Friday, March 13, 2009

An Existential Critique of Watchmen

Avoiding post-experiential hype is a premium I strive for in my criticism of art and culture. Typically I try to give myself several days or weeks before appraising a work of art. My friend Stephen said “first impressions are overrated” and this is as true in media as it is in relationships. At the risk of being “just another fan boy,” I will go on the record and say that “Watchmen” is the best ‘comic book’ movie to date and the best movie I’ve seen since Juno. Let me first say that I’ve never read the comic and walked into the movie blind, i.e., apart from a few non-revealing trailers, I knew nothing about the storyline and probably wouldn’t have seen it without friends.

Two comparisons have been made with this movie, one less obvious than the other: The Godfather and The Dark Knight. Scott Nash of Three Movie Buffs says Watchmen is an, “epic is to superhero movies what The Godfather is to gangster films.” I would argue, especially when juxtaposed against The Dark Knight, The Watchmen is the Goodfellas of superhero films.

Watchmen does not glorify the superhero’s life: much of it containing the banality of Clark Kent’s work at The Planet.The Dark Knight’s ethical quandaries are embedded in his ‘being in the world’ (Dasein). Bruce Wayne’s ‘throwness’ (Geworfenheit) into the world is felt throughout the film, and both his presence and absence are palpable. The Caped Crusader is both guardian and auxiliary, both subject and object to the polis Gotham. Batman’s actions as vigilante are scrutinized similarly to how Bruce Wayne might be scrutinized as a citizen, someone to be acted with and acted upon. To be affective, he must be all things to all men, a kind of surgeon of wickedness: socially aloof and compassionate, combatively precise as a quarterback and superincumbent as a rushing half-back, contemplative sage and suffering martyr. By contrast, the members of the Watchmen come vis-à-vis their Sartrean ‘bad faith.’ The wheel of causation will stand megalithically still until they choose to lay their hand upon it and willfully thrust it down. In a world (saeculum) where a superhero’s gifts are marginalized by society and exploited by government, each character paradoxically comes to terms with how little they matter (Laurie says, “My only friends are superheroes”) even as they seek to save the world from self-annihilation. Daniel/Night Owl II becomes solitary and portly, Dr. Manhattan slowly loses his humanity while grasping at the past via prior habits, Edward Blake becomes a cynical nihilist while Walter Kovacs/Rorschach becomes an idealistic sociopath and Adrain/Ozymandias develops a wealthy empire and god-complex. Through action and non-action, they choose for themselves and the world.

What I appreciated most about the movie was its fearlessness in overreaching. I loved director Zach Snyder’s Dawn of the Dead and, given his previous films, apparently likes working with relative unknowns. It shares a lot with another movie I love, The Addiction. Abel Ferrara’s 1995 release attempts to say more than it probably does; the movie's criticisms often include the word pretentious. Likewise, Watchmen is ambitious in scope. It seems to ask, What if the world had not one, but seven Batmans? And what if the world ambivalent about them? And like The Addiction, or Yasmina Reza’s “Art,” the movie is only superficially about superheroes. Only one has any authentic superhuman abilities; one could almost say their power resided in their tenacity and ‘will to power’ (“der Wille zur Macht”) than in any dynamism they might have.

What perhaps keeps bringing me back to the movie is the psychology of the characters; and with that, the notion of how I see myself in contrast. If I had such abilities, which one would I be like? The most psychologically entreating character for me was Night Owl II. He shares a common trope with Bruce Willis’ character in “Unbreakable” and Pixar’s Mr. Incredible, which is the angst felt when they reject their ‘facticity’ for the supposed comfort of becoming what another wants for them. This renders Daniel figuratively and actually impotent. Night Owl II is the character in the story most capable of joy and pain, most passionate and affected, that is, he is the most human. Daniel, except for maybe Dr. Manhattan, is also the most self-aware, which is why he feels so much more pain throughout the story while experiencing less than most in physical terms. He alone can’t control the world like Ozymandias or be Laurie’s “dream man” Dr. Manhattan; but also he can neither embrace Rorschach’s non-duality as a vigilante nor become The Comedian’s ‘Man of Action.’ Perhaps more telling of me than the character is my appreciation of the moment when The Silk Spectre looks through his goggles and states that “this must be how Dr. Manhattan sees the world.” Patrick Wilson plays the moment to perfection, hand-waving the obvious dejection from what was said.

Stealing the show was the character of Rorschach, played by Jackie Earle Hayley, the only cast member already acquainted with the original story. The creator of Watchmen, Alan Moore, commented on Rorschach, saying that it wasn’t until the fourth comic he realized Walter Kovacs would not live to the end of the series, because he saw everything in black and white, like an ink blot. He is a man “in the world but not of it.” Kovacs idealism is what makes him most angelic, which is a pathology in this world if not properly treated. The overall narrative is bookended by the deaths of the most wicked and most holy characters. Their deaths are a commentary on what it takes to survive in this world: humanity cannot tolerate unbridled angels or unleashed demons. Socrates and Hitler meet the same fate.

On the finer points of the film were the violence and sex. To compare, I felt the violence in Snyder's "300" was both tedious and gratuitous. In Watchmen, however, I felt the violence was an expression of the characters and not titillations or plot-moving mechanisms. Each hero fought differently and in terms of how they were to be portrayed. The death of Rorschach was artistically beautiful. The Comedian is perhaps cinema's closest attempt at portraying Camus' Meursault in The Stranger, and how he violated and violenced other people was evidence of that. After the film, a question a friend of mine asked was, "Did you mind the long, uncomfortable sex scene?" Upon reflection, I had just finished watching probably half an hour's worth of glowing blue wiener, so I felt pretty unaffected by that point.

In the final analysis, I most often judge a movie by how much I think about it after I finish watching it. Well, I have not yet stopped trying to deconstruct it. Perhaps the highest compliment I can pay the movie, just like a person, is in saying “you were always on my mind.”

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