When it comes to superhero hype, you can’t get much better than Watchmen.
It’s been hailed as the “greatest graphic novel” of all time. It’s been on Time’s Top 100 List. It’s being made into an enormously cross-promoted titanic that Warner Bros. hopes will stack up to the soon-to-be billion-dollar baby that is the Dark Knight.
But I’m worried it won’t live up to its promise.
It’s something I’ve been thinking ever since I read an early draft of the script. But I told myself that perhaps it would see revisions. But after watching the numerous trailers for the movie, I’m more concerned than ever. Indeed, after seeing the minute or two of footage, I had one thought run through my head:
He’s trying to play Watchmen straight?
Let me explain what I mean, while warning you that there will be some spoilers up ahead. Zack Snyder is a great director, don’t get me wrong. I raved about 300 when it arrived in theatres, and it was for one simple reason: Snyder didn’t treat that movie as tongue in cheek. He made 300 into a hard-core battle film, heavily stylized but always secure in that this was a heroic film made up of earth-shaking fights, cut with hyperreal scenery, slow-mo action, and artistically placed blood spatters. And based on the trailer of Watchmen, at any rate, Snyder seems to be taking the same approach here, amping up the tension of the heroes’ actions against the conspiracy in their midst.
And that’s where I think the movie has gone irreversibly wrong.
Watchmen is not a masterpiece because of the details. (Although they certainly are plentiful, and great if you can find and understand them.) Watchmen is a masterpiece because it has a central premise: there is no such thing as a superhero.
Yes, there might be people dressed up in costumes, but Moore’s triumph lies in the fact that these people are all too human. They don’t live up to the Superman archetype, the guy who stops crime “just because.” More often than not, they were adrenaline junkies and damaged personalities who got their kicks out of getting into fights while wearing homemade spandex.
In the Watchmen graphic novel, there were no armor-style costumes, no slow-motion jump kicks, no running away from fire without fear: the main substance behind Watchmen is that these were ordinary people–you and me–who were eccentric enough that they decided to put on a handmade costume and maybe manage to not get themselves killed. In other words: crime is omnipresent, but the reactions to it have been dramatized. But in Watchmen, there is no dramatic arc, no feel-good resolution.
It’s almost real life.
That’s what made the main thread of the entire story so powerful: it’s how these regular joes, in their makeshift domino masks and their purple-and-gold fabric sweaters, couldn’t stand up to the real evil that’s in this world. How they became even more insignificant when a man with the power of a god happened to change the balance of power. About how their punching and kicking drug dealers and pimps never really saved anybody, and when these amateur cosplayers actually have a chance to save the lives of thousands… they blow it.
Even the ending of Watchmen is proof that there are no superheroes: in order to save the world, Dan and Laurie basically have to hang up their costumes and accept the real world. Rorshach cannot, and is killed for it.
Let me reiterate what this means. Rorschach? He’s not a Dark Knight Detective, or even a romantic protagonist–he’s a crazy homeless guy in a mask, driven crazy by the unstoppable evil of the world. Dan Dreiberg? He’s an overweight schlub whose return to crimefighting is less an epic return to heroism and more of a riff off of Network: “I’m scared as hell and I can’t take it anymore!” Yes, he’s got a slick Owl aircraft, but again, this is more in the vein of holding onto your sweet 1988 Pontiac Fiero than having an Iron Man-style battle vehicle. In terms of the story arc, it’s the equivalent of an elementary school hockey team slowly reuniting, only to be suddenly placed in the Stanley Cup Finals.
(Or, to use another “superhero” movie: they’re the Mystery Men, but not trying to be funny about it.)
But with recent movies like the Dark Knight and Iron Man, I worry that Snyder might have missed this. Back when rumors that someone with the melancholic range of John Cusack was involved, I thought this film had the right idea, of emotional demons trumping action and conspiracies. But the casting of dreamy Pat Wilson as Night Owl, or someone with the expressiveness of Billy Crudup as the aloof Dr. Manhattan honestly concerns me over the film’s tone. These are not people with genius IQs or an X-factor that makes them different, or even strong biceps or six-pack abs–the Watchmen’s main tragedy is that they are no more powerful than you or me. These are five people with no powers, but with severely broken psyches–and one automaton stronger than any nuke.
In other words, I’m concerned that a movie that’s meant to break up even the notion of heroism has been blinded by the bucks and missed the point, and is instead propping up the superhero genre with a titanic marketing campaign and a couple of “badass” second-hand Batman and Robin costumes.
I hope I’m wrong about this. I hope this is just a sensationalistic trailer. I think Zack Snyder is a great director, but the more I see and the more I hear, the more I wonder if the spectacle and anticipation behind this movie got the better of him. But I hope I’m wrong.
Because if not, Watchmen’s greatest irony might be that the characters on the page turn out to be more real than their film counterparts.