Friday, March 13, 2009
Chauncey DeVega's World of Ghetto Nerds: Watchmen has a Dark, Intense, Brooding Soul, But I don't Know if It has a Beating Heart
We all have rules for entrance into the party, a magical password that signals, "I belong."
For students of film, it is having watched Battleship Potemkin or Citizen Kane. For students of modern literature, it is having read Ulysses. For philosophers (pretend or otherwise) it is having read Nietzsche, Kant, or Hegel--in German. For East Coast hip hop fans, it was knowing every line and verse of all the Notorious BIG songs ever released by DJ Mister Cee.
And if we don't possess this knowledge, we know how to pretend that we do. Moreover, we are skilled at lording the truth of that lie over all who would dare to enter "our" world. For comic book geeks, Watchmen is a password for entrance into the sacred tribe.
My confession, I have lived a lie of sorts. I have never read Watchmen. Thus, I come to Watchmen with relatively virgin eyes.
With that confession now made, while I cannot assess Watchmen by a standard of measurement relative to the original text, I can, with great confidence, make the claim that Watchmen is an amazing achievement. It is "special"...and I rarely give such an accolade.
For the uninitiated, Watchmen posits a world where super-heroes are not the stuff of fantasy or fiction. They are normal, typical, and as flawed as the public they ostensibly protect. This is an alternate reality where Nixon is still president in the 1980s and the Russian-U.S. rivalry threatens humanity with imminent destruction. Domestically, the American government passes a series of laws banning costumed heroes because they are threats to public order. It is a dystopian world that is creator Alan Moore's critique of the celebratory, juvenile, unreflective and jingoistic conventions of superhero comic books as a genre, as well as Reagan and Thatcher's neo-liberal political order. In total, Watchmen set the standard for "dark" or "adult" works in the medium. And so long is its shadow, that Watchmen made possible such films as the Dark Knight, where now the mass public finally accepts, some 23 years after Moore's work was originally published, that comic books (and their adaptations for the screen) are "serious" works.
The world of Watchmen, and the world of our present, are both suffering from an existential dilemma, a deep crisis of being. It is this shared experience that explains the resonance of the film. While some would suggest that Watchmen is dated Cold War era fare, they miss the central point of the text--that a crisis of meaning and values lies at the heart of our late 20th century (post-modern) project.
In parallel, a crisis in meaning and a lack of faith lies at the heart of Watchmen. In much the same way that capitalism is in crisis because the public has lost faith in the invisible hand of the market, Watchmen depicts a world where nothing really matters. During the Cold War, it was looming destruction through nuclear cataclysm that gave our collective experience a pause and emptiness. At present, it is an imminent Depression and the evaporation of trillions of dollars of wealth where all that worth and value has been exposed as so much mist and illusion.
The uncertainty of our world is revealed through the characters of Watchmen. The public has no use for super-heroes as they are reminders of their own frailty and pathetic normalcy. The superheroes themselves are Gods among men, but they too are imperfect. They are prone to the same moral weakness, desires for the flesh, the arrogance of egomania, and narcissism as any "normal" man. The one "hero" in Watchmen, Dr. Manhattan, is literally a super man, the one figure who comes closest to possessing God-like powers. But, he rejects the title of god and doubts the very existence of a master creator. From the perspective of Dr. Manhattan, a character laden with symbolism, even time is flexible and malleable. In the post-Newtonian world, the age of Einstein's Theory(ies) of Relativity, time, the one constant that ostensibly binds us all together, is itself unmoored. This change is so profound that even time itself, what was once a universal constant, is reduced to being but one variable in a far more complex equation.
As Dr. Manhattan observes, what are we to do with a world where there is a master clock but no master clockmaker, a Deism without the initial mover? How depressing is this thought? Not surprisingly, the Comedian and Rorschach, the only two characters with the insight and vision to see this existential absurdity, are depicted as psychotic and unbalanced. In this skewed world, it is through madness that one achieves sanity and clarity of mind.
