Tuesday, January 12, 2010

Watching the Watchmen, pt. 2

I have never liked superhero movies.  I didn't care for Spiderman, Iron Man, X-Men, Superman, or Transformers.  Mystery Men was sporadically funny but mostly stupid.  The Incredibles was cute but silly.  Unbreakable was okay.  Hellboy was dazzlingly bad.  The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen was muddy and incomprehensible.  Except for the brief appearance of an adorable vampire Pomeranian, Blade was interminable.  And though I saw merit in both the Nolan and Burton visions of Batman, especially in their iconic villains, their films as films left me strangely cold.

My favorite supervillain, until recently

I did not particularly want to see Watchmen.  I anticipated two plus hours of latex and explosions, and I'd heard rumors about a giant naked blue guy (a theme that, unbeknownst to the moviegoing public, would be revisited by Avatar later in the year).  I figured it would be crowded, with long lines at the concession stands and teenagers kicking the back of my seat, and that if the comic book's dark ending had been changed, as I'd heard – I hadn't yet read it at the time – the film no doubt would close on a montage of sequel-mongering and sexual consummation.  It sounded like the kind of movie they'd play on flat screen TVs in Circuit City to demonstrate the picture quality.  

All of this changed for me nearly the instant the film began.  A lot of reviewers have commented on the title sequence, in which the lives and, often, deaths of the Minutemen (the original superhero organization in the film) and then the Watchmen are related in brief to the tune of Dylan's "The Times They Are A-Changin."  Obviously, this sequence sets up the tone of nostalgia; by inserting these characters into iconic national moments – VE Day, the moon landing, the Kennedy assassination – the film grounds them historically, in a context already rife with associations, and thus renders them "unforgettable" for viewers. 

But for me, this sequence did something else too.  The film opens with a scene of the aging Comedian thrown to his death by an unknown assailant; if that was followed immediately by Rorschach's ruminations on a possible Mask Killer, the story would have begun on the trajectory of a classic murder mystery.  But by jarring us from that thread right away with a sequence that reveals the forward movement of time to be the world's only indestructible power, the movie forces us to step back, to remove ourselves from the immediate suspense of the situation (The Comedian is dead!  Who killed him?) and read it metaphorically instead. (The Comedian is dead, sure – and so are Silhouette, Dollar Bill and JFK.  So what?  Even the larger-than-life aren't larger than death.)  Structurally, we fall into a Dr. Manhattan-like intellectual remove, reading this story on two levels, the specific and the abstract, almost before it even starts.

The conflict between these two points of view, and the moral consequences of each, is the conflict at the heart of Watchmen.  At the abstract end of the spectrum – get ready for some serious spoilers, folks – is Adrian Veidt, supposedly the smartest man in the world, who literally destroys that world in order to save it:  in a utilitarian calculation that would make Peter Singer blush, he wipes out dozens of major cities in order to bring what he believes will be humanity's only lasting peace.  He is the only main character whose dreams and memories we never access* in the film, and it's an appropriate omission:  to him, the subjective experience of a single life is without intrinsic value.  The only thing that matters is the big picture, the Alexandrian "vision of a united world." 

At the other end of the spectrum is Rorschach, a man whose very name evokes the irreducible complexity of a specific human mind.  Nursing grudges (his enemies list would, heh heh, dwarf Nixon's) and neuroses (his attitudes about sex and hygiene make Ignatius Reilly look datable by comparison) yet unflinchingly loyal to his band of "masks," Rorschach does not believe the ends justify the means.  "Why does one death matter against so many?" he asks rhetorically. "Because there is good and there is evil, and evil must be punished. Even in the face of Armageddon I shall not compromise in this." Like a deranged Kantian, he lives by unshakable moral principles of his own making, hard-won after a lifetime lived in "gutters... full of blood": tell the truth, stick close to your friends, and never compromise.  Though his voiceovers may sound jaded, he's the film's one true idealist, the only one heartbroken by deaths that do not affect him directly.  As he mournfully observes, "A Comedian died last night, and nobody cares. Nobody cares but me."

Suspended between these two polar opposites, of course, is Dr. Manhattan, the one person (notice I don't say human) who might have the power to tilt the balance.  Though paranormally equipped in his perception of reality and time, he can't help but suffer human emotions as well:  loneliness, jealousy, tenderness, guilt.  The internal conflict of these two contrary perspectives comes to a head during his time on Mars, when he tries to eschew his humanity entirely by seeing reality only through the abstract.  He tells Laurie there is no point in saving life on earth from nuclear holocaust – "The universe will not even notice" – but then promptly changes his mind when presented with the unduplicatable fact of another human being: her.  Observing the bizarre circumstances of her birth, he says, "It's you – only you – that emerged. To distill so specific a form, from all that chaos. It's like turning air into gold. A miracle."

