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Friday, March 6, 2009

As anyone who's been to the movies with me can attest, I don't like to miss the previews. Perhaps I get it from my mother, who refuses to enter a movie theater if the film has started. But I can't recall an instance where the previews, good as they may be, got me to see a film I otherwise wasn't planning to see. Much less got me to read a book that I may not have read in order to prepare for a film I wasn't planning to see.

I'd heard of "Watchmen" a few years back, and since I loved comic book heroes - but not comic books - as a kid, I wasn't particularly inclined to read it. I'd devoured a few graphic novels: "Kingdom Come" and "The Dark Knight Returns", to name a few. But I was enough of a nerd to know the names Rorschach, Comedian, Ozymandias and Doctor Manhattan.

Oh, and I'd seen this:

It's a hell of an image.

The idea that something meant purely to evoke good feelings being stained with blood (and by implication, violence) sets you up well for what happens in "Watchmen", and the meditation it provides on the very notion of heroism. (Some good guides for the uninitiated can be found here and here. Or you could just read the thing.)

In fact, that's what the trailer actually made me do. I checked it out because I saw that same smiley face again, and I had one of those "oh-I've-always-been-meaning-to-read-that" moments that makes me at once excited and regretful. Add that to the fact that I hadn't read a book in an absurdly long time, and I really had no excuses left.

I thoroughly enjoyed the novel. But it's not my opinion that is interesting - it's why certain people have decided that they won’t see the film, and why I think that is.

It's not as simple as "old guys get it, young people do". Roger Ebert gave it four stars:
In a cosmic sense it doesn’t really matter who pushed the Comedian through the window. In a cosmic sense, nothing really matters, but best not meditate on that too much. The Watchmen and their special gifts are all the better able to see how powerless they really are, and although all but Dr. Manhattan are human and back the home team, their powers are not limitless. Dr. Manhattan, existing outside time and space, is understandably remote from the fate of our tiny planet, although perhaps he still harbors some old emotions...

“Watchmen” focuses on the contradiction shared by most superheroes: They cannot live ordinary lives but are fated to help mankind. That they do this with trademarked names and appliances goes back to their origins in Greece, where Zeus had his thunderbolts, Hades his three-headed dog, and Hermes his winged feet. Could Zeus run fast? Did Hermes have a dog? No.

That level of symbolism is coiling away beneath all superheroes. What appeals with Batman is his humanity; despite his skills, he is not supernormal. “Watchmen” brings surprising conviction to these characters as flawed and minor gods, with Dr. Manhattan possessing access to godhead on a plane that detaches him from our daily concerns — indeed, from days themselves.

Indeed, heroism itself can be a burden. It’s rarely shown to be a physical one – with the exception of Kryptonite, rarely do we see our superheroes injured or even limited. But Ebert, upon a second viewing of Watchmen, came out with more revelations:
The next detail is not important to the plot of "Watchmen," but I found it fascinating: Manhattan thinks he might leave this planet altogether, travel to a distant galaxy, and there, he suggests, might try his hand at creating some life himself. He would then, would he not, be the Intelligent Designer of life in that place?

Left unanswered is the question of how life was created here on this planet, and indeed the question of whether Manhattan as he now exists constitutes life. Always remaining is the much larger question, Why is there something instead of nothing? These are questions Manhattan might fruitfully meditate upon, although if you exist on a quantum level, as he himself observes, life and non-life are all the same thing, just nanoscale bits of not much more than nothing, all busily humming about for reasons we cannot comprehend. As he puts it, "A live body and a dead body contain the same number of particles. Structurally, there's no discernible difference. Life and death are unquantifiable abstracts. Why should I be concerned?"


I’m not ruining anything by revealing that the danger that the world faces when Manhattan says these things is cataclysmic. Nuclear war is at hand; the Doomsday clock is at five minutes to midnight. And he chooses to regard us as simple matter, and not something to be concerned about? In what story can you think of did the superman refuse to save us?

But strangely, a similar disconnection from material that those devoted to it see as essential to life as water - a quasi-religious marriage of cultural artifact and acolyte - serves me well when I analyze what I just watched today. I'm glad I'm not a full-fledged, Vulcan-ear, lightsaber-wielding fanboy, even if I have elements of one within me. (A better way of explaining it would be: I get many of their jokes, but I'd be hesitant to try to make them laugh.) The fact that I'm not a fanboy enables me to say that I arrived at the theater to see Watchmen today knowing that I was not about to see the Bible depicted on-screen. (I've already seen that, and to say I was much more emotional about that film than this would be an understatement.) To some, though, it was. I mean, this is the book that spawned the Frank Millers of the world, and without "Watchmen", there is no Dark Knight.

But some folks couldn't care less about any of that. My conversations with many who aren't as captivated as I was by the novel or advertisements for the film fall into two camps: those that have absolutely a) no interest in seeing the film and/or b) have no earthly idea what the story is about, since it doesn't feature a superhero that they've heard of. Can I understand why one wouldn't be into Watchmen? Of course. It's extremely violent; the language is consistently authentic, er, bad; and there's a big, blue, naked dude with his junk hanging out, clearly visible throughout the film. (On the other hand, that might actually help the box office.)

I understand where they're coming from. But they are making a mistake.

The key to approaching something as complex as Watchmen, novel or film, is that you have be willing to give yourself a little more credit. Americans have become engrossed with the very simple psychology of our favorite heroes, but how well do we really know them? Superman, with his alienation complex, daddy issues and mocking imitation of human behavior; Batman, the orphaned trust-fund kid who is driven by psychosis and a sick need for what he perceives as justice; Iron Man, a weapons mogul whose guilt over the destruction he's wrought drives him more than any sense of heroism; Spider-Man, a cocky kid who only stood to profit from his powers until he's spurred into maturity by the murder of the man that raised him; Hulk, a green mass of pure rage spurred from the innards of an innocent scientist, a being that hardly even knows what he's doing.

These are some seriously screwed-up people. But we know them by their fancy costumes and Saturday-morning cartoons, and we didn't even realize that we were watching a bunch of nuts.

I grew up on those cartoons, preferring them to the comics that spawned them. So many of my generation did, as did their kids. If the highly-processed, easily digested version of "Watchmen" that the studio wanted had come to pass, we might have seen something akin to this nightmare:

A comic like "Watchmen" was before its time, but it also, in ways, came too late. Not enough of us were reading comic books, even in 1986. I think Watchmen will have trouble reaching those of us who approached the whole notion of the superhero in a casual fashion, thinking that all we needed to know about Superman was that he had heat vision and could fly. We can't afford to get wrapped up in the fact that Watchmen's alternate 1985 may appear quaint. This is not a time in our history in which we can opt for the dumbed-down version. We have to know ourselves, and we have to know our heroes.

There's a lot more to why these people - in comics or in real life - choose to be the heroes that they are, and that is worth exploring. Watchmen shows you why some of those people put on the costume, and you may not like the answer.



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