After watching the Watchmen ...

Thursday, March 19, 2009

I went to see Watchmen the other day in all its grisly goriness. There's much to be debated about this movie, but singularly I wonder if Zack Snyder doesn't do the story a disservice by making it as explicit as it is. I appreciate wholeheartedly that one of the themes of Watchmen is violence and how we downplay the the violence that would otherwise be inherit if the superhero stories we read were real, but it seems to me that if the Comedian shooting the Vietnamese and [you know who] destroying [you know where] was a little more gross and Rorschach pouring oil on the guy's head a little less so, maybe that theme might have come through more specifically.

But I digress. This is not, as a matter of fact, a Watchmen movie review. You can read those here, here, here, here, and here. However, one item that's always interested me about Watchmen--indeed, about the Charlton characters--that I thought I'd open for discussion.

Nite-Owl and Rorschach (or Blue Beetle and the Question, if you will) are whom I believe to be the "main" or lead characters in this universe, and yet they don't conform to the archetypes of the lead characters that we generally posit for a comics universe. Consider, in the DC Universe, Superman is the bright alien hero with super-powers who fights mostly with his brawn while Batman is the dark culmination of man's potential who fights mostly with his brain; we see this duplicated, purposefully, in Apollo and Midnighter in the Wildstorm Universe.

[Read the Collected Editions Beginner's Guide to Watchmen]

But neither Nite-Owl nor Rorschach are a good analogue for Superman nor Batman. Nite-Owl a billionaire with a cave of costumes in his basement, but he's neither the Bruce Wayne playboy nor the Batman detective. Rorschach's the detective, but not nearly a dark knight. Together, they equal just about a Batman, and Nite-Owl only slightly a be-speckled Clark Kent--if you want powers, you have to throw Dr. Manhattan into the mix, too. The archetypes just don't add up.

Someone today writing a Blue Beetle/Question book a la Superman/Batman would have to invent a whole new dictionary of character traits with which to play the characters off one another. Beetle is social whereas Question is subterranean. Beetle is trusting whereas Question is paranoid. Question is violent whereas Beetle is squeamish. Beetle, as one story might go, trusts his technology, whereas the only thing Question will rely on is his/her (depending on your favorite Question) fists.

And whereas most Superman/Batman stories come down to whether one hero "trusts" the other or not, for Question and Beetle the issue is in the end whether they remain, as Rorschach says, "good friends."

[Read the Collected Editions review of Absolute Watchmen]

I'm not, as you all know, as up on my Marvel Comics history as I am on my DC Universe, but I wonder if there's better parallels for the Nite-Owl/Rorschach or Blue Beetle/Question team with Marvel than with DC. Blue Beetle as Iron Man and Captain America as the Question doesn't quite work ... Blue Beetle as Cyclops and Rorschach as Wolverine? Someone who knows more about Marvel, chime in to suggest if there's any analogues there.

It's rare these days, I think, to find superheroes that don't conform to the Superman/Batman paradigm, and I think there's untapped potential in the Blue Beetle/Question team. Warner Bros seems so eager to find some way to produce Watchmen spin-offs; I shudder at the thought, but some sort of Nite-Owl/Rorschach story set before the events of Watchmen might just be the ticket.

So, the Watchmen movie -- love it or hate it? More importantly, is it good for graphic novels, or likely to turn readers away?
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  1. I think that is why Beetle/Question and Dan/Rorschach are considered "B or C-list" characters. They're archetypes, but less bold ones than Superman -- the noble sun god-hero; and Batman, for whom the two guys you mention might both spring from -- he is both a techno-wizard (or just wizard, if you like) as well as a grim sleuth.

    This would all be a lot easier if I had some CG Jung in front of me, but dammit, I'm at work. ;)

    Along this train of thought, you will find Final Crisis and FC: Superman Beyond quite interesting when you read 'em in June, CE. It's jam-packed with analogues of analogues of et cetera.

  2. Oh, and as for the movie itself, I loved the first 20 minutes, kind of liked the middle, hated the last 45 minutes or so. Zach Snyder said he wanted the movie to be a commercial for the comic, and to my mind, that's exactly what he did, bless him.

    It's generating a lot of interest here at my library about GNs and Watchmen in particular, which I am very pleased about, of course.

  3. Personally, the endless number of Superman/Batman analogues out there were getting a little tiresome.

    Off-topic, but the cover to the Final Crisis hardcover IS more than a little spoilery after all.

  4. 1. Blue Beetle and Nite Owl are so similar that in this post you mistakenly write one name when you mean the other.

    2. Nite Owl and Rorschach can both be compared to Batman. Batman's depiction swings between angry. moody, (psychotic?) loner in the shadows to cheery gadget-monkey.

    3. Please don't give anyone ideas for Watchmen spin-offs.

  5. I liked the movie but did not love it.

    I did however think the change to the ending was clever.

    My wife, who loves Fables and DMZ, but until now has had no interest in Super Hero books is now reading Watchmen. In my mind that makes the movie a success.

  6. The more I think about the Watchmen movie, the more I think Synder did the book a disservice (your own results may vary). Was the hot oil scene even in the book? Why make Watchmen more gratuitously violent, while at the same time cutting relevant character moments? I could go on and on ...

    Ultimately this is probably good for the trades, I admit; Watchmen at #1 on Amazon can't be bad.

  7. The hot oil scene was in the book. I had a few moments like that. For instance, the comedian's smiley-face image on the surface of mars I thought was definitely not in the book - and then I went and found it there.

    I think that's the point - some things will work on the page and not on the screen. But the director's in a no win situation. He'll be slammed if he's faithful and he'll be slammed if he's not.

  8. Snyder was very faithful, almost fanatically so except for the ending which was a nice believable twist. I think he went overboard with manhatten's junk, it appears in the movie maybe twice as often as in the graphic novel, it got a bit ridiculous & distracting. Also I didn't like the choice to make the fights super stylized as in guys punching holes in walls and enemies literally being hit/thrown up in the air. With the exception of Manhattan, nobody has superpowers so none of them should really be able to do that. I found that a bit jarring as I feel more realistic fighting scenes without wires would've been more in line with the tone of the movie.

    There are no analogues in the Marvel universe that really match up well to the Watchmen heroes. I'd like to add that Owl, Rorshach and Ozymandias represent 3 different parts of Batman. Owl the techie side, Rorshach the brooding detective, Ozy the intelligent, millionaire playboy.

    I liked the middle and end and actually found the first half hour to 45 mins to be kind of a bore. Some of the most iconic scenes in the graphic novel I felt were well captured by the movie. There are things that happen in the movie which would only make sense to those who've read the graphic novel.

    It was a commendable film adaptation but I think it kind of proved that Watchmen wasn't something that could really be adapted to film well.