Thursday, 19 March 2009


(Ed: This is a short reflection on the graphic novel and movie. No real spoilers but it won't make much sense unless you've watched the movie or read the graphic novel, which I strongly suggest you do.)

Watchmen the graphic novel is equal parts thrilling whodunit, riotous adventure, grand conspiracy and cerebral romp through knotty political, social, psychological, ethical and philosophical themes. Starting life as a 12-part comic book series from 1986/7, it was considered a seminal work in the genre, a masterpiece from the godfather of comic book writing, Alan Moore, artist Dave Gibbons and colorist John Higgins. It was designed to be appreciated by way of multiple readings and unhurried contemplation (unlike the movie, obviously) and from first hand experience I can vouch that it is a fairly dense, complex and multi-layered work of fiction, regardless of its medium.

Most people born in the mid 80's (like myself) will not immediately see how important Watchmen is simply because by the time we reached the age when we encountered popular culture's depictions of superheroes, its influence was already deep and widespread. Read today, Watchmen's deeply flawed characters, unnerving undertones and gloomy outlook will seem unremarkable compared to your garden variety superhero facing personal problems and ethical dilemmas while living in deeply troubled, crime-ridden and morally depraved societies.

But when you note that Watchmen is more than 20 years old, and compare how superheroes were portrayed before it, you can see what an astounding impact it has left on the landscape of comic books. Before Watchmen, heroes in comics came in few variations—most of them were valiant, physically strong and dominant, chivalrous, and had unwavering moral fortitude. And of course, most lived in highly stylised worlds where morality rarely had grey areas—the story's villain was often over the top with an almost cartoonish penchant for evil, and the hero was equally flamboyant in his pop-colour spandex suit, ever-ready to save the world.

Moore removed heroes from their 'created' worlds and put them in the 'real' world, not in the sense that the Watchmen world perfectly mirrors ours, but in the sense that people within it do not live in a morally dichotomous universe of perfect good or malevolent evil. In fact in the alternate-America of Watchmen, history took a very different course. Nixon is re-elected for a third term, thanks to the Vietnam War being won by America, in turn thanks to Dr. Manhattan, a superhuman hired by the government to fight (annihilate, really) the VietCong. He (Dr Manhattan) gained his powers by way of a freak accident in a military lab, and is the only person in the Watchmen world to have superpowers. All the other Watchmen/heoes are just humans donning costumes and masks.

Moore asks the question: in such a world, what sort of people would dress up to fight crime anonymously, and why would they do it? For kicks? For fame? For money? Due to some fetish? How many would do it for purely selfless reasons? Would all of them be perfect moral characters? Would they all be brave and virile? His heroes, the Watchmen, and their predecessors the Minutemen, are instead portrayed as either morally questionable, ambiguous to down-right reprehensible, with complex psychological profiles and varying reasons for fighting crime, most of which have little to do with an actual desire to rid society of it. Moore 'deconstructed' the comic book hero down to earth-level human with screw-ups aplenty.

It's really thanks to Moore that we have our heroes (both in comics and beyond) drawn as morally and psychologically complex with brooding personalities and troubling dilemmas rather than as the simplistic white knights in shinning armour of yesteryear. Watchmen darkened the hues of comic book heroes and their worlds unlike anything had done before, and this in turn affected other works of fiction: literature, television, movies, etc. So really, while most people my age might find the ideas in Watchmen familiar, the same could be said of plenty of artistic ideas that, due to them being imitated and recreated ad infinitum, seem unoriginal when presented in their native forms simply because we're so used to their ubiquitous, heavily polished copies. Yet, when we learn of their novelty and uniqueness in the context of their time and place, we take a step back and stand astounded, the same way we would be amazed looking at the first typewriter, telephone or car.

That is one of the problems with Watchmen the movie, because it comes two decades after its source material was created—just a little too late, although of course only today's technology could produce the Watchmen movie we see today (another sign of Moore's amazing vision and talent). In that period, plenty of other comics, books, movies and other media in popular culture have went ahead to portray the type of characters found in Watchmen, so much so that the ones in the movie now seem clichéd in comparison. So what if Veidt is morally ambiguous? Practically all the lead characters in television action serials are. So what if Dr. Manhattan feels detached from everyone else? So is every hero with superhuman powers. So what if Rorschach and the Comedian detest humanity? We've got plenty of anti-heroes already, thank you very much.

The radicalism of Moore's approach in the graphic novel is completely lost when transfered to film, not least because of the 20 year time-lapse, and it's even more lost on those who have not read the comics. They already have a mammoth task of having to shift through the myriad of characters across multiple time lines and their respective roles in the story, while trying to figure out the murder-mystery/conspiracy. It's just another action movie, and there is really no room for contextualising the source material back to the 80's.

But for fanboys (or girls), particularly those who have read Watchmen when the Cold War was actually going on, it is a much loved masterpiece brought to life. And in this sense, the movie is fulfilling to fans, because many of the details in the comics are meticulously recreated, and many scenes constructed almost frame by frame from the source material, with lines copied verbatim. In fact it is so much of a fanboy movie that many of the elements in the movie would go either unnoticed or seem completely irrelevant to the story-at-large to non-fans. Often, the scenes lose their context due to director Zack Synder's reverence to the source material; the graphic novel had plenty of time and space to create depth and atmosphere for them (the scenes) to play out, but in the movie they can seem either ridiculously over the top, pointless or clichéd. Those who have and have not read the comics would no doubt have very different experiences watching the film.

