Archive for March 10th, 2009

Deciding Whether to Watch the Watchmen

I discovered comic books when I was 13. Watchmen had always lurked in the peripheral—a title known to me and other fans, but unread by most of us. My little clique of bully-fodder read The Dark Knight Returns, and feigned proficient knowledge of X-Men lore.

As my teen years segued into young adulthood, my knowledge of X-Men lore did grow quite extensive, but burdened by the wealth of available X-titles and overwhelmed by the massive, overlapping story arcs, the need to read comics was usurped by the need to keep gas in my car. I maintained an eye on the old titles, though. Three or four times a year since, I still find myself wandering into a comic book shop to peruse the titles, flip through the pages, and check up on the mighty Jim Lee to see what he’s penciling these days.

watchmensmileyMy interests over the years had drifted more to books and movies, so as comic book superheroes started making their way to the silver screen en masse, the old draw to the comic book pages returned. Upon seeing the Watchmen trailer attached The Dark Knight last summer, my curiosity compelled me at last to check out this monumental work of comic art, and see what all the fuss was about.

Ten pages in, I was convinced of Alan Moore’s impeccable storytelling ability. He had set out to turn the concept of the costumed superhero on its ear, and he did so with outstanding aplomb, subtlety, and sophistication. His characters had weight. Their struggles, both internal and external, carried the kind of emotional complexity common to works of literature, not comic books. He held a firm grasp on theme, juxtaposition and recurring motifs. From beginning to end, his narrative overflowed with an almost overwhelming density. This was no mere comic book. It is a singular interpretation of an entire genre, and a compelling, fascinating experience.

Setting it down after finishing the last page, however, I felt soured. In a story populated by heroes, the story felt like the death knell of heroism. Moore’s expansive, epic story is a dark, morose look at a very palpable heart of darkness. For all their ideals, the heroes find themselves stripped of all integrity in a vacuous moral construct.

Film critic Steven D. Greydanus reviews the film at his site. His words on the graphic novel sum up my feelings as well, and his conclusions on the film read the same…

I can’t say I like the work as a whole. It’s a super-hero story without heroism — not a story of ambiguous or flawed heroism, like The Dark Knight, but simply non-heroism. A key character in a key scene debunks what he calls the “obvious,” “schoolboy” heroics of a simpler time — but then his own vision is debunked as well in a closing conceit that seems to depict humanity lurching randomly toward meaningless annihilation.

The movie is an impressive work of transposition, but I can’t recommend it. Excessively brutal and sexually graphic as well as nihilistic and antiheroic, it’s a thoroughgoing deconstruction of humanity as well as heroism, one that takes its world apart without putting it back together again. There are things to admire here, but Watchmen doesn’t make me care. If you can’t care about characters facing the end of the world, perhaps it’s time to turn back the clock and move on.

Perhaps you could call this a reverse recommendation. I value the experience of reading Watchmen. Its claim to fame has lost none of its sheen in the years since its publication. There are moments that inspire, and there are moments that frustrate. It does what great art should—it asks hard questions and makes you think.

But I won’t go see the film. I may check it out once it hits DVD, but for now, I know the story, I know where it all leads, and watching the film, for me, would just be a retread.