Sunday, March 15, 2009

Watching the Watchmen

As it enters its second week in theaters, Watchmen has seen a substantial drop in box office and seems to be receiving a lot of negative word of mouth. I blame this on an advertising campaign that has led people unfamiliar with the comic book to expect a standard superhero movie when Watchmen is a far cry from a typical superhero movie. So I thought it might be a good idea to address some of the misperceptions as well as some of the more common complaints so that people who haven't seen the movie yet will know what to expect.

First of all you should take the movie's R rating seriously. The movie contains scenes of graphic violence including an attempted rape. The movie contains several sex scenes including one that's about as graphic as you can get without earning an NC-17 rating. The movie contains full frontal male nudity. Lots of full frontal of male nudity. If you don't want to see a guy getting a face full of hot grease or a woman being brutally beaten and then bent over a table or two superheroes getting it on or lots of blue wang then you should probably go see something else.

Secondly this is not an action movie. It has some action sequences in it but they are relatively few and far between compared to a typical action movie. Think of it instead as a murder mystery in which the hardboiled detective just happens to wear a mask. Even that is just a framework that the author uses to explore what sort of people would consider it rational to try and make the world a better place by dressing up in tights and running around beating criminals up. There is a lot more talking than there is fighting.

Now to address some common complaints I've heard:

Watchmen isn't kid friendly!

Just because a story involves superheroes doesn't mean its target audience is children. Watchmen is one such story. It is unfortunate that some of the movie's marketing has been aimed at children because it really isn't a story that kids are likely to enjoy or that their parents will want them to see. The average age of comic book readers has been rising as people who grew up on comics continue to read them into adulthood. Today there are many comic book readers in their 20s and 30s and even older. Watchmen was written with that adult demographic in mind.

Watchmen is too violent.

A strange complaint to make given that the genre is based around the conceit of people in costumes running around beating each other silly. The violence in Watchmen serves a point. It illustrates the brutality of the lives these people have chosen. In a comic book world superheroes get away with taking the most outrageous risks because the writers are on their side. The real world tends to be more unforgiving. If the heroes don't want to wind up like Dollar Bill, shot dead after his cape was caught in a revolving door while trying to stop a bank robbery, they can't afford to pull their punches.

The sex is too much.

As with the violence, the sex in Watchmen serves a purpose. Sex is part of the human experience and there's no reason to believe it would be any less important to superheroes than it is to normal people. Comic book fans have long speculated how their heroes might apply their superpowers to their sex lives. The Dr. Manhattan scene addresses that speculation while demonstrating that the use of superpowers during the sex act wouldn't necessarily be a rousing success. The two scenes with Dan serve to show that as himself he feels rather impotent but as Nite Owl he's a virile stud.

There's too much blue wang!

Some people seem to be really worked up about the fact that Dr. Manhattan spends a lot of time walking around with his junk on display. Again this is something that is done for a reason though it was handled better in the comic book. In the comics when Dr. Manhattan first gets his powers he wears a fully body suit. As the years go by the full body suit becomes a Speedo and then finally nothing at all. Manhattan's shedding of clothes is a representation of the shedding of his humanity. Consider the scene where Speedo Manhattan protests the Comedian's actions but does nothing to stop them. Full Body Suit Manhattan would have stopped it while Naked Manhattan wouldn't have protested. His powers make it hard for him to relate to humanity and so the more time goes by, the less human he feels and the less bound by human conventions he is.

The ending is too ambiguous.

Life rarely wraps things up with a nice tidy bow. The hero doesn't always get the girl. Sometimes the villain gets away. Sometimes the world ends. Sometimes it doesn't. Alan Moore didn't want to give his readers a pat answer. He wanted them to think about the issues he raised. Moore wanted to explore what kind of person might become a superhero and he does that well. All of the major comic book archetypes are here. The cop who wears a mask so he can operate outside the law. The man who wants to clean up the streets he grew up on. The idealist who wants to make the world a better place. The scientist who had power thrust upon him unexpectedly. The romantic who wants to be a superhero for the sake of being a superhero. The woman who is continuing the family legacy. Questions about the morality of killing millions of people in order to save billions is outside the scope of Watchmen. Instead we have to answer those questions for ourselves and, really, we should be the ones to answer those sorts of questions instead of letting someone else tell us how to think.

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