Sunday, 8 March 2009

On Watchmen

It's rare now that I ever feel the sense of anticipation I did back in 1986 when, for twelve tantalisingly long months, Allan Moore and Dave Gibbons' Watchmen first arrived.  Something so smart, serious and sexy was a vindication of such a vital demotic medium as the comic book.  Its power came from its seriousness, it took a serious subject, treated it seriously and it was serious about comics, about their history and content.

Zack Snyder's Watchmen movie is one of those that has been so long in the making that entire timelines of cast members who signed and went exist.  Snyder has found a niche where, as with his film of Frank Miller's Thermopylae book '300', he makes films with the inky colour and emphatic framing of the comic.  Watchmen might be the most sacrosanct of all comic texts, but Snyder's movie is bold and clever enough to succeed or fail on its own terms rather than in comparison to the source.  That alone is a significant achievement.

The title sequence is exhilarating cinema, Snyder's hyperreal aesthetic captures the ability fo comic books to create narrative through single images whilst his suspended motion tableaux achieves the sequential effect of comic book frames.  The sequence tells a history of a world gone off the rails, one that continued to take a right turn when an alternative history Richard Nixon changed the constitution and kept being re-elected right up to 1985 when the story is set.  We see a group of pre-spandex superheroes, fisticuffs, medals, the Grassy Knoll and the end of the Cold War, brought prematurely to a close by Dr Manhattan, a naked blue atomic Superman, the USA's ultimate weapon.  As the sequence closes we see that populist demagogues have reacted against the superheroes, they're vilified, banned, put out to grass, which is pretty much where we find them at the beginning of the movie.

We're introduced to a sociopathic vigilante Rorschach; the smartest man in the world, Ozymandias; the nihilist fascistic Comedian and the wistful Night Owl, a sort of Al Gore figure who has been half the man since retiring his suit.  The casting is audacious, Malin Akerman as the Silk Specter, daughter of one of the originals, and Patrick Wilson as Nite Owl are eerily similair to Gibbons pen and ink originals.  As the histories and pathologies of each of the protagonists are told in complex flashback we get a strong sense of individuals, and that delivers its own set of pleasures, but at the cost of narrative.  Watchmen is set in a dystopian United States on the edge of Cold War, its characters looking back fondly at the past just as the possibility of a future seems less than certain.  Subsequently the complex chronological structure feels digressive to the point where we're unsure where we are.  

A central theme of the movie is the question of whether supermen have a responsibility to mere mortals.  Put another way, and the films explicit historical and political context invites this comparison, what price in individual lives is peace and social cohesion worth?  The power of the film's handling of this question, one that is asked of Dr Manhattan and Ozymandias at different times, is that it is never quite resolved.  The essential mess and disorder of life is not sentimentalised, but then nor are the clean clear utopias offered by men of power.  

Within this context the 'masks', as the superheroes are called, fall into two groups, the fallible vulnerable human crime fighters and the near omniscient superheroes.  The best chance of humanity is in the hands of people who are sometimes proud, violent, selfish and weak.  It's this complexity in the face of pyrotechnic CGI that keeps one's attention, but it is severely strained over almost three hours.

Early in the film, when we are first introduced to Adrian Veidt, we are transfixed as, outside the panoramic skyscraper window the nose of a bulbous zeppelin floats inevitably toward the twin towers of the World Trade Center, and whilst that reference is initially hypnotic it's also a good analogy for the film.  We wait for the familiar impact at the end of that slow path but Snyder cuts away, so we await the film's narrative to ignite and find that it just continues to smoulder.  

The fact is that the apocalypse is the missing part. It ought to be the train that drives Watchmen forward, the imminence of nuclear holocaust should focus the mind, the social and psychological disintegration of cities and characters should feel less like set dressing but it never does.  Perhaps we know that the bomb never gets dropped, whilst in 1985 we half expected to be sent to the fallout bunkers.  Today our latest apocalypse is a financial whimper, not the tangible dread felt in Cold War Britain or even the post World Trade Centre USA.

Watchmen is beautiful and  admirable in many ways and it deserves to be watched, but it lacks the sense of fatal drive toward a crescendo, ending up as curiosity rather than classic.

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