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March 12th, 2009
04:10 pm
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"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 TVTropes.org's "Misaimed Fandom" page, apparently this was a problem for the original as well.

Current Location: ~spiral
Current Mood: thoughtfulthoughtful
Current Music: Big & Rich, "Holy Water"
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(21 comments | Leave a comment)

[User Picture]
Date:March 12th, 2009 11:39 pm (UTC)
I found this review both thoughtful and thought-provoking. I would never have realized that point about the cultural context of torture on my own, and it's a damn good one.

One thing, though: the movie implies, or at least admits the possibility, that Rorschach also kills his presumably innocent shrink on his way out of that storeroom. The mildly ominous role-reversal line (something about "So tell me, Doctor, what do you see?" or "Your turn. What do you see?", I think?) coupled with Rorschach's obvious dislike for the guy and general bloodthirsty nature... well, I winced when the scene cut away, but maybe I was reading too much into it.
[User Picture]
Date:March 13th, 2009 04:11 am (UTC)
If I remember correctly, we saw the shrink alive later, right before the climactic scene in New York City. (He was definitely there in the book.)

If you're right, that would be a point against my complaint. I'll have to double-check.
[User Picture]
Date:March 13th, 2009 04:15 am (UTC)
No, I'm pretty sure you're right.

That, or I am guilty of the, "You all look alike to me" effect (which I would not be proud of).
[User Picture]
Date:March 13th, 2009 05:19 am (UTC)
The tip off was his cards flipping out of his briefcase.
[User Picture]
Date:March 13th, 2009 12:10 pm (UTC)
Ah, right. Thanks for the correction. I remembered the ominous feeling at the cutaway, but not the later revelation that my fears were unfounded.
[User Picture]
Date:March 13th, 2009 07:51 pm (UTC)
Yeah, nope, he doesn't kill the shrink (named Dr. Malcolm Long, btw). He doesn't need to, because Dr. Long gives him back what he wants: his face.
[User Picture]
Date:March 13th, 2009 07:54 pm (UTC)
Which presents an interesting quandary: would Rorschach have killed Dr. Long, despite his (presumable) innocence, if he hadn't coughed up the appropriate box?
[User Picture]
Date:March 14th, 2009 08:35 am (UTC)
I'm sure he would at least have broken a finger.
[User Picture]
Date:March 14th, 2009 12:29 pm (UTC)
...shouldn't laugh, shouldn't laugh, shouldn't laugh...
[User Picture]
Date:March 12th, 2009 11:41 pm (UTC)
It's an intriguing thing, because even though Rorschach's politics and behavior repulse me... I find his integrity admirable. He has utterly WARPED morals, but he has them, and he never compromises them. I find Ozymandias compelling for the very same reason, they're two sides of the exact same coin: they operate on utterly insane viewpoints and are so dedicated to them they're willing to throw everything away for their ideals.

Perhaps it's telling of my own beliefs, but I respect a character like Rorschach, even despite finding him repugnant on a moral level. I've got a serious hangup for honor.
[User Picture]
Date:March 13th, 2009 04:14 am (UTC)
Here's the thing: That's completely legitimate! My complaint wasn't about Rorschach's code of honor, but the fact that due to the movie's changes, he's not shown as having done anything repugnant by current moral standards.

He's not supposed to be a conventional "good guy"; he's supposed to be twisted. Rorschach is so immensely fascinating exactly because he's got such a warped morality.
[User Picture]
Date:March 14th, 2009 05:41 am (UTC)
What's even better is that Rorschach himself recognizes the act as inhuman - when he kills the kidnapper he stops being "Kovacs pretending to be Rorschach" and instead, is "Rorschach pretending to be Kovacs" when his face is off.
[User Picture]
Date:March 13th, 2009 01:12 am (UTC)
People act weird in response to stress and violence. Like there are parts of Schindler's List that people will think are hilariously funny, stuff like that.

