offer.  And the movie audience is giving it a thumbs down.

And now you can see why I might be depressed.  Now I understand the Tolkien fans who lamented the movie trilogy.  Now I understand why Alan Moore despises any attempt to take an experiment with his medium and transfer it to film.  It’s not a club I ever wanted to join.


4 Responses to “Watching The Watchmen”

  1. SpikeDelight March 16, 2009 at 7:34 am #

    This pretty much sums up (in a more intelligent way) how I feel about WATCHMEN, except I just say everybody who doesn’t like it because it’s “two hours of talking” or has “like two fight scenes” is too stupid to deserve to see it.

    It’s really a shame that something like WATCHMEN is readily accessible to any idiot who decides to go see it or eventually rent/buy it on DVD. I think the mystique of getting into comics, a medium that many people will be experiencing for the first time when reading WATCHMEN, is enough to sober someone up and make them give it at least a good portion of the reverence it deserves. Nobody really just ‘picks up’ WATCHMEN at their local book or comic store and reads it, they’re always drawn to it from rave reviews by friends. That’s the difference between the comic and the movie. People who go to the movie are either misled by the (admittedly awesome) trailers that make someone uninitiated with the comic think it’s an action flick, or in an equally bad situation, a friend who read the comic will talk about how awesome WATCHMEN is, but the friend won’t want to say anything to spoil it so they will go in not knowing what to expect.

    Overall, it’s just easier to realize the weight of what you’re getting into when reading WATCHMEN, or any comic in general because you can read at your own pace. A film however, you have to keep pressing on and it doesn’t wait up for you to understand what it’s doing. The problem here is that moviegoers neither want to or are able to take that initial step back (like I think most of us did when first reading the comic) and just say, “Whoa, this is heavy stuff. Maybe I should go back and read that part from before because I think I missed something.” The only way to really do that with a movie is to see it a second time, but with this being 2 and a half hours long, coupled with the sheer uninviting amount of story heaped on, most viewers won’t feel compelled to do so.

  2. George Kokoris March 17, 2009 at 4:40 am #

    Going through some of your older entries after commenting on your RE5 piece.

    I grappled with this some time ago when I was writing a lot of short fiction in my spare time. There will always be people who aren’t “picking up what you’re putting down,” so to speak. In fact, that will be most people.

    When I tell people I’m an Objectivist, for example, most of them recoil in horror, try to get political with me or, at best, say “oh, that’s… nice” and then we’re awkward around each other forever. This is because most people who read Ayn Rand end up misunderstanding her and taking a great novel like The Fountainhead as a 900-page excuse for being a complete asshole. Thus we have the stigma that people who read Ayn Rand are assholes.

    Guys like me, who are generally nice dudes, bear the brunt of that stereotype, unfortunately, and I can’t even begin to tell you how much effort I used to put into explaining Atlas Shrugged with absolute clarity to every person who considered it an immoral book. It was frustrating and exhausting. They just didn’t get it.

    Truth is, you’ll never get everyone to open their eyes and see things from another perspective. Most people are just too accustomed to giggling at penises to consider the meaning of a character so detached from human affairs that he feels no obligation to clothe himself, no matter how heavy that concept may be from a storytelling perspective. It’s just not there for them.

    My advice? Forget about those people and align yourself with the ones who enjoy looking deeper. We’ll probably outlive them anyway. 🙂

  3. annoyinassassin March 18, 2009 at 5:47 pm #

    I love to see that people are actually looking deeper at this story, because I too noticed the giggling and chuckles at the sight of a naked CG person on screen. I am a deep fan of the comic itself and appreciate the movie even with it’s minor alterations. They still fit and convey the meaning of the original story as best it can. It saddened me to hear my friend, who went with me, say”That was kind of boring and dumb.”. It made me realize that too many people will disregard this movie altogether and tell their friends to do so as well. This, to me is the greatest interpretation of a graphic novel or even novel in general that I have ever witnessed and hope to see more in the future. I am not ashamed to admit a tear in the eye while witnessing Rorschach’s fate, even knowing the outcome before hand. Great article Nick.

  4. nickhalme March 19, 2009 at 8:04 pm #

    I find objectivism interesting (and certainly more appealing to parts of me than subjectivism); while I’m hesitant to say I sit on either side of the objective/subjective fence, some Randian literature is definitely on my upcoming reading list 🙂

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