March 13, 2009

"This City Is Afraid of Me. I've Seen Its True Face."

My very partial review of the Watchmen movie. Major spoilers follow.

What bothers me most about Zach Snyder's version of Watchmen is his portrayal of Ozymandias. Adrian Veidt is supposed to be this Aryan demigod: enlightened, brilliant, compassionate, handsome, at peak physical condition -- the last person you'd suspect of plotting mass murder. What we get in the movie, however, is this sallow-faced wisp of a man, whose every expression screams "I'm the villain! See how I scowl!" Making him, instead of Captain Metropolis, the organizer of the ill-fated Crimebusters Watchmen supergroup in the 1960s also makes his ambitions less utopian and more a case of petty revenge against the Comedian and others (such as the oil and coal executives he upbraids in one scene). The result is that the big reveal at the end doesn't hit us with the same level of shock that it ought to.

And it ought to: for all the attention paid to the twisted psyches of Rorschach and the Comedian, the place, I think, where Watchmen really overthrows the conventions of superhero stories is with Ozymandias. Adrian's plot is, in a sense, the superhero version of the banality of evil: Rorschach and the Comedian may have killed people, but the most horrific crime is committed by someone who arrives at it as if he were working out the marketing strategy for his latest product line. (Remember the memos in the book that discuss Millennium, the new perfume that debuts after New York is destroyed and the Cold War is ended?) One of the reasons Watchmen upends the traditional superhero story is not only that the "villain" gets away with it, but that it shows how easily the idealism associated with masked vigilantism -- and indeed, all attempts to go beyond the law to do justice -- can curdle into something more monstrous than anything a supervillain could dream up. (Note how little supervillains figure into the world of Watchmen.) The logic of killing millions to save billions -- destroying the village to save it, as it were -- is shot through much of the history of the last century, and it makes sense for a comic book that plays with that history to incorporate it into its story.

The movie doesn't really convey any of those overtones very well. Part of it probably has to do with what Amanda Marcotte notes, which is that it succumbs to the temptation to become just another action movie, rather than seriously questioning it, showing how the so-called heroes become complicit with Adrian's crime, etc. The violence is absurdly amped up, 300-style, and many of Zach Snyder's changes to the story come off as pointless, if not distracting. I would even go so far as to include the new ending among those changes. I flippantly said on Twitter that the movie "needs more squid." But now that I think about it, the original ending -- Adrian fakes a alien invasion that kills half of New York City -- really is appropriate to the story, and to Adrian's ends; it's the ultimate in lateral thinking, as he would say. It's ingeniously demented, too, made all the more demented when presented by someone as cultured and great-souled as Adrian. By contrast, the new ending -- Adrian blows up a bunch of cities and frames Dr. Manhattan -- does the job, I suppose, but combined with the vindictive attitude mentioned earlier, it almost comes off like an attempt to take Dr. Manhattan down a notch and prove himself the superior man. As with Ozymandias in general, what was utopian idealism taken to horrible extremes in the book becomes a run-of-the-mill plot for world domination in the movie.

Having said all that, I think Snyder deserves credit for hewing as close to the source material as he did; the choice, after all, wasn't between Snyder's version or a perfect transcription of the book to the screen; it was between Snyder's version and a piece of studio schlock likely made by a Joel Schumacher clone. Even apart from that, I really liked how Nite Owl, Rorschach, and the Comedian were portrayed, and the much-praised opening sequence does a very good job of ushering viewers into the alternate history of the story. Overall, though, I was disappointed with the movie; I expected to be disappointed, and after seeing it, my expectations were (unfortunately) met.

One other thing: If we're going to have a moratorium on Leonard Cohen's "Hallelujah," can we also have a moratorium on Mozart's Requiem? Snyder's extremely unsubtle taste in music killed a lot of scenes, including Dan and Laurie's tryst on the airship Archie; but having the camera pan away from Adrian at the end to the tune of "Requiem aeternam..." was simply ridiculous.

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