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I watch the Watchmen March 19, 2009

Posted by dolorosa12 in fangirl, reviews.
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‘Just saw Watchmen! Sociopaths! Capes!!! Noiry New York!!!! Heavy-handed literary allusions and (ir)religious metaphors!!!!1!!one!!’

That was my Facebook status on Monday night, when I came back from watching Watchmen. It has been far too long since I liked something enough for it to completely knock me over like that. This is how it used to be when I was a child and teenager, though. I’d read a book, and it would chew me up and spit my heart out, and I would have to read it RIGHT AT THAT MOMENT, ALL AT ONCE, OR ELSE THE WORLD WOULD END. As an adult, this level of intensity is harder to come by. But when I watched Watchmen, I felt like I’d been hit by a train. Wow, I can feel things, I can actually appreciate stuff, I thought. Quick, hit the internets! Find new LJ icons! Read the graphic novel! Bore everyone stupid about it on #btts! Hurm.

Three days on, and this level of hysteria has not abated. I went out and bought the graphic novel yesterday, and read it in the kind of desperate rush that used to characterise my reading patterns. I joined some related LJ communities. And I tried to think what I could say, objectively, about a very flawed movie.

This city is afraid of me. I’ve seen its true face.
While talking to a friend of mine on #btts, I made the inevitable comparison between Watchmen and The Dark Knight. You may recall that I was pretty much outraged by The Dark Knight‘s faux attempts to be edgy and gritty, its juvenile writhing in ersatz moral ambiguity.

The new villain (the Joker) has no discernible motivation (this is shown several times when he gives different ‘explanations’ for his scars) for his ‘evil’. Thus, the ‘good guys’ decide, he revels in chaos – in fact, he’s chaos incarnate. And this new breed of evil, one that cannot be reasoned with, cannot be controlled in the usual way. The law is powerless to stop it. We need a new kind of hero, a ‘dark knight’, one who is prepared to descend to the same evil level to defeat the evils of chaos. In other words, terrorists have no desire or motivation other than to spread chaos. They want nothing, they have no grievances, therefore we have carte blanch to use all manners of evil, extra-legal methods to defeat them.

Which strikes me as morally abhorrent.

Watchmen shatters through The Dark Knight‘s ridiculous illusions in less time than it takes Rorschach to break down Dan Dreiberg’s door.

A hero, as any student of folklore or mythology will tell you, is liminal. He or she sits on the margins of society, on the boundaries between natural and supernatural, order and chaos, empath and sociopath. He or she does not have to descend to the violent, vicious level of evildoers, because he or she is already there. Heroes are not nice people. They are not empathy-inspiring.

We are society’s only protection.
Heroes are not saving the world because of some accident of fate, or some upstanding quirk of character. To be heroic is to love violence and sublimate this into fighting the good fight (the Comedian), or to be forced into the family business (Silk Spectre), or to be a parodic, terrifying, sociopath with a black and white sense of vengeance (Rorschach, the inkblot face that launched a thousand misplaced fanfics), or, at its most extreme, to be an uncaring clockmaker who has the power to control the universe and the apathy to be completely oblivious to its fate (Dr Manhattan). Only Nite Owl has some semblance of humanity, and even he sits quivering in his basement, banished to the underworld, that most liminal of locations.

To be heroic is to be inhuman and inhumane. The film version of Watchmen gets that. The graphic novel even more so.

When I was trying to talk to one of my friends on IRC about this, she said that she doesn’t see films in my literature student way. She sees plot and characters and decides whether these are well-articulated, and themes and analysis come later. For me, it’s different. The themes, the literary allusions, the stylistic techniques (I especially appreciated the score in Watchmen. Every song was perfectly chosen. They made their presence felt with all the subtlety of a blasting trumpet) – these things jump out at me instantly, demanding that I take notice. It was the same with The Dark Knight. I saw the September 11 subtext, and was unable to see anything else.

And thus, I adored Watchmen. Its message of heroic liminality is already something with which I was familiar through my studies, while its ‘if there is a God, he’s not watching, and he doesn’t care’ theme is one of my most deeply held beliefs. Not one image, from the grimy lights of 1980s New York to the recurring, glaringly symbolic clocks, was out of place. I’ve already said I adored the score.

And yet, and yet.

The end is nigh?
After reading the graphic novel, I have to say that the film gets one thing wrong. The comic is perfect because it is completely, and utterly, and unapologetically of its time. It is not just the story of superheroes, or of the history of comic books. It is the story of the Cold War.

Sitting here, having been born in the 80s, it is difficult to understand just what it was like to live in a Cold War world, and I may be getting this completely wrong. From what I’ve been told, though, life in the frozen heart of the Cold War could be utterly terrifying. I don’t think we 90s children quite understand how petrified people were of complete nuclear annihilation. People living in those times lived in an era of stockpiling vast quantities of nuclear weapons. It was the age of Mutually Assured Destruction, paranoia, deterrence. It was the age that brought us Dr Strangelove, after all.

Watchmen, the graphic novel, perfectly captures that mood. It was, after all, written during that time period. Watchmen, the movie, thinks that we can make the Cold War stand in for the War on Terror and nobody will be able to tell the difference. Even though the film is still set in the same alternate-1980s, the references are to a time two decades from then.

Oh, superpowers are still trusting in bristling arsenals of weapons to deter their enemies, and we still know that they’re doing it, but the difference is in generational attitudes. People in the Cold War era knew that they stood on the brink of utter destruction, and were terrified about it. People now, if they ever think about it, know we stand on the brink of utter destruction, but they don’t worry about it. That kind of apocalyptic terror simply isn’t part of our worldview. We know that the world is in a critical situation, and the collective response is a sarcastic, world-weary quip about lying politicians, a shrug of the shoulders. Meh. The times they are a’changing indeed.

Five minutes to midnight.
If you want to enjoy Watchmen the film, take off the ‘post-9/11’ blinkers and watch the film as a reflection of a very different period of history. Alan Moore’s comic nailed the mood of the 80s perfectly. Its film adaptation, when it stops trying to wrestle Cold War material to fit a War on Terror mindset, does a pretty good job of it too.

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