Here's the thing about Watchmen...


...I saw it over the weekend. It was a complicated experience. I don't review films here and I rarely give comic films a second thought because there is usually little reason to talk about them. Don't get me wrong- I love comics and have many boxes of them at home. But Watchmen is just asking for scrutiny. There were things that worked great in the film. Rorshach, for instance was greatly expanded as a character. We all knew his mask was moving in the book but to see it on the screen was a thrill. His character became bigger, scarier and more sympathetic on the screen. The face of actor Jackie Earle Haley alone brought a lot to the character. But, like Batman, his character was rooted in Noir films to begin with. He was like a vagabond Sam Spade and had a great sihlouette. But other than that... Since it is a film, you are forced to deal with it as such. In this regard, I was reminded that it is unavoidable to make comic books into films without devolving into total cliché and trope. This has always been true about such films and to a certain extent, the suspension of disbelief we all engage in at the movies gives this situation a pass. But Watchmen the film wasn't able to maintain the originality of the book because the strength of the story and ideas therein were dependent upon the fact that it was a comic book. It was a commentary on comics as well as politics, society, identity, history etc... Formally speaking, it's success is contingent upon its form. You don't see graphic designers trying to reproduce Jackson Pollock's Autumn Rhythm in vector graphics. Because Pollocks abstract expressionism was a painting about the medium of paint itself. It is very much the same with Moore's work. It is a comic book about comic books. Where the story is not about comics- the universals of human weakness, power, corruption, desire- the film could not present these ideas in any way that was new or contributed further to the story. In fact the result of the film seemed to be summed up in one of the last scenes (spoiler alert) when Night Owl tells Ozymandias that "you've idealized the human race and now you've distorted it." The Watchmen has been idealized for so long and now it is distorted because the film industry can't/won't help itself. It seems some directors think that film is the pinnacle of artistic acheivement and until a story is put on the big screen, it is an unfinished work. As it is in the book, The Watchmen is a pretty flawless story. I don't really understand the knee-jerk tendencies of film makers when they get their hands on something that is well written and illustrated. The studios are after money. It's the ones that may claim they are doing it for the art I have a problem with. "It's a lock", it seems some of them say, "it was meant for the big screen. There is so much we can do with this material." Of course this is a hypothetical conversation but I think it is safe to say that because comic books are basically storyboards, film makers see them as unfinished movies rather than a something that stands alone as a form of art. They are seen as a tool to be used to do the real work of film making. Most comic films are made based on visuals alone. But the fact that this film version was almost panel-for-panel from the book gives away the film makers lack of interest in doing something new and interesting. It's as if they didn't understand the content they were working with. Moore took the tropes and cliches of comic books and subverted them, reloading the signs and symbols of superhero stories and made something new. This film added nothing. If anything most of the imagery and sequences just pointed to Batman. He just happens to be the one comic character that is successful on screen because he is cinematic in nature, and the books themselves draw so much from sources like German expressionism (see Nosferatu) as well as Noir films. Watchmen is literature and idea at its core. For intstance, when Moore names his villain Ozymandias he means to bring with it all that name entails. Not just through the epic and historical nature of his namesake, Ramses II, but through the poem of the same name by Percy Bysshe Shelley. The character is loaded with all the tragic rise and fall the poem describes.  Instead, in the film, we are given only the image of an Egyptian palace with none of the weight the content of the book provides. The result is Ozymandius becomes mere spectacle. As far as comic book films go this really was well done. Unfortunately it's faults are reflected by the weight of the source material. There is no alternate story line or parallel universe to allow the kind of opportunity and leeway other classic comic characters have. This was too finished as a book to be able to save it as a film.

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