Friday, March 20, 2009

Watching the Watchmen Ten Years Too Late

Zack Snyder's adaptation of the Watchmen, the "Citizen Kane of graphic novels," does not seem to be packing the punch it possibly should with critics or ticket-buying moviegoers. Why? I have my own theory, but more on that in a moment. I personally liked the film. I purposely chose not to reread the graphic novel before seeing it (it had been about five years since I read it the first time), so I could come at it with a fresh perspective. I decided to reread it after seeing the movie, and I very much approve of the changes Snyder made from the source material. The slight alterations in dialogue and the new ending all seem to be in favor of the characters. But enough about my opinion. I'm here to hypothesize why Watchmen isn't the the end all be all of comic book movies that the graphic novel is made out to be for comic books. After letting it simmer in my head over the past two weeks, I have come to the conclusion that Watchmen is in need of a time machine, or perhaps more appropriately, an alternate history.

Moore's Watchmen was a product of its time, a reaction to and pastiche of the comic books and politics of the 1980s. A "truly faithful" adaptation might have done the same for its own time period, yet Snyder's film seems to circumvent any real influence of the 2000s. Aside from the mostly stellar CGI, made possible only by the last decade of technological improvment, Watchmen more accurately reflects the aesthetics of the 1990s. The fight scenes, for instance, with their emphasis on physical, agile combat and slow motion visual effects, more accurately recall the action sequences of 90s movies like The Matrix (1999), Blade (1998), or anything by John Woo than the quick-cutting, handheld, "realistic" sensibilities of more recent films like The Bourne Identity (2002) or Batman Begins (2005). Heck, even the attempted rape scene resembles a bout between ninjas. Also, rather than sending up the countless superhero movies of the current decade, Watchmen seems more overtly fixated on parodying the Bat-films by Joel Schumacher. Ozymandias' costume is clearly a play on the outfits from Batman & Robin, complete with nipples. Thematically, perhaps this is appropriate, as Ozy the "mask killer" is nearly responsible for the death of costumed crimefighters, just as Batman & Robin almost killed the superhero genre. Furthermore, the song ironically used in the initial Watchmen trailer, "The Beginning is the End is the Beginning" by Smashing Pumpkins, comes straight from the Batman & Robin soundtrack. Where are all the Dark Knight references? How about an homage to Sam Raimi's Spider-Man or the X-Men films? Why so nostalgic?

Even the politics of Watchmen, with its alternate Cold War history and countdown to doomsday, only superficially connect with any sort of particularly relevant post-9/11 sentiment. Say Snyder's Watchmen was released in 1999 rather than 2009. The political aspects of the film, much more relegated to the background as compared to the graphic novel, would not necessarily be lost. The apocalyptic component could just as easily play to a potentially paranoid audience during the Y2K scare as a post-9/11 audience. There is also a level of cheesiness to the film that seems out of place in today's "lactose intolerant" culture of irony (please forgive the metaphor. I had to). The over-the-top fight scenes are more likely to inspire rolling eyes than oohs and ahhs. In terms of visual design, Ozymandias' Antarctic lair resembles the styrofoam pyramids of The Mummy (1999), not the impressive set pieces of Lord of the Rings (2001). Even lines like Silk Spectre's "You're such an asshole" didn't seem to play as well to my fellow audience as it might have a decade ago. It appears people were much more open to cheese in the 90s (see action-packed, one-liner-ridden, top-grossing blockbusters like Independence Day (1996), Men in Black (1997) or any of the movies from the previous Batman franchise).

Perhaps the ironic culture of today has moved to a position in which it is simply over the type of film that Snyder's Watchmen is, a fun action movie with a little cheese on top. Released in 1999, it might possibly have been the masterpiece an adaptation of the original Watchmen should be. Besides, it could have beaten Sin City (2005) and 300 (2007) to the punch with the whole direct translation of a graphic novel trend, and might have seemed more innovative and less tired. Instead, the film has opened to a lukewarm response by an unforgiving society with a low tolerance for camp. Watchmen's opening titles, without a doubt the best sequence of the film, suddenly take on new, extra-cinematic appropriateness. "The times they are a-changin'" indeed.

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