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Before Watchmen

Before Watchmen, the upcoming project from DC Comics, has been the talk of the comics world for a little while now. Here’s my two cents on the project.

First, I do get a little tired of Alan Moore saying that he wishes comics companies would stop exploiting properties he created that he doesn’t own, or that he co-owns. On the other hand, he has his wishes, and the media keeps asking him what he thinks of the latest project based on his work, so what do they expect him to say? “Oh gee, you’ve worn me down, so I’ve decided that it’s great they’re doing this.” So I think people who complain about Alan Moore complaining doth protest too much. As long as people keep doing new projects based on his work we’re going to keep hearing him complain about them, so we just have to accept that and move on.

On the other hand, it’s hard to imagine a less-necessary set of books than prequels to Watchmen. It was a gorgeous and influential book which was complete unto itself, and which is tightly tied to the creators who made it (Alan Moore and Dave Gibbons). Moreover, it pretty much plumbed the depths of all the major characters, and what was left unsaid was left so deliberately. Any prequels I think would only be interesting to the extent that they inform a new reading of the original book, but since Moore and Gibbons aren’t doing the prequels, I expect they’ll feel superfluous.

It’s strange to me that DC would do prequels to the series, rather than a sequel, since building something new on top of the original might genuinely move the book forward. But doing prequels just seems like a cynical effort to squeeze some more money out of the property – cynical because it indicates that DC is too timid to do anything daring.

Which is ironic because, as Moore has said, the whole point of Watchmen was to do new things with the medium (graphic novels) and the genre (superheroes). You can argue to what extent they succeeded in being truly innovative, but the book clearly greatly influenced comic books for years after it was published. Going back and further rooting around in the backstory of its milieu seems contrary to the spirit of the book itself – and thus all the more cynical.

But in pop culture all old fads end up coming back and being revisited or reworked eventually. Sometimes they’re good, sometimes they’re bad, sometimes they’re fresh, and sometimes they’re stale. The only way this project is different from DC relaunching the Doom Patrol/the Teen Titans/the Suicide Squad one more time is that it has Alan Moore complaining about it.

Just remember: The great thing about literature (graphic or otherwise) is this: Regardless of whether or not Before Watchmen ends up being a cheap knock-off of the original, we can always go back and enjoy the original. Considering how many superhero comics have devolved into a serpent swallowing its own tail, that’s an important fact to remember.

Watchmen

Yesterday we went up to the city to see Watchmen on the IMAX screen at the Metreon. This was actually the first film I’ve seen on an IMAX screen, although other than being really quite big, it didn’t feel very different from watching a movie on a regular screen.

I read the comic book by Alan Moore and Dave Gibbons when it came out back in 1986-87. It was a big deal then, as Moore was probably the hottest – and arguably the best – pure writer in comics at the time, and Gibbons was a highly-regarded artist. Moore has said that the series was intended to be experimental and rule-breaking in many ways, and as far as how to use the form of sequential art to tell a story, it was. Few comics before or since have taken such a, well, cinematic approach to storytelling, while also mixing in the things which make the form unique. Gibbons eschewed the traditional approach of using visual effects to convey movement or emotion and instead the series depicted the progress of time in a simple panel-by-panel approach. At the same time scenes blended into one another, linked by dialogue from different scenes. While individual elements of Watchmen was been mimicked or used elsewhere, I don’t think anyone else has managed to quite capture the unique feel and nature of the book.

(The story, by the way, concerns a world in which superheroes emerged, changed the world – especially the big one who had actual powers – and were then forced into retirement. A decade later, one of them is killed, setting into motion a chain of events to learn why he was killed, which brings many of the surviving heroes back to solve the mystery and come to terms with their pasts and present.)

That said, the book is certainly not without its flaws. Steven Grant wrote an interesting critical account of the book which I recommend reading. I agree that the story by-and-large isn’t terribly novel, it’s how it’s told that’s fascinating. The story is also rather let down by a very hard-to-swallow ending, which Moore tries his level best (which is extremely good) to sell, trying to cajole and trick the reader into buying it, but it doesn’t quite work. (He manages to paper over most of the unbelievability with a compelling final page, but it’s just a papering-over, as if he doesn’t quite buy it himself.) But in sum its complexity, nuance, and believable characters make it one of the better graphic novels out there.

Making a movie of it: Hoo-boy.

The comic is strictly episodic in nature – using the periodical nature of the original comics for its own purposes as a chapter structure – with each issue featuring its own encapsulated segment of the story, its own tone and characters, and often its own resolution of a sort. It’s also a very low-key story, with only the occasional moment of action. Much of this is at odds with how superhero movies – or heck, any blockbuster movie – is constructed today.