Standing alone, the character Ozymandias imagines himself to be a god. But, Ozymandias is utterly amoral and irresponsible in how he uses the god like powers that he has achieved through technology. Ozymandias is also a true pretender. Thus, he fails because of a lack of maturity and moral vision, traits that are demanded by godly power.
In total, Watchmen is a meditation on the anti hero. However, "anti hero" in this usage is not the same as anti-hero. Here, it is not the anti-hero--the badman, Clint Eastwood's "the Man with No Name"--a figure who is amoral, but who we idolize nonetheless. Instead, Watchmen is a meditation on the anti hero in the sense that heroes do not exist.
Quite simply, there are no heroes in this world because the public does not deserve them, and Watchmen cannot be heroes because they are undeserving of the adoration.
Watchmen is also a deep reflection on the sexual themes that are omnipresent in superhero comic books (e.g. Wonder Woman's lesbian sensibilities and appeal to kink; the thin homosexual subtext between Batman and Robin):
In the shadow of the Cold War--what itself was in many ways a phallocentric rivalry over whose "missile" or "bomb" was bigger--the costumed superhero speaks to our sexual impulses and anxieties. For example, be it how the Nite Owl dreams of having sex with Silk Spectre 2 where at the point of climax a nuclear bomb detonates in the background; the playful allusion to a pathetic, masochistic "villain" who liked to be physically abused by Watchmen (until Rorschach kills him); the Comedian's rape of Silk Spectre 1; or the Nite Owl's impotence and how it was replaced by male libido, strength, and ecstasy once he donned his costume for a night of adventure, there is a close link between violence and sexual release in Watchmen.
The costume allows us to hide ourselves and to become someone else. This second skin reveals the impulses and desires that are normally hidden from public view. Alternatively, for the superhero, this denial of one's true self can tragically lead to the depressingly routine boredom of (what could otherwise be an extraordinary) life lived in plain sight:
This is one of Alan Moore's central critiques of the West's abundance, commercialism, and excess: What of a world where the extraordinary is ordinary? Where the magical is common? Where the super and the miraculous are typical? Would you want to live in this world?
Because it is so dense thematically, Watchmen can be viewed from either the foreground or the background. By this, I mean one can "simply" watch the movie and have a very satisfying experience. But, Watchmen can also be viewed more deeply, where the audience looks to what is occurring in the depth of the screen as being primary, rather than secondary, to the film--the details in the frame, the signals and cues in the background, what is written on the numerous billboards that are generously spread throughout the city (a hint: look for multiple references to the company Pyramid Deliveries), the happenings on the periphery of a scene, or the music playing in the background. In watching the movie multiple times one gains an appreciation for how layered this film actually is, and why Watchmen transcends being merely a "movie" and becomes something far grander.
Ironically, Watchmen's depth is the foci for one of my few criticisms of the film.
There are moments in the movie's score that are directly borrowed from the seminal, dystopian film, Blade Runner. While watching Watchmen, and hearing the hauntingly melodic notes of Blade Runner, I was reminded that a film can be dark, and at times even hopeless, yet still have a beating, passionate heart:
Watchmen contains a second moment that also speaks to this sentiment. During the concluding scenes of the film, Ozymandias is surrounded by a wall of televisions, on one of which, the film Mad Max: the Road Warrior is playing. Like Batman: the Dark Knight, the Road Warrior is a reminder that a film can be dark, even sad and brooding, and still have a heart.
By comparison, Watchmen is a cold movie that is deeply soulful, but one that ultimately lacks a heart.
Watchmen is a masterful accomplishment. Zack Snyder has created an amazing work of transposition. Some would say that he has simply copied a masterpiece--and thus dismiss Snyder as a filmmaker who is incapable of originality. As a rebuttal, I would argue that sometimes transposition is a more difficult task because one has to retain the essence of a thing, while making careful choices about what to change or excise. It is in this act of transposition, and how successfully Snyder has done so, that makes Watchmen a near-masterpiece of a movie.
Coming full circle, a question still remains: how many children of the 1970s and 1980s who dreamed of what a Watchmen film could be are going to be disappointed? Can it win a duel with their imagined memories and fanciful expectations?
I don't know if it can, but I certainly hope that it will.