Film Review | Sunday, 15 March 2009

Remember the titans

There was a time when comic book fans would have been satisfied with scraps. I remember, sometime towards the beginning of the new millennium, greeting Mystery Men - essentially a spoof on superheroes based on an obscure Dark Horse Comics property - with glee: at least it was something.
Fast forward a few years, and superhero films have officially dethroned ‘stock’ action films at the cinemas. No longer embarrassing, camp cousins (as epitomised by mid-90s Joel Schumacher-helmed Batman flicks) to the Stallones and Vin Diesels of this world, they have become a staple (arguably a yardstick) for genre entertainment, with some of the best directors having a stab at these modern myths. And it’s not only superhero comics that are being welcomed by Hollywood; several ‘artier’ projects, such as Ghost World, Art School Confidential (both based on cult favourites by Daniel Clowes) and American Splendour garnered plenty of critical acclaim.

But any snobbery towards the superhero genre was undoubtedly dealt its strongest blow last summer, with the release of Christopher Nolan’s The Dark Knight. Bolstered by the mythologizing qualities of Heath Ledger’s untimely death, it was compared to several genre-transcending films, including Heat and Se7en, thanks to its uncompromising take on the ethical dilemmas involved in relying on a vigilante to safeguard a city besieged by a nihilistic maniac. Interestingly enough, the comics have always had this quality: Batman has always been a dark avenger, the Joker a psychopathic trickster since the 80s at least. But it seems like cinema is only catching up on this now.

Enter Watchmen. If Frank Miller’s The Dark Knight Returns unsettled the confines of superheroes when it was released, Alan Moore’s 12 issue mini-series, illustrated by Dave Gibbons and published by DC Comics in 1986, spun it on its head and forced it to take a long, hard look at itself. His uncompromising, often bleak vision is still considered to be the best take on the tights-and-spandex genre as it boldly imagines what it would truly be like to have super-powered beings existing in the ‘real world’. The title is derived from Juvenal’s ‘Quis custodiet ipsos custodes?’, which roughly translates into: ‘Who watches the watchmen?’ Indeed, it is a meditation on power, also neatly allegorising the ebbs and flows of human relationships and our ethical responsibilities in a time of global crisis.

Moore’s story, largely intact, comes to us now (after many failed attempts) to the big screen via Zack Snyder, director of 300 and a great fan of the comics, despite the fact that Moore ardently refuses to be associated with any film adaptations of his work. The story is set in an alternate version of 1985, where Nixon is still president and has instated a ‘doomsday clock’ to chart the Cold War conflict - set to go off at a symbolic ‘midnight’. Superheroes are now outlawed, though some, such as the sociopathic vigilante Walter Kovacs aka Rorschach (that’s ‘raw shack’, in case you were wondering), played by Jack Earle Hayley, still operate under the radar. When ex-superhero Edward Blake (‘The Comedian’, Jeffrey Dean Morgan) is assassinated, Rorschach begins to suspect that somebody may be trying to pick off costumed crimefighters one by one as part of a conspiracy. He revisits his former comrades - including Daniel Dreiberg (‘Nite Owl’, Patrick Wilson) Laurie Juspeczyk (‘Silk Spectre’, Malin Åkerman) and the virtually omnipotent Jon Osterman (‘Dr Manhattan’, Billy Crudup) - suggesting that they should take action, which triggers a potentially cataclysmic series of events.
That the project is a labour of love is undeniable. Fans will be relieved to witness how adoringly Snyder adapts each chapter of the original story into the film, his cinematographic team working diligently to replicate an 80s vibe that’s still in keeping with Moore’s dizzying array of ideas and characters. And what a story it is. We get idealism and nihilism existing side-by-side, all brought together by Rorschach’s gritty, post-Chandler noir-narration and powered by what is essentially a large-scale whodunit. There is a genuine human element as well. As Laurie and Jon’s relationship disintegrates (particularly witnessed thanks to a scene that masterfully incorporates some tropes of the genre for very intimate purposes), she grows closer to Daniel. A few encounters and a terrible sex scene (including a tragically misjudged use of Leonard Cohen’s Hallelujah) later, the two rediscover how being superheroes made them feel alive. Between Rorschach’s violent bouts of rough justice (‘no compromise’ is his motto) and Dr Manhattan’s brooding, detached stance (his plight is basically the loneliness of a god), Dan and Laurie are our way into this heady world. It must be said that ultimately, the film suffers from being too faithful an adaptation. The structure remains essentially episodic and one can’t help but think that the whole thing would have worked better as a mini-series. Also, Snyder simply isn’t a mature enough director to handle the ‘straight’, CGI-free aspects of the story which are really the main point of the whole endeavour. While his recreation of Moore’s world is admirable, he suffuses everything with a video-gamey glow, and refuses to let go of the action tics that characterised 300: particularly the whooshing ‘slo-mo-to-fast-mo’ effect that simply jars with a story that’s meant to shift the focus onto the people behind the masks.

But considering what a dense, non-commercial property Watchmen essentially is, it’s a miracle it even got off the ground. Faithful to its source material as it is, it seems to be a testament to its resilience as a revolutionary product: breaking the mould of superhero comics twenty years back, and now returns to the big screen to finish the job in (slightly chequered) style.


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