Sunday, March 8, 2009

A World Worth Saving?

At the beginning of The Incredibles, Mr. Incredible complains to an off-camera interviewer that the job of a super is never-ending. He says "no matter how many times you save the world, it always manages to get back in jeopardy again. Sometimes I just want it to stay saved! You know, for a little bit? I feel like the maid; I just cleaned up this mess! Can we keep it clean for... for ten minutes!"

In a nutshell, this is the conflict at the heart of Watchmen. No matter how much saving gets done, things just get worse. The problems get bigger. They get more complex. Not only that, the heroes of Watchmen have to deal with a society that really doesn't want them anymore. In the eyes of the public, they have lost their luster and so there is bitterness. With the people. And with the heroes. Why save the idiots if they don't appreciate it? And why save them if they just go and do something stupid again?

Gone are the days of Superman. Of the heroes with unconditional love for all things. When you think about it, we've been creeping towards this. Towards this kind of film. We want to see our heroes a little more human. We want to see the scars. To see the bruises. We want to see the cracks in the characters. It's why Batman keeps coming back to us in so many different forms. Rooting for Superman is like rooting for the Yankees. It's not hard and it's not very interesting.

I left the theater Friday night, not feeling like one who had just walked out of a movie based on a comic book about super heroes. I was not charged. Not invigorated. I think the word to describe my feelings would be that of helplessness. If ever there were a time to release this film, it would be now. And yet, it may be the absolute worst time for this movie to be released. Because right now, we sure have made a mess of things. And right now if Superman existed, we would be down on our knees begging to be saved. Without question. Without judgment. So that we could get on with our lives with the risk of making the same mistakes we did before. Unfortunately, things aren't that easy. And Alan Moore knows this.

Moore's vision of this world is not a good one. What does it say about his story that the most conscientious character, Rorschach, is seen as a sociopath? Or that Dr. Manhattan who could save the entire world with a snap of his fingers would rather move to Mars and start a new species? And it doesn't say a lot that his vision has more or less come true 20 years later. I would take pleasure in saying that Moore was nothing but a cynic. To say that this movie was outrageous fantasy much like 1984. But here we are. Not at the brink of nuclear disaster. But in a current economic state of woe brought on by ourselves. And it begs the question: do we deserve to be saved? And if we are saved, will we just go and make things even worse?

It's a great question. A logical one. And yet Watchmen is the first super hero movie to ask it and dare to answer it. And damn if director Zach Snyder doesn't do a good job pulling it all off, mostly because he never steps too far from his material. In 300, I would say that Synder was guilty of taking himself too seriously. But here, his ego serves the picture well. At no time did I ever stop and think how ridiculous all the characters were. If I have a criticism however, it would be that Synder doesn't completely abandon the super hero movie formula. The story of Watchmen is about exploring the humanity of these heroes. But when these heroes fight, it's as if they suddenly have superhuman strength. Bones are snapped like twigs and bodies are thrown through the air like pieces of crumpled paper. And I don't know about you, but I think I'm done with ramping as an interesting visual device.

In Batman Begins, we never get to see what would have happened had Batman not foiled Henri Ducard and Ra's Al Ghul master plan. In Watchmen, we are not afforded such a luxury. And maybe we shouldn't be. The problem with Superman is that he creates a false security. We know that when he's around everything will be alright. And because of this, we never learn to be better people ourselves. We're always looking over our shoulders for someone to save us. Without question. Without judgment. Watchmen tells us that Superman is a myth. That no one deserves absolution. And that if you want safety, it comes at a hefty price. One that we'd rather not pay. But it needs to be paid nonetheless.


Anonymous said...

No doubt the film and comic book grapple with interesting ideas. And you always tend to take those ideas and run with them in your reviews.

I, on the other hand, tend to look at the movie itself and ask whether it works as film. And that answer is largely no. I don't think the film has a cohesive narrative. I think some of the performances are terrible. I think Snyder's direction is largely style over substance (but my, what style ...). I think the film has a completely lackluster finale that fails both dramatically and intellectually.

I mean, why is the Ozymandias character given such short thrift in this screenplay, when he is the most important character in the final act? Why are characters who are basically not "super" suddenly given amazing physical powers, able to do amazing, gravity-defying feats of superhuman strength and agility?? And why, oh why, must we look at so much male nudity?????

Other things bothered me, too. Like why would Richard Nixon be President in 1985, when he'd be approximately 400 years old. Or why would Nixon be the one to bring us to nuclear war, when he was probably one of the best foreign relations Presidents we've ever had? Hell, Reagan did more for the Cold War in reality than Nixon could ever do in this comic book.

And still more things bothered me, like why must there be an alternate 1985 reality at all, aside from the obvious, attention-grabbing gimmick that it is. It doesn't really serve the story or inform the message at all, so why use it?

And still more things bothered me, like Snyder's insistence on making everything look like a video game, so that even supposed video footage of real places like Vietnam or real people like Nixon and Kissinger looked comical and ridiculous, instead of establishing a believable alternate reality. Everything seemed very lightweight and pointless.

The ultimate truth is that a lot of geeks have held the comic book in such high regard that this movie is their PHANTOM MENACE. I came out of the first few screenings of PHANTOM MENACE thinking that Lucas had pulled it off. After a while, reality began to sink in. It seemed like STAR WARS ... had the music, The Force, Artoo Detoo, etc ... but it wasn't right.

Same here. The costumes and plot points feels the same, and the geeks think it approximates what they saw in their heads for twenty years while jerkin it to the comics ... but I bet they'll look at this film later on and feel that same emptiness I felt in 1999.

bill r. said...

Piper - I'm starting to feel all alone here. You liked it, Ed liked it, Rick liked it (although he hasn't written it up)'s like The Dark Knight in reverse (although maybe you liked that one, too, but at the time I was the only one in our extended group who seemed to).

Sigh. Oh well.

PIPER said...


I think most of your criticism is valid. The film suffers from most of what you point out. And I am not one of those geeks that held the book so high, not that you were accusing me of being one. But what I will say is that the message rung more true to me on film than it did in comic book form. So that's either on me, or it's on Synder for doing something right.

It's true that this film might fade for me. But I thought a lot about it after I left the theater and I don't always do that, so I had to get my thoughts down on the old blog. But you're right that my review (jeez, I can't even really call it that) is more about the idea than the film itself. But like I said earlier, I think that Synder did a pretty good job of pulling it off.

But like I said with The Dark Knight - in the end this is a movie about super heroes, so I don't expect it to be among the best films I've ever seen. I guess I was surprised that Synder successfully grasped the depth of the story.

In looking at Synder's very short career, I do think it's interesting to see where's he's headed. His Dawn Of The Dead remake was a good film and completely devoid of all the gloss of 300 and Watchmen. It's like he's compensating for his lack of storytelling skills, perhaps?

PIPER said...


I did like it. And I liked The Dark Knight, I just didn't think it was the second coming as some have stated in not so many words. But I'm interested in reading your review. I think I'll hop over there right now.

Anonymous said...


This is better than a review.
It made me think.


PIPER said...

Thanks Brian.

The damn movie made me think too. That says maybe too much of the movie. But I was thinking anyway.

Anonymous said...


We are on the same page. An imperfect film that I will nonetheless treasure because it made me think. I'm looking forward to the even more gratuitously-long director's cut.


PIPER said...


It's funny. I saw that some church blog picked up my "review" (I put that in quotes because it's not really one). The person who linked to it wondered if I was a Christian because it seemed like I was. I never really thought I was writing in the biblical sense, but I guess how it could have been interpreted like that.

But anyway, for some reason, I found that the movie effected me a lot more than the book did.