Saturday, March 14, 2009

Dubious Watchmen

Last night I went to see The Watchmen with some friends. Though I've not read the comic book, I like superhero movies, so I figured I would enjoy it. I left the theater with mixed feelings, but on reflection I've increasingly turned against it.

What didn't you like? you ask. The gratuitous sex and violence are worth a mention (though they're not the biggest issue). In superhero movies, I expect violence. Bad guys get blown up - that's the way it goes. But there were several scenes in The Watchmen that were just plain gratuitous. Not bad guys getting their comeuppance (with awesome special effects), just violence for its own sake. Likewise, sex scenes have become something of a staple of modern populist films. I don't like 'em, but in a certain sense, I can accept them: in the language of modern film, we know the hero and heroine love each other because they have sex. It's a wrong-headed notion, of course, but it often has a plot value. Not so the extended sex scene of The Watchmen: it's just an excuse for several pornographic minutes of actress Malin Åkerman.

**Warning: Spoilers, or elliptical references to them, follow.**

Beyond all that, I found the film's plot and attempt to struggle with moral questions sorely wanting. This is not a standard superhero film with good guys who - in spite, perhaps, of occasional foibles - are clearly good and bad guys who - in spite of occasional moments of charm - are clearly bad. A comparison may illustrate the point: Batman Begins is a film which grapples with the moral ambiguities and difficulties which arise from trying to do good in a world filled with evil. Bruce Wayne/Batman refuses to join the League of Shadows; whereas they see death and destruction as the only answer to a decadent and corrupt society, Wayne believes mankind can be saved. The ends do not justify the means. Justice must be tempered by mercy. I was less satisfied with the sequel, The Dark Knight. It seemed to me the desire to paint moral ambiguities at times overwhelmed the basic struggle of good versus evil. This is most clearly seen at the end of the film, when Wayne convinces Lt. James Gordon, his police sidekick, to blame Harvey Dent/Two-Face's murders on Batman, arguing that the people of Gotham City will lose all hope if they find out the truth about Dent. Batman flees as a fugitive. The painful lesson seems to be that doing good can require falsehood and not just the deception of Bruce Wayne hiding behind a mask, but an inversion of the truth about who has committed good and evil deeds.

Now take that trajectory from Batman Begins to The Dark Knight and follow it several steps further. There you will find The Watchmen. The villain, Adrian Veidt/Ozymandias, motivated by a desire to bring peace to the world, kills a few million people and blames it on Jon Osterman/Doctor Manhattan, his former colleague. In the end, his scheme does bring world peace, and no one dares reveal the truth, lest it all be ruined. (We are given a hint at the end that the truth may come out, but through circumstances set in motion before our heroes knew about Veidt's plan.) There is no doubt that Veidt is the bad guy here, and yet... it's hard to hate a man who brings about world peace. One of the subplots mirrors this strange moral ambiguity: Sally Jupiter/Silk Spectre reveals to her daughter that the reason she could never bring herself to hate Edward Blake/The Comedian, a man who tried to rape her, is because he fathered her daughter, Laurie Juspezyk/Silk Spectre II. The suggestion is that the means (Blake) justify the ends (Laurie).

Other contradictions and problems abound: Dr. Manhattan, Laurie's boyfriend, becomes increasingly disenchanted with her and humanity generally, though he ultimately defeats Veidt to save mankind. In spite of his conversion of sorts, eventually concluding that life may not be totally worthless, he nevertheless goes into self-imposed exile in the distant reaches of the galaxy, leaving her and everyone else behind. The Comedian is a psycho-killer and a sex-addict. Rorschach, our most morally consistent character, enjoys exacting psychotic revenge on evildoers. Laurie and Daniel Dreiberg/Nite Owl II are happy to take up an affair when her boyfriend - who left his previous love, Janey Slater, for the younger Laurie - grows more distant. These are not model citizens.

However, bad people don't necessarily make for a bad story. Indeed, one of my favorites, Homer's Iliad, is full of bad people. They're part of what make it compelling, actually. So what makes The Iliad different from The Watchmen? The difference, I think, is in the way that the Iliad's plot confronts these problems, whereas The Watchmen's accepts them. The Iliad opens with the problem of Achilles' honor being offended. Does he choose to withdraw from the fighting and protect his personal honor, or does he acknowledge his communal responsibility, continue fighting with the other Greeks and swallow the dishonor? He chooses to sit it out. However, when the Greeks are hard pressed, his sense of communal responsibility kicks in and he tries to paper over the problem by allowing his friend Patroklos to fight in his place. Does this seeming compromise solve the problem? No. That is made painfully clear when Patroklos is killed and Achilles accepts that he should have been fighting (which he promptly resumes). But then the whole question of personal honor versus community responsibility is circumscribed when Priam comes to Achilles to ask for the body of Hektor. Empathy triumphs over rage, providing the peace of mind that neither Achilles nor Priam could heretofore find. At each turn the plot introduces a moral quandary, allows the reader to dwell on it for a time, and then, through the action of the story, shows the consequences of a particular response to that quandary. Moral difficulties are not ignored, they are confronted.

It's been a few years since I read any of Aristotle's Poetics, but as I recall, one of his big points is that the plot must carry a story. You cannot try to describe a character as X, if his actions reveal him to be not X. You cannot say that the moral of the story is Y, if the action reveals it to be not Y. By this standard, the Iliad deserves high marks. The Watchmen, on the other hand, fails. More than just a story of mostly despicable people often doing despicable things, the action of the plot fails to interrogate whether or not these people are exemplary, whether or not they provide a valid window into the nature of reality. That is not only woefully disappointing; it is dangerous.

PS: Intrigued by what Barbara Nicolosi, a respected movie critic, had to say about The Watchmen, I took a look at her review. "WE WALKED OUT. Awful. Disgusting. Degrading. Vile. Barbarous. The kind of entertainment the Roman mobs were watching just before the barbarians came over the walls. Did I say depraved? I meant to. If you let your kids go to this piece of absolute unmitigated garbage, you deserve whatever nightmare lives they end up inflicting on you. I fear I haven't expressed myself strongly enough..." Wow.

The Dark Knight didn't get a review that bad, though it wasn't a lot better: "Too Dark. Too long. Too fast. Too pretentious. Too loud. Too many characters. Too much steady cam. Too little substance. Too little fun. The whole world has lost its mind." So I looked up her review of Batman Begins. Far more positive (though not without reservations): "Batman Begins is a very solid movie. It is well-produced, structured for suspense, and incorporates a number of satisfying - if not hugely compelling - characters. It just isn't what you expect it to be as a comic book movie, which might be the kiss of death with the comic book genre fans who want some mystery under their capes. We'll see. I'm giving two bats ears up."

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