Watching the 'Watchmen'

The graphic novel changed the rules of comic books. Can the film do the same for movies?

March 01, 2009|By Michael Sragow | Michael Sragow,

W atchmen arrives in theaters Friday, riding a wave of pop anticipation as fierce in its own way as the return of Star Wars. The reputation of Alan Moore's original creation has been building ever since it appeared in 1986 and helped turn high-class comic books into "graphic novels." Time magazine named it one of the 100 best English-language novels since 1923. It has brought many a grown-up comic-book fan back into the fold and won over collegiate, with-it readers with its apocalyptic tone and its deconstruction of superhero mythology.

Now, director Zack Snyder has gotten it to the screen in an adaptation that's reportedly as faithful to Moore's work as Snyder's smash adaptation of 300 was to Frank Miller's graphic novel of the same name. But after a series of superhero movies that have run the gamut from the adolescent romanticism of Spider-Man to the doomsday visions of The Dark Knight, can Watchmen hope to achieve the impact on celluloid that it did on slick paper? And will general audiences feel that when it comes to wised-up, broken-down superheroes, they've simply had enough?

"We don't need no steeeenking Watchmen movie!" Graphic novel artist Steven Parke cautions that this blanket disdain may sum up the cult reaction. "I'd like to hope Watchmen the movie will become the touchstone that the novel became," says Parke, who is based in Baltimore, "just because it is a cool story. Unfortunately, the crowd that might think that way is already sold on the book."

Michael McKenzie, owner and operator of the Cockeysville comic-book store Alternate Worlds, thinks it may have the potential to be a "cult classic over the years, revered and referenced even 25 years from now. But I don't think that it will be the next Citizen Kane, Gone With the Wind or Wiz ard of Oz. ... How memorable will it become over time to the average person? Now that's the question, isn't it?"

That is the question, especially since a lot of what made Watchmen groundbreaking has been co-opted in two decades' worth of comics and comic-book movies. The ruling idea behind Moore's dirty half-dozen superheroes is that it takes a warped personality to don a costume and a mask. Even if he or she is an innocent, the costume will do the warping if the champ or chump wears it long enough.

That idea has become common in movies ever since Tim Burton's first Batman (1989). The trailer for Watchmen promises, "You've Never Seen Superheroes Like This." Actually, we have, in movies as charming and romantic as Spider-Man 2 and as loathsome and brutalizing as Punisher: War Zone.

Watchmen, when published as a serial, put a new twist on the cliffhanger form. Parke says, "You didn't wonder what happened next. It was more like, 'OK, what's going on?' " And it introduced new variables to superhero comic books. "You were still at a point in comic books where Superman hadn't died and come back, and Robin hadn't died and come back. It was the first time you saw superheroes killed."

That novelty is gone. Yet Watchmen's go-for-baroque panoply of characters and subplots may be exactly what saves it on-screen. Moore's multilayered phantasmagoria takes place in 1985, when Richard M. Nixon is in his fifth term as president and the Cold War has turned hot with the Soviet Union digging ever-deeper into Afghanistan. Someone is killing superheroes. After you get to know them, you may wonder why someone didn't start the killings earlier.

The Comedian (Jeffrey Dean Morgan) is a patriotic bruiser with no code of military honor and a possible rape on his resume. Dr. Manhattan (Billy Crudup) is a mountainous blue Ubermensch with few recognizable feelings. Ozymandias (Matthew Goode) is a genius at science and even more of one at marketing. Nite Owl II (Patrick Wilson) is a gadget-mad self-made super-vigilante who can't make love without his uniform. Rorschach (Jackie Earle Haley) is a street-roaming enforcer of brute morality sporting a fedora and a mask that changes patterns like a Rorschach test. The voluptuous woman warrior Silk Spectre II (Malin Akerman) wears a costume that seems made of ribbons and garter belts. They all figure prominently in an end-of-the-world scenario that echoes the destroy-the-village-to-save-it policies of the war in Vietnam.

Moore charts personal and universal meltdowns in elaborate parallel stories rendered in comic-book panels and straight text. For many who grew up with Old School heroes, his deconstruction of superheroes packs the same sardonic punch as Simon and Garfunkel warbling "Where have you gone, Joe DiMaggio?"

Moore takes to logical extremes the angst that Marvel Comics had poured into more jocular or positive titles like Sp ider-Man or Iron Man.

It's an approach that still risks alienating the audience as well as expressing alienation.

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