Who Will Want to Watch “Watchmen”? (Part I)

2 Jun

I’m in general agreement with most of Mike’s observations about the Watchmen movie: that the source material is dangerously close to unfilmable and that it’ll be turned into a action film–albeit an action film uselessly layered with pseudo-political commentary and psychodrama window dressing. But contra Mike, after reading the wikipedia page (and having just finished rereading Watchmen), I think there are some signals that Zack Snyder might have a shot at translating the graphic for the screen. Let’s start with the bits that seem promising:

1. Synder has decided to keep the movie in alternate-1985 America: This seems like an important feature of not only the political environment the characters live in, but also in the look of the movie itself. This is a successful but inwardly empty America that has gotten much of what it wanted during the Cold War, thanks to Dr. Manhattan. America wins in Vietnam (and seemingly every other proxy war) and rides high on its sense of invincibility. Remove that stuff and you’ve got a different writer’s social commentary. If there’s going to be any sense of intelligent political musings, it’s best that it be in the context of Watchmen’s world rather than a botched gloss on current political events or turned into some generic screed against nuclear war.

2. Nite Owl looks kinda badass: Like Mike, this made me wince at first. Sure, spandex and bright colors look better on the page than on the screen (a not unwise choice, as Bryan Singer’s X-Men demonstrated), but the characters seem needlessly “sexed up”. But then I read this from Snyder:

The costumes, as they’re drawn, might not be accessible to many of today’s audiences. I also felt that audiences might not appreciate the naiveté of the original costumes. So, there has been some effort to give them a slightly more… I would say modern look — and not modern in the sense of 2007, but modern in terms of the superhero aesthetic. It was also important to me that they appealed to my own taste as a moviegoer. Lastly and possibly most important, I wanted to be sure that they comment directly on many of today’s modern masked vigilantes — who shall remain nameless…

If this is going to be a real movie–and not simply an action flick using the names and characters from an Alan Moore comic–then the movie has to be a commentary (or examination, or whatever) on superheros as they’re portrayed in the movies, just as Watchmen was, to some extent, an examination of heroes as they’d been written and drawn in comics up until 1985. These are two different media with their own tropes and cliches to be poked at and examined. This new Nite Owl seems pretty (movie) Batman inspired.

I also think Mike places too much emphasis on visual absurdity of the costumes:

This is a terrible idea. It’s vitally important to the whole concept of the book that the heroes are fundamentally ridiculous. If Nite Owl is sexy in and out of his costume, we lose the sense of fundamentally damaged adults playing dress-up in a desperate attempt to feel good about themselves. If we lose that, we lose an extremely important part of the critique of the arrogance of Adrian Veidt / Ozymandias — the part that humanizes him.

Yes, having Patrick Wilson play an insecure, middle-aged guy seems like a stretch when you look at him, but when you look at his work and his acting chops, things work out (think Nicholas Brendan and Alyson Hannigan playing the loser and nerd respectively on Buffy the Vampire Slayer–only on TV are Brendan or Hannigan the unattractive social nobody, but their characters are compelling and resonate as “losers” nonetheless). Wilson has the talent to play a someone struggling with being someone better (or something they’re not) and becoming who they are or want to be (see Angles in America and Little Children). The absurdity comes from the recognition that dressing up in a costume to fight crime is inherently absurd in a realistic context, no matter how cool the costume looks. All of this is in service to the the psychological question: what motivates someone to dress up and beat up criminals?

I also think Mike belabors Dan Dreiberg’s inadequacy as Nite Owl compared to the perfect specimen of Adrian Viedt. Drieberg isn’t an ineffectual superhero; he’s smart enough to design the Owl Ship and other gadgets to fight crime and save people. He’s also smart enough to figure out the pieces of the big mystery that Rorschach misses. What sets Dreiberg and Viedt apart is the scale of their ambition and prowess. Viedt is the extreme of the superhero psyche, with a need to save everyone, be perfect so he has the power to do what it takes to change the world. Dreiberg is superhero impulse on a lesser scale; he becomes Nite Owl to feel more powerful, but also because he’s infatuated with the mythos and drama of costumed avengers. This makes him a kind of fanboy counterpart and the emotional anchor of the story–he isn’t driven by megalomaniac zeal or an obsessive mother or a broken childhood–just an ordinary sense of wanting to do more in this world. No great inadequacy there.

3. Watchmen is rumored to clock in between 2 1/2 and 3 hours: Good, because to do the movie right, it’s going to take a lot of screen time. To do the overlapping narratives and character arcs right is going to take a running time that pushes the standard Hollywood conception of attention span. Snyder with have to make cuts and choices in order to make it a manageable movie to watch, but too much and it becomes an abridged imitation.

That’s my case for cautious optimism. This post is running long, so I’ll highlight the difficulties in another post later this week.

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3 Responses to “Who Will Want to Watch “Watchmen”? (Part I)”

  1. Chuck Kerr June 2, 2008 at 4:58 pm #

    I agree with your assessments totally, especially about the movie costumes. “Watchmen” the novel worked because it deconstructed other comic book costumes; “Watchmen” the film has to do the same for comic book films. The time is right, too: Audiences have seen enough superhero movies to recognize when the genre tropes and archetypes get tweaked.

Trackbacks/Pingbacks

  1. Ways to End the World › Difficult cases to make. - June 3, 2008

    […] unfilmable thanks to formal properties essential to its tone, characterizations, and plot. But Pax Corey does a good job here, in response to my concerns. I think he probably has the stronger case in most […]

  2. Who Will Want to Watch “Watchmen”? (Part II) « Pax Americana: Culture, Politics, and Ineffectual Debate - June 5, 2008

    […] Who Will Want to Watch “Watchmen”? (Part II) Jump to Comments [Part I can be found here.] […]

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