Tuesday, February 3, 2009
Who'll Watch Watchmen?
I recently reread Watchmen, the graphic novel (originally a limited comic book series that was reprinted in the graphic novel format) that made it to Time Magazine's 100 Greatest Novels of the 20th Century. I missed it when it first came out, as I was in middle school and no doubt I probably wouldn't have fully appreciated it back then anyway. It wasn't until I was in college, I believe, when I finally picked up the collection and read it. I enjoyed it quite a bit, and when I read it again years later, I liked it even more.
What prompted me to pick it up yet again was that there's a movie coming out next month. I'm approaching this one with optimism - extremely cautious optimism. There have been a couple of trailers out so far, and it definitely looks like Watchmen, but will it be able to adapt that particular story into a movie?
For those who don't know, Watchmen was written by Alan Moore and illustrated by Dave Gibbons. It tells the story of a group of superheroes who live in an alternate 1985 where Richard Nixon is still President. Costumed adventuring has been made illegal, and only three continue to be active. Two of them, The Comedian and Dr. Manhattan, (the only one with actual superhuman powers) work for the government. The third, Rorschach, continues the fight in spite of the law. The story begins with the death of The Comedian, and the story involves not only finding out who's conspiring against the heroes but an oncoming nuclear Armageddon. (Much of the story is also told in flashbacks, as The Comedian has a sizable role in the story.)
That sounds simple enough, but there are many other layers at play - as many as one would expect from a thoughtful novel or film. You can get a greater appreciation for the story if you have some familiarity with comic book superheroes, as there's a "Golden Age" and a "Silver Age" group of heroes - something that only a savvy comics fan would even recognize. Also, there's a comic within the comic called Tales from the Black Freighter that mirrors, on a thematic level, what's going on in the main story. (Think of the play within the play in Hamlet.) Oh, and it turns out that particular story is going to be made into an animated movie and released on DVD shortly after the movie hits theaters. Whether it'll even be referenced in the movie, I'm not quite sure.
So obviously, the complex nature of the story would be difficult to translate into a standard-length movie. Personally, I saw more potential in an HBO miniseries than a movie, but hey, nobody's paying me for my ideas. Also, there are simply things that one can do in a comic that can't be done in a movie. It's not like Spider-Man or Batman, where each character has had multiple incarnations and interpretations over the decades. Watchmen is what it is, and it began and ended with that story - nobody's touched it since. (And yes, comic book nerds, I am aware that all of the characters are based on the Charlton Comics heroes to some degree - Nite Owl is Blue Beetle, Rorschach is The Question, Dr. Manhattan is The Atom, etcetera.) So, that's a very specific vision that one needs to be true to, and much of the story has to do with the way it was paced. Comics are amazing in the way that time can be sped up and slowed down simply by altering the number of panels per page. Movies have their own tricks - but it's not going to be the same.
I'm not sure whether the director, Zack Snyder, is a plus or a minus. His previous efforts, Dawn of the Dead (the remake) and 300 were both entertaining and solid pieces of entertainment. But no, I would have to disagree with many of my students who declared 300 to be the "greatest movie ever". The thing is, they're both kinda dumb. Entertaining and effective in their way, but dumb - and Watchmen is definitely working on a higher level than either of those two movies. I mean, there's subtlety and moral ambiguity in the story - something that both of those stories lacked severely. Then again, neither one of those movies were trying for that, so perhaps Snyder has it in him to pull it off if given the chance. I'm hoping that the worst-case scenario is that I walk out saying that it was an entertaining movie, but it wasn't the Watchmen that I know.
As for the first trailer, which I'm posting below, as I stated below, it certainly looks like Watchmen. However, it also looks like a standard superhero action movie. They might be focusing on these things to sell it to a mainstream audience, but the graphic novel is pretty sporadic with the action. There's a lot more dialogue, human drama, character development, and philisophical musing than one might expect from a superhero story. Shoot, I'm afraid that if they do get it right, I'll have to hear from a bunch of ignoramuses how it was "boring" because there "wasn't enough action".
So, here's hoping that they can get it right. Maybe it might get some more people to read comics - and how bad could that be?