March 7, 2009

Watchmen (03/07/09)

Lettergrade: F-

Watchmen, based on the popular DC Comics graphic novel of the same name, had been in development for 10-15 years or so. I spent all but the last few days before the film's release not giving much of a shit about what it was about or whether or not it got made. Now that I've braved the finished film's nearly 3 hour running time, I sit here a thoroughly baffled man. I would say that I can safely return to ignoring the Watchmen universe at large, but at the same time I feel compelled to spend a few minutes thinking about why the movie just didn't do anything for me.

I like superhero movies... particularly when they're aimed at a thinking, adult audience, as last summer's The Dark Knight was. Unlike The Dark Knight, unfortunately, I don't think Watchmen found a way to be relevant or to have a good reason to exist. Why make this movie? Why do it now? It's about geopolitics on some level, but a perverted, alternate-reality version of them which imagines that U.S. history and the Cold War had both progressed very differently than they actually did. It is also a world in which superheroes exist, but much like in 2004's The Incredibles, the government has forced them into retirement and they live among us, pretending to be normal.

But before we get into that, a little bit of the premise: It's 1985. Nixon is still president, having amended the Constitution to allow for that, apparently. The world stands on the brink of nuclear war with Soviet Russia, but that's okay because the bright blue government-controlled superhero Dr. Detroit (played by the astonishingly dull Billy Crudup) has the ability to basically do absolutely anything he wants just by thinking about it, including turning any nuclear weapon the Russians might send toward us into yak jizz simply by wishing it to be so.

One night, an older superhero-in-hiding, the "Comedian" is killed under mysterious circumstances. This gives the movie an excuse to introduce us to the large community of superheroes who all seem to live in New York. The other thing it sets up is an endless fucking series of comments revolving around the Comedian's schtick. There are literally dozens of lines like "this was the Comedian's greatest joke of all!" and "I guess the Comedian got his final punchline!", etc.

Anyway, the superheroes all know eachother and they're all friends... It's kind of like the much-loved cartoon show The Tick, but without any of the comedy (in other words, like the live-action TV series The Tick). The gang includes Swedish model Malin Akerman as the vinyl-clad Silk Specter II, Patrick Wilson as the gadget-loving NiteOwl (who is high in the running for having the stupidest looking costume in superhero movie history), and Little Children's Jackie Earle Haley as the mysterious Rorschach, who attempts to figure out what the hell happened to the Comedian, Phillip Marlowe style, and steals the show as the movie's most interesting character by a mile.

We're not told a lot about who all the superheroes are and what they can do upfront... the movie allows that to unfold at a snail's pace using a series of flashbacks and turgid, meandering conversation between the characters about what life used to be like back when they, you know, DID STUFF. The Comedian's backstory is particularly gruesome, involving the slaughter of innocent people for fun and attempted rape. I guess the name is supposed to be ironic, but he's still a pretty horrifying, sadistic asshole, and it's hard to be sympathetic to the fact that he got whacked early in the movie.

Suffice to say that there's a very complicated conspiracy afoot, although even after the film's climax, when all the cards had been laid out on the table, it still made approximately zero sense to me why anyone would do anything they did or even why the Comedian needed to be killed in the first place. I'll keep this spoiler free, but a key part of the plot, for example, involves the fact that Dr. Detroit is making a device that is used for evil purposes in the film's final act. He knew what he was building, he knew what it could do, and he knew who he was building it for. Why, in God's name, did he spend even a second of his time doing it? What the hell did he think his employer was going to do with a device like that?

That aside, though, the script contains a lot of pseudo-philosophical jerking-off and bullshit symbolism about the nature of mankind that came off as hollow to me as it did stale. I think a key reason that virtually none of this connected is again because the world we're dealing with is so far removed from anything resembling reality now. The United States has not appointed a dictator-for-life who is marshaling the world toward nuclear armageddon. Super-beings aren't part of the equation, and therefore there's not much of a debate about whether or not mankind is worth saving. And in the face of massive tragedy, the world has not united, either for better or worse, the way the movie suggests it might. Suggesting otherwise, as the movie does, is more fantastical than virtually anything else that happens on screen during the film's painful 168 minutes.

While walking out of the theater, my wife and I tried to fill in this blank: "well, at least the ______ scenes were okay." I quickly realized that there wasn't really anything I felt good about putting in there. The sets were nice, I guess... and there were some cool shots here and there, although I wouldn't really call it a well-shot movie. In the car on the way home, I decided that the highlight was maybe Rorschach, but even he didn't make the rest of the movie worth it. Watchmen is mean-spirited, dull, esoteric, and pointless. On top of all that, it is virtually free of any amount of joy or drama. Of course, the graphic novel could have been like that too, but a comic book is a comic book while a movie is a movie. This one might have needed a few more years tacked onto its already lengthy development purgatory in order to come out a little more watchable.

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