How to Watch “Watchmen”


© Keith McWalter 2009

I’ve been a fan of comic books for almost 50 years. My father brought an issue of “Green Lantern” home to me from one of his business trips in Mexico, and I was hooked.

In the 30 years or so since “Star Wars” legitimized science fiction and pulp fantasy as lucrative source material for movies, comics have shouldered their way into the big-budget Hollywood mainstream, reaching a kind of apotheosis with the financial success of the “Spider-Man” trilogy and the artistic recognitions bestowed on Heath Ledger in Batman’s return to film in “The Dark Knight.”

Next week, one of the greatest comics of the eighties, and arguably of all time, comes to the screen as a big-budget film. I’m worried about it. I will go to see it, if only out of a kind of homage to the original. But I don’t expect to like it.

“Watchmen” is nowadays rather grandly styled a “graphic novel,” but what it was back then was a 12-issue, self-contained comic book series published by DC Comics. Brainchild of renowned comics writer Alan Moore and artist Dave Gibbons, it’s since been republished several times as a single-volume, integrated whole, and it certainly reads better that way than when you were waiting a month or more between installments, as I did back then. It’s so richly complex that you couldn’t possibly remember the multiple plotlines, or even all the characters, from month to month, so you’d have to re-read all the previous issues each time a new one appeared. I can only imagine what it took to create it, but it took over a year to read it.

It was worth the time and the waiting. It was and is brilliant, as comic books go. The title is a double or triple entendre, referring to the band of anti-heroes at the story’s center, as well as to their clockwork lives and the minutes-before-midnight milieu they inhabit. Simultaneously an extended post-modernist riff on the superhero genre, an alternate history of late-century America, and a seamless weave of character studies of half a dozen deeply flawed human beings who happen to be retired superheroes, it is also a masterful exercise in how comics work visually. Gibbons’ understated but hyperconsciously cinematographic use of framing, point of view, intercutting, flashback, and color were as much a character in the story as were Dr. Manhattan or Rorschach or the Comedian.

In short, it’s the sort of comic book that every comics fan wants to see made into a movie, but also dreads being made into a movie because it can’t possibly live up to the original. Or rather, it can’t possibly live up to our experience of the original, and therefore will corrupt it. Spider-Man works in movie format because the character has become independent of its original medium and of the stories it inhabits. “Watchmen” has no such familiar characters. They live only once, on the page and for the purpose of their singular story.

I can’t imagine how a person unfamiliar with the comic will react to or even understand the film. It took a year to read the comic; I expect the typical viewer to be a little confused. Moreover, I don’t know how a critic unfamiliar with the comic could review the film. Not “review it well” – I mean review it at all. It would be like asking a neurosurgeon to judge the quality of a cyclotron. Smart guy and all, but his expertise is irrelevant. The answer will be: we’ll just watch it and judge it as a movie. The problem is that “Watchmen” isn’t a movie. It’s a movie of a comic book. Worse, it’s a movie of an actual, bona fide graphic novel.

Because comics are already a blend of words and pictures (though static ones), they are much harder to convert successfully to film than, say, a popular novel like “The Da Vinci Code.” When we read a prose novel, we form pictures in our minds, but they’re vague and amorphous as dreams and we can set them aside when presented with a more concrete visualization. A comic book – a graphic novel — IS pictures, and that’s the point. The medium is the message. If they’re good — and “Watchmen” is as good as they get – it’s because the pictures perfectly enhance and elaborate upon the words, and vice versa. Visual re-interpretation is utterly redundant – indeed, dissonant. Though it’s full of action and drama, no one in his right mind would suggest making a film of Picasso’s “Guernica,” not because it couldn’t be done, but because it’s pointless.

A movie of “Watchmen” is, at bottom, similarly pointless, and this may be why creator Alan Moore has distanced himself so totally from the film (even to the point of, reportedly, placing a curse on it). There will be, I’m sure, the empty fun of recognition – hey, there’s THAT scene – and the storyline lends itself to the usual steroidal CGI punctuations. But that kind of fun only goes so far. Dave Gibbons’ original art is so filmic that the comic can be seen as a detailed movie storyboard – downward close-up of smileyface button in gutter with bloodspot; camera draws back to rooftop height — etc. This is one reason Hollywood loves comics, but it doesn’t mean that comics should love Hollywood. The original wasn’t a storyboard, it was an integrated piece of art that began and ended on the page.

One of the themes explored in “Watchmen” is whether individual action can alter what appear to be pre-ordained lives in a clockwork universe. I’ll go, but I expect “Watchmen” the movie to be a pre-ordained, clockwork exercise. It can succeed only to the extent it replicates the comic very closely, but if it does that it will fail as a movie. It will be interesting in an academic way to see how the technicians channel some of the magic of the original. But it won’t be the magic.

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