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

5 Jun

[Part I can be found here.]

And now the parts which I think are going to prove hardest to translate and suggest that this movie will miss the mark after all:

1. The politics are Cold War era and something of a mess:

And I mean “a mess” in the best way possible. Mike is exactly right when he says that “Moore is uniquely difficult to adapt”. Part of this is because Moore plays with a lot with overlapping themes, history, and ideas and draws connections between them that aren’t conducive to a straightforward narrative (From Hell has a 40 page Appendix commenting on different images, symbols, and references in the book. Trying to fit of that into a common movie adaptation only allowed for the suggestion of connections and a reductive atmosphere of “this is all a complex conspiracy”).

Watchmen was as much a work about what the political moment felt like (the rise of Reganism/Thatcherism of the 80s) as it was an exploration of political themes like imperialism and nuclear proliferation. If you look at other works around the same time (like Jamie Delano‘s Hellblazer or Frank Miller’s The Dark Night Returns) you’d think that Regan and Thatcher were releasing demonic hordes to suck the life from the poor and usher in a new age of crypto-fascism¹. That’s harder to convey some 20 years later, and current political turmoil helps only insofar as current generations are familiar with a certain amount of distrust of government. What drives much of the book is the sense that a conflict between two superpowers (the US and USSR) was inevitable, made all the more real by the Regan administrations aggressive rhetoric and the threat that our technology would slip out of our control, leading to a Dr.Strangelove like disaster. I think a lot of that fear was overblown, but it did make for a really great alternate history. It’s less certain that it’ll make for a great movie backdrop.

Works of art aren’t usually programmatic in their politics, nor easily reducible to some kind of political framework (“You see? it’s all a parable about the dangers of single payer healthcare“). That’s why I can see some of the politics being downplayed and acting as a kind of atmospheric–a kind of anxious environment the characters live in as part of a kind of “dystopian” alternate America. None of these are inherently bad, but from Mike has said about V for Vendetta (and the complex nature of Watchmen) we might easily be treated to heaping spoonful political gobbledygook.

2. A movie about superheroes that uses movie superheroes as fodder is something different:

This is the downside of my “Nite Owl looks badass” argument, and one which Mike does a succinct job of laying out:

Furthermore, movie-Batman doesn’t lend himself to the same sort of affectionate tweaking as comic-Batman, because he basically makes sense. Not a lot of sense, but a lot more than comic-Batman. He’s not fighting crime in fetish gear, he’s wearing body armor. He doesn’t drive around in a limousine with little bat wings glued to its ass, he drives a super-maneuverable armored assault vehicle. It makes for more convincing cinema, but it’s not the sort of material from which you derive Nite Owl, and I suspect it quite fundamentally can’t be. The feeling just isn’t right.

There isn’t the same sort of reality/comic book absurdity dichotomy on screen, where directors have fundamentally taken a realistic approach. If Watchmen used cinematic elements to make its world seem more realistic, then a movie can’t break that distinction because it’s already gone. Part of this difficulty falls under the category of “Trying to make a ‘realistic’ superhero movie in post-Watchmen world”. In some ways, every superhero movie has already been influenced by Watchmen (culminating in the family-friendly version of Watchmen, The Incredibles, and the new Hancock movie). I don’t want to belabor the deconstruction of superheros point too much, but much of what gives Watchmen its impact for comic book reader can’t be transported to the big screen. Again, that doesn’t mean that whatever sort of comment on superhero movies Zack Synder makes is bound to ring false, just that it’s that much harder to tweak the genre without merely recapitulating a lot of what’s come before.

3. It’s rumored to clock in at between 2 1/2 and 3 hours:

Perhaps you saw this one coming. Yes, I said this was a good thing before, but in full recognition of the different medium we’re dealing with, 2 1/2 hours might come to seem like a long time to sit through multiple character arcs that fail to come together in a satisfying way. Put another way: Sure, comic book nerds like myself might have the tolerance for it, but does that mean that it will be a good movie? We shall see.

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¹ Whatever you think of Regan and Thatcher, it wasn’t that bad. Also, I’m being a bit literal with some of the metaphors Delano and Miller employed (e.g. demons as yuppies looking to make a quick infernal dollar), but I think they were expressing a kind of political sentiment that felt a group from the fringe had just swept into office around the globe.

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: Continue reading

Fake Policy Commentary

19 May

[Subtitle: Of Course You Need Another Blog Post About Foreign Policy and Comic Books]

I’m in general agreement with this Spencer Ackerman article about imperialism and Iron Man, but the concluding sentence leads to some unintentional policy consequences, at least in the comic book world:

America either needs to submit the Iron Man armor to a series of institutions to govern its just use, or it needs to take off the suit once and for all.

I wonder what a series of institutions governing Iron Man might look like.  Perhaps a superhuman registration act?  Uh oh.  That can’t lead to good things.

Harry Potter is the Chosen One (But I’m Still Not Reading)

14 Aug

Though I’ve never read any of the Harry Potter books, this Jane Espenson essay in TNR¹ does a good job explaining why thebooks-of-magic.jpg story of a boy wizard is so captivating–he’s the Chosen One:

The Chosen One paradigm is the most positive, most comforting, most affirming metaphorical version of change, of growing up, that I can imagine.

And as Espenson argues, it’s also why Luke Skywalker and Buffy Summers have greater appeal than Star Trek and Battlestar Galactica; intricate worlds have their niche followings, but the Chosen One is a universal archetype.  Keep that in mind during your next pitch meeting.

For my part, I’ve never been much interested in reading Harry Potter because I found the strikingly similar Books of Magic before Harry Potter was published (and I was a little old to get caught up in the first wave of Pottermania, though it’s pretty common for adults to read the books now).  Besides, The Books of Magic also features everyone’s favorite trench coat wearing, chain smoking, itinerant magician.  Honestly, who’s a cooler mentor: Dumbledore or John Constantine?

¹  A BtVS writer!  In TNR! I nearly geeked-out.