The Watchmen is, perhaps, the best comic book movie ever made. It is a large qualification and one that does the movie a disservice, but despite the reworking of the typical comic book themes and an ending that avoids the superhero defeats super villain formula, some elements still cannot escape the genre and make the film a little awkward at times.
Based on the 1986 graphic novel, The Watchmen tells the story of a group of super heroes that were anything but the clean cut exemplars of American culture that Superman represents. Instead, in an excellent title sequence you learn how some were killed in scandalous ways, one ended up in a mental hospital, and others resorted to drink. It is a foretelling of the scandals, immoral behavior and the self righteous crusading. One of the great strengths of the film is to see superheroes as something other than heroic. When The Comedian shoots and murders his pregnant lover in Vietnam because he doesn’t want to have anything to do with her, it is a moment that undoes the whole facade of the heroic and makes the comic fantasies that have come before seem silly. What is worse is the all powerful Dr. Manhattan doesn’t do anything. Superman with his perfect sense of right and wrong has been replaced by a hero who is too unconcerned with the problems of everyday people.
The movie, too, avoids the usual convention where the super villain fights the super hero in a battle that goes on for five to ten minutes and millions of dollars of special effects. For the all the complexity that the super heroes might exhibit, the film in the end comes down to the grand battle, which is really a let down because it seldom has anything to do with the characters the heroes have. The Watchmen, on the other hand, avoids the problem because the conclusion of the film is based in a moral ambiguity: can one kill millions to save billions. Sure there is a fight between the heroes but it comes to nothing and only proves they dislike each other. It is a relief to see the lack of a grand show down, because it makes the movie about decisions, not power. If everything is about one’s powers then it doesn’t matter how complex the character is (or how mopey they are, which seems to be the case usually), it is the luck of the one’s powers, which naturally always tilts towards the good, that defines the movie and the characters.
The Watchmen is an excellent representative of a narrative imagination that was common in the 80’s where the extremes of right leads one to see concentration camps coming any day now. In The Watchmen there is a sense that the government would be completely happy to start building the camps to deal with the restless people. Both the Comedian and Rorschach are quite the right leaning vigilantes who see nothing good in the scum of the world as it has descended in to a cesspool of criminality. It is the same fear that shows up in various American punk bands of the time such as the Dead Kennedys, Black Flag and the Suicidal Tendencies. In each there is a preoccupation with government power that turns fascistic.
The Watchmen, though, has its flaws. Its length is not necessarily one, although some may suggest 3 hours is excessive. The biggest problem is it can’t escape its comic book past. For all the cleverness in rewriting the genre it still uses conventions of the genre. So, at times the narration is weak, a cross between Raymond Chandler and a teenage kid when Rorschach is narrating, and boring when Dr. Manhattan is narrating. Moreover, Rorschach’s insights into human nature are quite tedious, as are some of the flashbacks that describe the various back stories. Silk Spectre II and Night Owl are a little light in the characterization department, and rewriting the way women are portrayed in comic books is certainly not the focus of The Watchmen, which is obvious from Silk Spectre’s costume. Having a lesbian character, Silhouette, only servers to underscore the male fantasy that is at work in the characterizations (granted, she is also the victim of a hate crime). Finally, Silk Spectre I could be quite a complex character, but loving one’s abuser is simplified so much that it suggests if you try to rape someone you may still have chance to have her fall in love with you. If one is going to embrace that theme, you really should dig deeper.
The best comic movie is probably a turn off to those who don’t care about the genre, either in film or the comic books themselves. Yet it is worth seeing if only to understand how far comics have and have not come over the years. Despite the seeming silliness of costumed heroes they are one of the great American inventions.