The joke here, of course, is that Laurie isn't a miracle, any more than the boy reading comic books next to the newsstand, or Rorschach's shrink, or the Comedian himself.  She doesn't even have superpowers (unless you count her uncannily gorgeous hair).  She's just a human being, and abstractly, objectively, as Manhattan earlier observes, a live one and a dead one have the same number of particles.  What he realizes in that scene really has nothing to do with genetics or probability: it's the intrinsic value of her personhood, something that has no structural properties at all, something that, outside of the law of human morality, doesn't empirically exist.  Manhattan's realization is not an arrival at superhuman knowledge; it's a temporary regaining of human perspective, which he of course quickly casts off again in later scenes.

A superhero movie confronting ethical conundrums is nothing new.  But what surprised me the first time about Watchmen, and surprises me even more in the extended version, is the film's true refusal to take sides.  Although Rorschach dies a hero's death (hey, I warned you about spoilers) the movie's cliffhanger ending indicates that his personal idealism may posthumously fuck things up just as much as Veidt's cold utilitarianism.  And we're given no reason to believe that Adrian "I'm not a comic book villain" Veidt is motivated by anything more selfish than the reasons he supplies.  There's no twist ending where he becomes president (though Ronald Reagan may), or benefits directly from what he's done.  Instead, the movie leaves us responsible for drawing our own conclusions, ones that may make us realize things about ourselves we'd rather not know. 

In reading over this post, I realize that much of what I've said about the film, with the exception of my discussion of the opening sequence, could also apply to the graphic novel.  Let me say a word or two about that, since it was such a source of controversy at the time of the film's release.  Although the movie certainly cuts rich and meaningful elements of the graphic novel (Dreiberg and Mason are significantly more developed characters in the book, for example), I think the only major regrettable omission in the theatrical version of the film was the Black Freighter story, which is masterfully included in the ultimate cut version.  In my next post, I'm going to talk a little about the movie's use of collage, and why I think it was fundamentally faithful not only to the book's plot and "look," but also to its genre-shattering postmodernism. 

And maybe then I'll get back to complaining about shit I hate.

*OK, I have to offer a caveat: we do see his memories of the Comedian during the funeral sequence.  But even here I would argue that we never have access to the personal significance of his memories in the way we do with, say, Laurie Jupiter's.  Nor do we see how past events transformed Veidt in the way that we do with Rorschach, Manhattan, etc., because to Veidt, biography is not a reason for action – only logic is.


Eric Taxier said...

You make a really good point about the "Dr. Manhattan-like intellectual remove" invoked by the opening sequence. I think the visual style does the same thing. The bright, iconic palette, the savage-yet-neutral violence, the floating camera lingering and slowing here and there: these don't just remind us of the story's origins in static images, but actively create the same distancing effect. Whenever the film pauses, we "give pause" as well. Grumpy comic book nerds really should rejoice, and I'm not even one of them. If the filmmakers had merely reflected the grimier punkish visual style of the comic book with "actiony" scripting and directing (think Die Hard or Beverly Hills Cop or Ninja Turtles), it would not do the same work.

I wonder how Nite Owl fits in the whole abstract(utilitarian) — specific(idealist) spectrum...? Speaking of Nite Owl, the Ultimate Cut's doubly awesome for completing Hollis Mason's arc.

The Chawmonger said...

Good points, esp. about the visual style.

I would argue that Mason is still less developed in the film, even in the ultimate cut, than in the graphic novel, simply because we don't have his Under the Hood narration woven throughout -- but I think that was a "kill your darlings" decision on the part of the filmmakers, who rightly decided to let Rorschach own the voiceovers, and compressed the Minutemen backstorey into the aforementioned kick-ass opening sequence.

If I'm going to be a philosophy nerd, I'd argue that Nite Owl Jr (Dan Dreiberg) would probably land closest to a Humean "morality of sentiment" (the ethical philosophy that had late 20th Century feminists declaring Hume an
"honorary woman") -- just look at his behavior throuhout. He rescues Rorschach because they have an emotional bond, and beats up someone with information on Mason's death for the same reason; he's a superhero because it *feels* good ("Morals excite [his] passions" indeed). Or that's my take anyway. Although he mostly sees ethical issues from within his own specificity, he does leave the door open to relativism in a way Rorschach does not.