Friday, March 20, 2009

I Watch the Watchmen

I read Watchmen when it first came out as a 12 issue comic book series, way too many years ago. I remember talking to a fellow comics geek at the time about whether it would make a good movie. He thought it would be great. I wasn't so sanguine. For one thing the story is too rich, the plot too dense for movies. It would have to be cut down or it would be five or six hours long. The problem is that if you cut it down you cut out what makes it great.

The big problem though is that Watchmen is a work of metafiction. It is a comic book about comic books. Alan Moore took the superhero genre apart, found out what made it tick, and put it back together. What, Moore asked, would it really be like? What sort of person would dress up in a costume and fight crime? Why would they do it? What would it do to them? And how would it change the world?

Watchmen changed the genre forever. After that book no one could look at comics the same way again. The characters were real, troubled, flawed human beings living in a real, violent, and terrifying world. In their wake four-color heroes motivated only by goodness and niceness seemed hopelessly quaint.

As this new movie got closer to completion I heard people making a new argument. They said that comics were now part of the mainstream. Movies and TV are now so heavily influenced by comics that a movie that was a commentary on these themes would have a resonance that it would not have had just a few years ago. I thought that might just be so. Maybe Watchmen was filmable after all. I certainly wanted to believe it.

I've just seen the movie, and I'm afraid I was right all along. You just can't make a movie that does the comic justice. Watchmen was a great book. It blew my mind. Watchmen was a pretty good movie. It entertained me.

As a fan of the book it was fun to see the characters come to life. As a fan of the genre it was fun to see a thrilling superhero action movie. Fun, certainly, but it doesn't hold up to the original.

As predicted, there was way too much stuff to fit in. Cuts had to be made and things that were important to understanding the plot and the fictional world got mentioned quickly, in passing, in the hopes that audiences would keep up. I'm not sure if people who hadn't done their reading assignments could follow along. Those important plot points had to get shoved aside for extended action sequences. Motion pictures, after all, require motion.

They got a lot of things right. I liked the look of the movie. I think the characters were spot on. But so much of the book was about the psychology of the characters, and while the filmmakers tried, it just wasn't possible to paint as rich a portrait as was necessary. They came a lot closer than I thought they would, but not quite.

So yeah, it's a good movie. If you like superhero flicks you shouldn't miss it. It's just not going to change the world. Which is kind of a shame, considering the source material, but not really a surprise.

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