But the problem with adapting Watchmen (besides its inherent plot complexities) was that it was nearly impossible to please everybody, at least to the same degree. You either please the fans (and they are legion) who demand near-absolute reverence, or you please the non-fans who probably needed some drastic changes so as to be able to shallow and enjoy the story. Mr. Synder and his team of screenwriters chose the former, for better and for worse. While this faithfulness works admirably at times, allowing Moore's story-telling and clever lines to shine through without interference, at other times it produces rather laughable results simply because what works visually in the comic book doesn't work as well when replicated on screen. What gratifies long-term fans will often annoy, confuse or embarrass non-fans.

Having said that though, Mr. Synder does add some of his own touches, in particular plenty of bloody and, in my view, distasteful violence not found in the original material. There is considerable violence in the graphic novel, but most of it is cleverly suggested rather than shown; you get none of the cringe-inducing stuff found in the movie. Of course we all know Mr. Synder's portrayal of violence is to be expected considering his previous work, but it still borders on intolerable sadism—it is simply unnecessary and distorts the characters actions beyond their own personalities.

Mr. Snyder was admirably apt at handling the enormity of the production (it really is huge), but he is clearly not an actor's director. While Rorschach's Jackie Earl Haley played the character amazingly (and masked, too!), Silk Specter's Malin Akerman was far less admirable, her lines about as well delivered as a Malaysian postcard to Vanuatu. Everyone else's performance was somewhere in between. The slow motion action sequences were gratuitous and at times downright irratating, while the scenes between Silk Spectre/Sally Jupiter and Nightowl/Dan Dreiberg were often palpably awkward. Of course the multiple layers of the original work was lost in this single-serving movie, but that is to be expected. There is simply no way that every nuance and subtlety can be transfered on-screen from the source material, even with Synder's faithfulness, but even for fans, it's a reasonable, and ultimately necessary sacrifice when adapting it into a movie.

Another one of the directional elements is the soundtrack. The two friends I watched the movie with enjoyed the music selection, I personally did not. The opening credit sequence, a clever and well done montage that condenses the decades of history within the Watchmen universe to a few minutes, plays to Dylan's The Times They Are a-Changin'. Ok, even Captain Obvious would've been embarrassed, but I can let that one go. Plus, as a friend said, it allowed viewers, particularly those unfamiliar with the story, to enter a context of time (the 80's) easily. Fair enough. Later, a funeral ceremony opens to Simon and Garfunkel's The Sound of Silence. That's two in a row. Then a love scene has Leonard Cohen's Hallelujah playing. Why ruin such a beautiful and well-loved song with what is probably the worst love scenes of the year? Threading on thin ice now. Then the scenes of the Vietnam War has The Ride of the Valkyries swells in the background. Are you kidding me? I mean, c'mon! Must you copy the music straight out of one of the most famous Vietnam War movies around? Must you? Then Tears for Fears' Everybody Wants to Rule the World pipes in when we meet the megalomaniac Adrian Veidt, and at this point I am unwilling to forgive. In my personal view, a few lesser known bands whose sound embodies the spirit of the Watchmen's dark world would have done much more good to the movie as well as for the bands' exposure, and to Synder's credibility. But that's my view.

A final note would be on the ending, and it's clear divergence from the original material (the only part of the movie that is notably different, rather than notably missing). No doubt fanboys have already discussed at length whether this was an acceptable move in their forums and blogs, but I personally think that it was a good change. The original ending was intricately tied to another story arch that could not have possibly been included in the movie, so Mr. Snyder and his scriptwriters really had no choice but to simplify it anyway. Even if he didn't alter the ending, it would have seemed far too ridiculous to anyone who didn't go through the hundreds of pages building up to it in the graphic novel.

Yet this new ending, while I agree it was a good and needed alteration, might still be problematic because it doesn't really satisfy the expectations of non-readers. The ending in the graphic novel was Moore's joke on his readers—a dissolution that was completely opposite to what most comic book readers would have expected, but movie goers aren't going to get it simply because, unlike fans of the comics who probably read plenty of other comics, their experience is confined to the movie itself, and their point of reference is other action movies. The joke will seem more like a disappointing and frustrating state of circumstances rather than an astute and ironic twist to the narrative. (But then again, there was the twist to the twist, which I suppose leaves the work to viewers' imagination—you'll know what I mean if you've watched the movie/read the comics).

Which is why I suggest that anyone who hasn't read the graphic novel to do so. If you liked the movie, you'll love the work, and if you didn't like it, reading the source material will probably change your view of the movie, especially if you watch it again. Even if it doesn't change your view (unlikely if you consider how complex and difficult it is to adapt), reading the graphic novel is still a deeply enjoyable and unique experience independent of its movie adaptation. It (the graphic novel) makes you think about (amognst many, many other things) the perils of power and how much misplaced hope we put onto our heroes, who in the end fail us because they are simply flawed humans like the rest of us—a lesson every Malaysian citizen ought to learn.

Sources: Wikipedia and


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