Thursday, 19 March 2009

Why I hated 'Watchmen'

Every few years, a film comes along which truly divides communities. The placarding throngs outside The Last Temptation of Christ would not be resolved with those inside; Kung Pow inexplicably landed in the Bottom 100 list of both Rotten Tomatoes and Metacritic despite the fact it was retarded in a good way; and no-one will admit publicly that Gone With The Wind was truly awful and should be burned in town squares. In 2009, Watchmen is the film which divides the movie-going public.

For those unfamiliar with the graphic novel (n. a comic book purchased by an adult), it breaks down like this: a naked blue god, plus a few people in out-of-fashion costumes, used to be in a crime-fighting squad. One becomes wealthy, another refuses to age, a third remains an enormous douchebag, a fourth is Norman Rockwell gone wrong covered with a Freud-gone-wrong mask, and the fifth represents the homely everyman found most often in his mother's basement. The naked blue superbeing divides his time between dissembling nuclear reactor cores and sitting quietly on the moon.

All of this was hugely popular with the kind of neckbeards who construct anime costumes to wear to conventions, and the success of mainstream superheroes at the box office encouraged Hollywood to throw money at characters not under licence to the cabal of American comic book publishers. They then hired the director of 300 and instructed him to continue in his fine tradition of masochim and slow-motion homoeroticism. Thus was the film adaptation of an unfilmable comic book delivered to ten thousand screens worldwide.

Dr Manhattan in one of his less-nude poses.

The first crime of Watchmen is that it is two hours and forty minutes long. Action movies are usually about the 1:40 length, which is long enough to for cursory character development, back story, blowing up things three times, and a sprawling finish. It is a terrible, terrible sign when a story which originated in marker pen stretches beyond the two-hour mark; it means that somebody, somewhere, decided that this tale was different; that this tale had a sophistication requiring lengthy exposition, and that illustrated a point broader and more resounding than, "Blow up bad guys good, blow up good guys bad." It did not have this point. It had a point in the way that a stoned teenager at a party thinks he has a point. It had a point the way that the idiot lovechild of Ashton Kutcher and Ellen Degeneres has a point. Its point was: - .

There has been a disturbing trend in films to mirror the Peter Parker Principle of Pathetic Primaries: make the main character as inept and tone-deaf as possible so that his transformation to beautiful swan may be more blindingly radiant. The problem is that, as Steven Spielberg continually demonstrates, the perfect form for the neophyte hero is an 8-year-old boy. Older characters are required to be mentally or socially retarded to fit the bill. The bill-fitter in Watchmen is well into his 30's, and wears the puzzled expression of someone who has been hit in the face with a spade.

Very little about the plot development makes sense, nor how the group formed or stayed together. When you have an uber-being who can pop soldiers like microwaved grapes simply by pointing at them, what the hell do you need anyone else for? The characters, perhaps sensing this, undertake a series of ludicrous non-sequiteurs which are presented with a completely straight face as narrative. The agony is akin to sitting through a primary-school violin recital. Oh, there's a false note. Well, maybe... oh, there's another one. Perhaps the next musician will be better--uh oh, they began with a flat sharp, then skidded across two octaves. Time becomes a treacly, visceral thing.

What is shamefully clear about the film is how transparently comics push teenage power fantasies. There is nothing mature about any of the characters--they are punching, shooting, flying and zapping their way through a beige-black world with no more nuance than a Republican talking about Islam. The last film I saw which welled up such a bank of resentment in me was Hulk (the 2003 Eric Bana version), and I am gratified to see Watchmen's box office takings plummet in the same way Hulk's did after the frothy trumpeting of the opening weekend.

The lesson learned--and it is a lot to ask that Hollywood learn anything--is that overwrought, piecemeal tales of marginal fantasy characters do not make for good entertainment. With the two recent Batman films I had hoped that the genre had shaken off the overprecious straitjacket of Clark Kent-style heroes and recognised that a modern, conflicted character was not only good for business, but a genuine statement of our times. The thin motives of the Watchmen world are tumbleweed from the 1950's, and ring hollow.

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