Superheros or super-villains?

March 28, 2009


Directed by Zack Snyder

Written by David Hayter and Alex Tse

With Jackie Earle Haley, Jeffrey Dean Morgan and Billy Crudup

"Now the whole world stands on the brink, staring down into bloody hell, all those liberals and intellectuals and smooth-talkers … all of a sudden nobody can think of anything to say."

When the main hero of the story comes out with a statement like this, you can tell that this won't be your typical superhero movie — and Watchmen certainly is anything but typical.

This film is based on the groundbreaking 1986 graphic novel — written by Alan Moore and drawn by Dave Gibbons — which turned the superhero genre on its head.

It junked the traditional simplistic morality for a more ambiguous view that questioned the underlying social and political ramifications of vigilantism and superhumanity, as well as the morality and psychology of such heroes.

The story begins with the murder of Edward Blake, aka "the Comedian" (Jeffry Dean Morgan), a cruel and cynical vigilante, "practically a Nazi". Through flashbacks and reminiscences, we learn of Blake "overthrowing Marxist republics in South America" and committing war crimes in Vietnam, fulfilling a more realistic version of the role of a "patriotic" superhero.

Investigating the murder is Rorschach (Jackie Earle Haley), a vigilante of a right-wing libertarian bent who despises the masses for the vices and crimes he sees everywhere.

Despite his repugnant world view, violent tactics and creepy demeanour, Rorschach comes off as a sympathetic character because of his principled approach, uncompromising style and sense of humour.

Other former heroes are drawn into the mystery, and through each of their reactions to the situation light is shone on their flaws and proclivities as superheroes.

The bleakness of Rorschach's world view is seemingly confirmed by the political landscape the audience is presented with. Set in 1985, the entire world seems caught in a kind of rabid, self-destructive madness.

Planetary annihilation looms in the form of nuclear war between the US and Soviet Union. The streets are full of violence. Richard Nixon is in his fifth term as US president after winning the Vietnam war, thanks to the intervention of Dr Manhattan (Billy Crudup) — a superhuman with god-like powers, used by the US as a trump card against military threats.

As someone who experiences reality in a vastly different way, Dr Manhattan increasingly loses the ability to relate to humanity, viewing people as no different to other forms of matter.

Yet this seemingly omnipotent being struggles to resolve his situation, caught between his former life as an ordinary man and his new superhuman existence.

Author of the original comic, Alan Moore, has distanced himself from this film — accepting no screen credits or money. This is worth mentioning due to the fact that 95% of the film's dialogue and plot is straight from Moore's original.

Director Zack Snyder takes the safe and smart option of sticking as close as possible to the original text, maybe realising that he would have great difficulty trying to improve on Moore's writing.

In a 2005 interview, well before production began on this film, Moore said, "Somebody reading Watchmen can pause and take as long as they want to look [at] one of Dave Gibbons' panels … They can absorb the book at entirely their own pace … But the thing is that the audience is dragged through a film at an unvarying speed of 24 frames per second.

"Even the most skilful director in the world could not put the same layered amount of detail into the background of every shot, and expect his audience to be able to pick it up, to notice it."

This indeed is the fate of this adaptation — a great deal of the subtlety and nuance of the original comic is stripped out in order to fit the story into 160 minutes. Some of the side-stories that give humanity to the plot are also sacrificed. As a result, the impact of the ending is diminished.

The intensity of violence is heightened in the film, with even the "nicer" heroes taking sadistic joy in the maiming of their opponents.

In her review for US Socialist Worker, Amy Muldoon says that "the glamorised, Matrix-like interludes … undermine the truly horrific violence that takes place, particularly against women, which stand out in the original because of the otherwise low level of violence".

This film does little to inspire hope for a better world. However, it is interesting enough in exposing the contradictions of traditional superhero morality.

This is definitely one of the better comic-to-film adaptations, but to appreciate the full breadth of the story, read the original.

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