JULY 29, 2009

To fully understand how popular Watchmen was in 1986, like many things, you had to be there at the time. Yet, the series has maintained its over-inflated status over the years -- actually sort of bewildering to realize over twenty years has evaporated -- and finally we've got a “movie” version to remind us who/what/why all the fuss?

However, we also have to consider that Watchmen, just like Batman: The Dark Knight Returns, [also published in ‘86] clearly existed as inspired products of their time. I, myself, find it almost impossible to recapture the excitement when experiencing either of those books in 2009. A part of that, of course, is … we grow up.

The writer Charles Bukowski once said: “Hemingway reads better when you’re young.” Unfortunately, as a huge Hemingway fan myself, I can confess the truth of that statement. As you mature, hopefully, the idea of killing animals for sport or vicariously experiencing the “art of death” in a bullfight—lose their appeal. Hemingway was a good writer, but he also wrote a terrible novel called: Across the River and Into the Trees. So, nobody’s perfect.

Bukowski, for that matter, he too reads better when you’re young, better when you’re drinking too much and struggling with your next move.

Alan Moore and Frank Miller read better when you’re young. This too, is true. I was 23 when Watchmen came out, and I had just gotten back into comics after a four-year hiatus from reading “funny books” while on adventure in the United States Navy. The series that brought me back in also happens to share guilt as the lynchpin and starting point of the “Dark Age” of comic books: Crisis on Infinite Earths.

Crisis on Infinite Earths was a twelve-issue maxi-series [just like Watchmen] that DC Comics published in 1985. DC had decided to clean house concerning decades of conflicting continuities and multiple realities/multiple Earths by having a global crisis that killed off many characters. Supergirl and the Flash [Barry Allen] fell victim to the series and kicked off a whole new: “Whoah! They would never do that! They can’t do that! I don’t believe it!”—era of comic book darkness—brought to its magnum opus with Watchmen in terms of violence and a glass clearly half empty attitude, at least in terms of superheroes.

No, it’s not enough that Nite Owl and Silk Spectre are “together” at the end. Shut up, that’s not optimism.

Granted, some of this darker superhero stuff was great at the time, but the real problem began when a false sense of grit became the standard decay in modern comic books. Suddenly Green Lantern couldn’t be a nice guy anymore and had to go nuts and kill his fellow Green Lantern Corp. members. That’s just a blatant betrayal of the character as he was originally envisioned and written over many years, and I believe a great insult to its creators and fan base. The problem is so extreme that the 1966 Batman TV show may never see release on DVD because the fat cats at DC and Warner Brothers want to protect the “dark” image of Batman. That’s just silly, but I won’t go more into that here as I already lambasted the Dark Knight in my review of that super horrible movie.

I will say right now that the Watchmen film is not an idiotic film like Dark Knight. Okay? Relax. What I do want to talk about are the flaws in the actual Watchmen story, because I believe Watchmen as a graphic novel has grown so overrated—it simply doesn’t get critically critiqued. But let’s get the movie out of the way. The movie is fine because if you like the graphic novel, this film follows each issue faithfully with only minor alterations. The only foreseeable problem with the closeness of book and film is it may play out redundantly or move slowly for those who have read the graphic novel several times. I had not read it since the 80s, so in many ways I experienced the story as if for the first time. I would recommend anyone seeing this film to NOT read the book beforehand.

The cast is great, no problems there, and that’s usually the largest problem with other DC films. I also really liked the use of popular music, as opposed to just a standard soundtrack. Watchmen is a time period movie, and the use of great songs from the 60s through the 80s helped achieve that effect. So, good job to whomever did that.

But what about the actual story? Is it really that good? And for that matter, is it really a great achievement to use characters already created by other artists, re-invent them, and throw them into a bloody and so-called “realistic” setting? Maybe, maybe not. [Editor’s note: The Watchmen characters were of course based on the Charlton comics characters purchased by DC Comics in 1985]. Personally, if you gave me any superhero team and told me I could throw them into a dark world if I simply changed a “Blue Beetle” into a “Nite Owl,” and gave me a talented artist to bring them to life, I don’t think it would be very difficult. In fact, it would be fairly easy to do. You then take a plot from a popular TV show, in this case The Outer Limits, and you’re all set. Yet, given the easy-baked platform on which this project sprang up—it still has many flaws, despite its popularity.

Alan Moore said he wanted to present superheroes as “real people.” He also said, “Nobody had really done that before.” Okay, granted, nobody had ever stripped the heroism out the hero, which simply means you’re not dealing with true heroes anymore, but the concept of “realistic” superheroes had not only been done, but done right.

