There was a time when I was interested in superheroes. During the salad days of grade school, my compatriots and I would spend hours postulating on the deep significance of the X-Men saga, swapping action figures and pretending to be our favorite characters. Then puberty happened, and my interest in comics narrowed to exclude all but my first love: EC horror. As my social consciousness expanded, the very concept of superheroism became more and more absurd, a brainless archetype of some troglodytic notion of masculinity.
By my mid-teens, I had abandoned action comics altogether, opting instead to focus on the less alpha-male gender models proffered by Messrs. Stipe and Cobain; the brawny soap operas propagated by Marvel, DC and their ilk lost all their appeal, and the peevish mother that was my late adolescence threw them away while cleaning out my closet to make way for adulthood.
However, a considerable number of my peers never strayed from the ranks of the faithful, maintaining their devotion to the Herculean icons of their youth. These intrepid souls were lucky enough to have been born into an era in which the comic book was elevated from the dregs of American letters, when a cadre of their spiritual kin became the forebears of a new style of graphic fiction that lay somewhere between Japanese manga and the classic serialized novel. By the late 1990’s, the indie comic subculture had made underground superstars of such writers/draftsmen as Evan Dorkin and Daniel Clowes, but the trailblazers of the form first made their mark in the late 1970’s and early 1980’s. One of these pioneers was Alan Moore, whose magnum opus was a sprawling superhero epic entitled Watchmen.
I’ll spare you the elaborate details of the Watchmen plot; the trade paperback is widely available, and reasonably priced. It was, in fact, through this edition that I was first introduced to the work, during my tenure as the genre specialist at the Borders in Brentwood. Watchmen was almost certainly our best-selling graphic novel (a neologism which many writers of the form have disowned), and I shelved a few new copies every week. However, despite the fact that the book was almost universally praised among the Borders staff, I never took the time to read it; I was turned off by its simplistic three-by-three panel structure and its seemingly juvenile superhero theme.
I caved and saw the movie, in part because I thought I should have at least somewhat of a valid opinion, and because I felt that $10 and two hours were less of an investment than $15 and the better part of a week. But a large segment of the audience sharing the theatre with me arrived with nothing less than the highest expectations. And by almost all accounts, their hopes were painfully dashed.
Watchmen has had a long and notorious history in Hollywood, in large part due to its reputation as being unfilmable. Its plot is massive in scope and disjointed in nature, with dozens of allusions to literary works and historical events; in this sense, it is about as easily transcribable to film as Ulysses. At least five notable filmmakers have been tied to the project in the last two decades, including Tim Burton, Terry Gilliam and Darren Aronofsky. And their efforts in bringing the project to light were no less hazardous than those of the myriad writers and directors who made the same attempts to materialize Dune. So it is nothing less than a monumental event that Watchmen was greenlit at all, let alone that it survived a last-minute distribution rights dispute in time to emerge in theatres on schedule.
One’s initial deduction is that the fanboy-deemed failure is due in large part to director Zack Snyder’s noble attempt to give the film equal appeal with the uninitiated as with the Alan Moore ministry. However, to streamline a project of such magnitude for mass consumption is to surely excise some key components, and many fans expressed their dismay at this inevitable result. In particular, the finale of the film significantly departed from the source material, omitting a Lovecraftian tentacle monster in favor of a more generic atomic explosion. In my opinion, this alteration was beneficial, as its usage prompts a necessary self-exile for the character of Dr. Manhattan, increasing the pathos of his character and poetically tying together the various themes of the film. However, I keep hearing another, more telling complaint about Watchmen, one which has been aired over and over again since the very first midnight screenings: Dr. Manhattan is portrayed in the nude. And if there’s one thing sexually frustrated fanboys can’t stand, it’s full-frontal male nudity.
Never mind the fact that Watchmen features the single most laughable sex scene I’ve ever witnessed, set in a hovering airship and conducted to the strains of Leonard Cohen’s “Hallelujah” (just one of many terrible musical cues throughout the film). Never mind that the gratuitous ultraviolence often does nothing to forward the plot. Never mind that Matthew Goode’s portrayal of Ozymandias might be the most white-bread casting decision since Mark Hamill wimped it up as Luke Skywalker. No, the most egregious offense of Watchmen was the glimpse of Billy Crudup’s computer-enhanced package for roughly 30 seconds over the course of two and a half hours.
“How dare Zack Snyder confront us with the male anatomy? Will looking at another man’s giant blue penis make me gay?”
I wish I could dismiss these grievances as being nothing more than the insecure chest-thumping of infantile emo mallrats, but I’ve heard such complaints being lodged by otherwise mature individuals of my own age. These were the same libertines who were astonished when Viggo Mortensen showed off the goods in Eastern Promises. Really, people? Have you never looked in a mirror? The entire point of Watchmen was to subvert the very notion of superheroism, a small part of which was made manifest in Dr. Manhattan’s being portrayed au naturel. I personally was much more disgusted by the ridiculous costumes donned by the other Watchmen, in particular Nite Owl’s cumbersome flying squirrel getup. Granted, the costumes (and the characters themselves) were intended to harken back to a number of classic comic book heroes, but I have yet to hear anyone complain about the absurdity of Watchmen’s Greek tragedy being played out by muscly men wearing molded plastic and tights. Rather, it always goes back to Dr. Manhattan and his Big Blue Ox.
I’m fascinated by the extent to which superhero fans (and hard fantasy fans in general) are willing to suspend their disbelief, and their reasons for doing so. With Watchmen, they have been forced to reconcile that disbelief with cold hard reality, from the carcinogenic effects of radiation exposure to the ethical dilemmas posed by taking the law into one’s own hands. It’s a lot to ask of people who are used to simply rooting for the good guy, and I’m not sure they’re all mature enough to get the message.
By Michael Munro