Director Zack Snyder and screenplay writers David Hayter and Alex Tse give it a good try. With a running time of 163 minutes, that gives them about 13 minutes per issue (plus 7 minutes for credits), but of course it doesn’t work out that way. Naturally they cut the stuff that absolutely had to be cut (the “Black Freighter” sequences, which are not without their interesting elements but are ultimately the least essential part of the book), and pare down the issues that can be pared down. That still left them with some difficult decisions, and I think they cut some important material, but I went in knowing that Watchmen is probably impossible to film faithfully in a mere movie-length film.

The expected problems with the adaptation aside, the film starts going wrong in its focus on the violence of the story. Where the comic doesn’t exactly flinch from showing the horrible things that happen, it also rarely does so directly unless necessary, leaving some of the worst moments to the reader’s imagination – usually a good choice. The film emphasizes every punch with an extra-loud sound of impact. The heroes – most of whom have no true powers – get the living daylights beaten out of them and come back for more, quite different from how they’re portrayed in the book. There are some extremely gory scenes, some in which the camera lingers lovingly on the blood. The violence is mostly gratuitous, and only truly provides value in one scene, when two of the heroes are fighting their way through a gauntlet in a prison.

The film’s other big problem is the climax, in which everything is revealed, though it’s somewhat different from the book, but not really any more effective or believable. The book is full of moral ambiguity and goes to great lengths to try to portray every character as having both admirable and ignoble motivations and actions. The film mostly casts the characters as either “more good guys” or “more bad guys”, which sucks a lot of power out of the ending.

To the extent that the film works, it relies on the portrayal of the psychopathic Rorschach and his portrayal by Jackie Earle Haley. The acting is unexceptional throughout the film (none of the major actors are familiar to me), but Haley carries the day with an intense and spot-on performance, growling his way through the film in a full face-mask (whose constantly-shifting pattern is the film’s greatest visual triumph). With a lesser performance in this pivotal role, the film would have been limp indeed, violence or not.

The picture also looks impressive, although perhaps a little too art-deco and artificial in its appearance no matter the era being shown (it takes place in 1985 and has scenes dating back to the 1940s). This works well in the opening sequence, a series of nearly-still images (a neat effect in itself) about the history leading up to the main story, but gets a little wearing towards the end. But the characters and many of the settings and scenes look like they were lifted directly from the book; smartly, many of the iconic images are closely replicated in the film, sometimes to an uncanny degree. Considering how often films deviate across the board from their source material, this in itself is quite impressive.

Overall, I’d say Watchmen is a “pretty good” film – certainly not in the same league as the book. I do think it could have been a better film, by toning down the violence and sticking closer to the book in some key areas, but I appreciate that it’s a very challenging book to adapt. Perhaps I’m being too demanding, but I think the film’s greatest flaws were entirely correctable, yet they seemed to be conscious deviations to make the film more “exciting”.

Watchmen the movie is worth seeing once (if you’re not too squeamish about gore in movies), especially if you’ve already read the book. And if you’ve seen the film, though, then you definitely owe it to yourself to read the original. But I don’t think it’s going to hold up under repeated viewings.

Film Trailers

When we saw The Dark Knight the other day, we also saw trailers for some upcoming films based on comic books.

First up was The Spirit, written and directed by Frank Miller, based on Will Eisner’s characters. The trailer looks downright awful, all noirish and with a cutesy sort of sex appeal combined with menace which seems utterly unlike the comics. I’m not a big fan of the source material, but it seems like Frank Miller is exactly the wrong person to adapt Eisner’s characters, which sprang from the tradition of newspaper adventure strips of the 30s and 40s. Miller over the last decade or so tends to take things to the extreme, which is entertaining when he’s working with his own characters (Sin City), but a disaster when working with others’ characters (The Dark Knight Strikes Again).

Anyway, based on this trailer, I can’t see myself going to see this film. (This trailer is slightly better, but extremely generic.)

By contrast, the trailer for Watchmen has been all the buzz on teh intarwebs this week, and it looks really good; many shots look like they were lifted directly from the graphic novel. My enthusiasm is somewhat tempered because adapting this story to a 2-3 hour film is extremely ambitious and I imaging they’ll either leave a lot out, or shorten many scenes, so I don’t expect it to have the same impact.

Still, based on this trailer, I can’t imagine myself not going to see this film.

(My copy of the graphic novel has been on loan to my friend Lee for a while. He reports that his cow-orkers have been coming into his office and thumbing through it since the trailer came out. So people are definitely interested in this film.)

By the way, it looks like grumpy old Alan Moore – the book’s author – has asked to not be associated with the Watchmen film, as the trailer site says the film is “based on the graphic novel illustrated by Dave Gibbons”. Whatever, dude.