In my opinion, you don’t need a hero any more realistic than Peter Parker in the 1960s. Stan Lee did it right. Peter reflected a real person’s struggles with emotional, financial, and basic societal issues while at the same time existing in a super fun—superhero reality, which is in fact what we go to fantasy for, isn’t it? We don’t read fantasy to hear about how horrible reality is; we read fantasy to escape reality? Don’t we? Am I wrong about this?

Consider the work done by Denny O’Neal and Neal Adams on Green Lantern & Green Arrow in the 1970s. Neal Adams said he drew superheroes “as they would look in real life.” And those Denny O’Neal stories, dealing with racism, drug addiction, over population, and sexual romance between Green Arrow and Black Canary broke all of the “relevant” barriers way back then, and still, the heroes were heroes. They did it right.

So, what’s next? Time to strip the heroism from the hero, and that is sort of an anti-matter equation. If the popular characterization of “hero” becomes un-heroic … of what relevance are comic book heroes? Shouldn’t the fantasy concept of hero exult the human potential of what a man or woman can be at their very best—and not their worst? Villains are for exploring the dark side, right? Remember Darth Vader?

Do we then want to flip flop on the bad guys too? Why didn’t a mini-series come out featuring Dr. Doom as a philanthropist and charity worker? I’ll tell you why. When the benchmark is dirt, dirt is what you get. Instead of the good guy Dr. Doom—you would get, in the “realistic” world, Dr. Doom the pedophile, and does anyone really want that? I hope not. As Raymond Chandler once told Hemingway: “Keep the flies off the garbage can.” Poor Hemingway.

So the major flaw I see with Watchmen, in terms of its superhero-ness is that there isn’t enough heroism involved. The characters, for me, are largely un-likeable.

Are we supposed to believe that in the “real” world a superhero team would allow a member to remain after assaulting, beating, and trying to rape one of its female members? Are we supposed to believe that he ever would have been a member after knowing he killed a pregnant woman in Vietnam because she called on him [The Comedian] to take responsibility? Are we then, furthermore, supposed to believe that the once-almost-raped Silk Spectre eventually hooks up for a one-niter with her rapist and gets pregnant? That’s actually pure garbage. Sure, never seen in comics before, and for good reason.

To buy into that sad routine as “reality-based” is the equivalent of comparing heroes to a corrupt police force, and on this corrupt police force the “blue line” allows the Comedian to be a rapist, because truly all cops are bad. Well, in reality, guess what? All cops aren’t bad, and it’s actually a bigoted point of view to believe so.

How about the uber-powerful Dr. Manhattan? Are we supposed to believe the most powerful being on Earth is such a pussy he cannot take a stand against Ozymandias, because “the smartest man alive” just outsmarted him in terms of killing off a major part of the population in order to logically bring peace to the world? Think that one over for a minute. You don’t have to be a high school graduate to see the plot hole. Dr. Manhattan had just got done saying the “smartest man in the world” was no more concern to him than the “smartest cockroach in the world,” yet one minute later he concedes that the truth about Ozymandias’s accomplished plan to kill off millions of people could not be brought to the attention of the citizens of the world, for Ozy’s plan would bring “world peace.” Really? Do you believe killing off millions would change the basic nature of good and evil within mankind? No, I don’t either. Dr. Manhattan is so convinced of this kindergarten plot that he kills the only redeemable, and arguably the only hero of the story, Rorschach.

Rorschach, based on a great character called The Question, is the glue that holds Watchmen together. Without Rorschach, I believe you could throw your Watchmen graphic novel in the recycle bin. Rorschach is willing to stand up to evil at any cost—including Ozymandias (therefore Rorschach is killed by the big blue butthole Dr. Manhattan). Rorschach’s methods are well-overboard with violent intention, but in doing so, he actually fulfills the dark fantasy we have within ourselves to take extreme action against those who harm. Yeah, maybe we need one character like that, but if every character carries those qualities—with less than heroic intention—then the characters become redundant and wholly negative.

Lastly, in terms of the movie, I would like to ask where the hell Silk Spectre (foxy daughter-of-rape to the original Silk Spectre) got her costume when going out with Nite Owl for the first time? Did he just have a Silk Spectre outfit in his closet? I’m just saying… It’s not a perfect world.

But hey, you can always watch the fantastic Batman: Brave and the Bold animated series on Cartoon Network! That is currently about as close to perfection as you’re going to get.

See ya in the funny books.

Bradley Mason Hamlin
July 29, 2009

"WATCHMEN: A CRITICAL REVIEW" by BRADLEY MASON HAMLIN © 2009 by Mystery Island Publications.
Published 07.29.2009. All rights reserved.