March 12th, 2009

na na na na BATSPANK (icon: kevynjacobs)

"Watchmen": A review

We walked out of the theater in silence.

Half a block later, roaminrob finally asked, "So what did you think?"

"Well," I replied, "it certainly preserved the moral ambiguity of the original."

Rob slowly nodded. "Have you ever thought about becoming a movie reviewer?"


"I mean it. Can you imagine seeing 'moral ambiguity' in a movie review?"

What I should have said, but didn't think of until later:

"Can you imagine seeing moral ambiguity in a movie?"

So, yes, we went and watched the Watchmen over the weekend. Others have already provided in-depth discussion of its editing issues and its differences from the source book. Me? I'm going to tell an anecdote from our theater.

There is a scene in the film where the narrator, a costumed vigilante named Rorschach, murders a criminal. ("Murder" is a loaded word, but also technically accurate: a man has surrendered, is chained to a stove making no threats or non-verbal provocations, and Rorschach splits his head open with a knife. See also.)

Our Sunday-matinee movie theater was quiet and sparsely populated. However, when Rorschach killed the bad guy in cold blood ... for the first time in the film, someone in the audience applauded.

Clearly they were watching a very different movie than we were.

The story of Watchmen is, like its main character, a shifting pattern of black and white with no predetermined meaning: a Rorschach test. What you see in it is a reflection of what you carry into the experience. And its value lies in its ability to expose the framework of those external expectations.

Later on, this got me to thinking:

One of the things that was so fascinating about the original book was that every single one of the heroes is morally culpable, stained with the blood of innocent victims. A point is made of the Comedian's and Rorschach's amoral behavior -- but in the end, they are the only ones who refuse to condone a horrible act of evil in the name of the greater good. (The Comedian is dead by then, but the story makes clear that he disapproved of it; and all of the heroes but Rorschach voluntarily make themselves party to the act.) "Who is worse?" the graphic novel asks, and there's no clear-cut answer.

In the movie -- I only realized in hindsight -- that question is sidestepped. The movie does have a "good guy," who is never portrayed as doing anything "wrong." It's Rorschach. And it's only partially the film's fault.

When the Comedian tries to rape a teammate, that's Wrong; when the Comedian rejects and then kills a woman who he impregnated, that's Wrong. His dog kicking has been firmly established. Rorschach's moral lapses, however, are all against a different set of targets: criminals. He tortures and murders with a shockingly casual attitude, but the movie builds in justifications the book lacks:
  • The two people he premeditatedly kills are shown on-screen as having also cold-bloodedly murdered others. (The child killer, and the prison boss who cuts off an underling's arms.) In the book, Rorschach also kills a mere rapist for the sole purpose of sending a message to the police about the Keene Act -- a scene not reproduced. The book also attributes several other murders to Rorschach that are never described.

  • The scene in the book where Rorschach fires his grappling hook gun into a police officer's chest is reproduced in the film. The consequences, however, are not. In the book, the officer is revealed to still be in critical condition in the hospital days after the attack. The movie never even mentions that the grappling hook caused permanent damage.

  • In the book, Rorschach's standard method of interrogation involves starting out by breaking a finger. If the target doesn't know, he breaks a few more and keeps moving on until he finds one who does. (One such session involves leaving fifteen inhabitants of an underworld-frequented bar with major injuries.) In the movie, this remains the same.

Alright, so the movie did show one example of violence it didn't specifically try to justify ... except Jack Bauer has done it for them. In an age where the public has largely shrugged off Guantanamo Bay and Abu Ghraib's abuses, in an age where popular culture has internalized an "ends justify the means" approach to Bad Guys, Rorschach's torture -- which (one hopes) was appropriately scandalous when first published in the late 1980s -- no longer is a marker of clear Moral Wrongdoing.*

The end result is a poorer story -- one that doesn't get to grapple with its central ethical question of who the real Good Guys are. Instead of asking a tough question, it promotes a disturbing moral. I guess I should have expected this from Hollywood, and specifically the guy who directed 300, but it's still a disappointment.

The good news is that -- this issue aside -- Watchmen is a lush visual spectacle, an impressively faithful translation of the graphic novel, and a film worth watching at least once. Don't take my criticism to mean that I disliked it. A-.

* Edited to add: Given the Watchmen entry in the "Comic Book" section of's "Misaimed Fandom" page, apparently this was a problem for the original as well.
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