Monday, March 09, 2009

the inevitable (dweebish) watchmen post

Saw Watchmen yesterday. It was good. About as good as I expected. There were scenes that were incredibly campy, some that were profound. Among other things there was lots of blood; overly prettified fight choreography; a giant, naked blue man; too much CGI; and one sex scene that went on too long and in a kind of ridiculously showy manner. There seems to be somewhat universal agreement that the film adhered too closely to the comic book and failed to create its own identity. The critics loved Jackie Earle Haley's portrayal of Rorschach and hated Malin Ackerman's Silk Spectre. I thought they were both adequate. The major difference being that Rorschach's character—demented, violent, uncompromising—is just way more compelling to watch or read. It was the same in the comic book—its two best chapters are 5 and 6, which focus almost mostly on Rorschach.

My general feeling is that making Watchmen into a movie is about as silly as making Citizen Kane into a comic book. In adapting it, it lost a major component of what makes it such a great piece of work—its comic bookness. As much as it's a story about superheroes trying to save the world, it's also a story about debunking the myth of the comic book hero. And as much as it's a fine piece of pomo, non-linear storytelling, it's also really a twelve part course in how comic book stories are told—the ways to relate one comic book panel to another. And this last part, I believe, is really what made Watchmen "unfilmable" as its been called on so many occasions (probably most often by its cantankerous mastermind). It's unfilmable because one of the intrinsic values of the story is that it is a comic book.

There are certain things that comics allow for that helped develop some of the themes—symmetry and time—of Watchmen and this relationship between panels is one of them. The comic book's page-layout holds almost entirely to a grid divided evenly in 18 sections. Most pages had 9 panels, but whatever the configuration was, it held to that underlying grid. While it lent a certain rhythm and structure to the pages look and narrative pacing (the effects of which, I don't think I entirely understand), it also allowed for a vast use of symmetry in the page designs (see the page depicting Rorschach's capture). In as much as Watchmen was important to comics with respect to its mature subject matter (it being an instigator for the movement of comics' target audience from 8-to-12 year-olds to 18-to-30-somethings), it was equally important regarding how its panels tell the story.

The narrative flashes back and forth in time throughout the story. As Dr. Manhattan says later on in the book, "There is no future. There is no past... Time is simultaneous..." With the comic you can easily move forwards and backwards in the narrative just by turning some pages. By looking at an entire page at once you can see moments in the story happening simultaneously. Rorschach is a character of dichotomies. He sees everything in a prism of good/evil and right/wrong. His life is divided into two periods, when he was Walter Kovacs and when he became Rorschach. His mask is a mercurial Rorschach blotch, perpetually moving to make new symmetries. So the gimmick of using symmetry in the illustrations to underscore his character traits is an obvious enough device.

In the page depicting Rorschach's capture (and a number of other pages in book), the coloring of the panels is symmetrical. But the way in which that device functions in the comic is what makes it work so well. The physical motivation behind the color change in the panels is the flashing neon light in the background (The neon light features a symmetrical skull-and-crossbones in its design). The alternating color in conjunction with the rigidity of the grid-based layout acts as a sort of metronome, ticking off the moments until the issue's climax. And while it functions as a sort of timing device, in order to actually see the symmetry on the page the reader must look at all nine panels at once, such that what's happening in the first panel of the page is synchronous with the last panel. The symmetry is only apparent by making time stop in the story.

This is something that couldn't really be done in film. The comic book ties together these themes of symmetry and synchronicity in a very particular comic book-y way. Certainly the themes portrayed on film, but not in the same manner.

And this is one of the major strikes against the film. Outside of cutting scenes out of chronological order, there's little thematic play in its narrative technique. It cops the style of the comic without paying attention to the substance conveyed by that style. Snyder and co. didn't make much of an effort in that regard. They had an opportunity to create a very striking visual vocabulary (maybe using simultaneous imagery or montage, for instance) and they didn't. The only elements of the film they seemed to take liberties with were the credit sequence and the fight choreography and physics of battle, which were essentially a Matrix rehash with more blood.

A similar argument could be made for the murder mystery aspect of the story. Rorschach and Nite Owl's investigation into the Comedian's death and the reader's efforts to create order out of Moore and Gibbon's disjointed narrative are underscored by comics' innate qualities—the setting of illustrated panels together to create a larger picture. The comic doesn't just resemble a puzzle, it is a puzzle.

The movie, in the end, was the fireworks without the orchestra.

the art (click to enlarge) of Dave Gibbons, John Higgins, and Alan Moore:

more TK?


Dad said...


I thought I heard that you weren't going to see Watchmen. Since you rated it as "good as I expected" (notwithstanding your indepth critique) I take it you were not disappointed overall with is as a "movie".

Flushy McBucketpants said...

i was on the fence about it. my housemates wanted to go. As noted, it was good. But much like the comic, it's certainly not for everyone. If you've got 3 hours to kill and you like your movies grim with a side of action, then this is for you.