I also figure most people can be trusted to really cheer for ludicrously violent crap, especially if it happens to an "okay" group to target. Point your finger at anyone, tell people that the target is evil, and they won't stop to think that there's some evil which doesn't warrant more evil. They'll just gleefully root for whoever they get told is the good guy. Doesn't change the meaning of the violence and the intent within the story, just means some folk just won't think twice about it, that's all.
[User Picture]
Date:March 13th, 2009 07:57 pm (UTC)
Schindler's List is interesting: it depicts horrific events, but structures them like comedy. Like the scene where a Jewish couple first move into their new (enforced) home in the ghetto, and look around at their modest accommodations:

MAN: Could be worse.
WOMAN: Worse?! How could it possibly be worse?
[Five or six other families shuffle in, because they're going to be living there too.]

All that's missing is a rimshot or a comic "wah-wah-waaaah" trumpet.

And remember the scene where the concentration camp guards take an old guy out to shoot him to death for not making hinges fast enough? But the gun doesn't work? So they've got him on his knees, not knowing when he's going to die, while they tinker with the gun and keep trying to shoot him with it? That scene could almost have been written by Monty Python.

I found that very powerful. It's like the movie is daring you to laugh at it.
[User Picture]
Date:March 13th, 2009 02:16 am (UTC)
Unfortunately (says the guy who keeps getting hijacked by Idea Stories and can't write porn) I mostly watch movies to escape the world. Brainless car chases and They Blowed Up Real Good is my thing in films. I leave movies about Serious Ideas and the Essential Meaningless of Post-Modern Life to those who need instruction about meaninglessness and despair. I run into enough of that each day; don't need it in my entertainment too.

I enjoyed-- if that's the right word-- the depth and moral ambiguity of Watchmen the Book. But that's a BOOK; I like serious stuff in my books. Somehow I have a feeling that the movie would only bore or depress me, or both. Not enough mindless escapism for a film. That's why I'm not planning to see it.

Your review did help me with something else. Lately I've been writing about a character named Derrick Clydesbank; he shows up in the Jan-Feb isshe of http://www.anthrozine.com in a story called Prey, and the March-April issue will have another of his stories, entitled Confessions.

Derrick is that oddity for me, a character of mine that I don't really like. While I find him interesting, the two of us just don't get along. Your review made me realize that what I don't like about him is his ambiguity, which is moral and beyond moral. I can have sympathy for an evil character if I know what made them evil, if I understand them; but Derrick insists on refusing to take sides. On ANYTHING. In any way. I've written about 19,000 words on him now and don't understand him, or know anything much for certain about him. It's DISTURBING to spend that much time with one of your characters and yet not know them.
[User Picture]
Date:March 14th, 2009 10:57 am (UTC)
keeps getting hijacked by Idea Stories and can't write porn

Funny thing... I started out with an Idea Story around 1999 or so, which turned into "Gary Stu Gets Laid" by the end of the first chapter, and I still keep thinking "maybe I can still write an action story" out of what looked then like a high-tech romance (and I ain't talkin' Middle English knightly roman, which were wish-fulfillment in their own way, I wot) (and it wasn't strictly porn, because there was a frickin' plot, and it wasn't centered on frickin').

Maybe I ought to revisit that story and try again with intent...
[User Picture]
Date:March 13th, 2009 04:26 am (UTC)
That was a fantastic analysis, thank you. I didn't think you'd actually do something with my offhanded comment. ;-) You did an awesome job of bringing to light some of the elements of the movie that I hadn't fully considered.

A few things came to mind as I was reading this:

- I could see Rorschach's morality being a subtlety in the book that a lot of people might miss. For example, there was something about the movie that was nagging at me, but I couldn't describe it. You did.

- It's probably considered a rule in movies that the audience has to have someone to root for. Rorschach was the closest bet in the original story.

- I think a lot of people are becoming more frustrated by criminals, not less, and this is having an impact on our morality. Who here wouldn't wish heaps and heaps of violence and hurt on any one of: a rapist, a child molestor, a serial killer, any one of a number of bankers or money people right now, a torturer, etc.? The caveat being that we assume the criminal is actually guilty.

- I also think there is a difference in many people's minds between an individual committing an act, and a state committing (or sanctioning) an act. So oddly enough, we can root for someone like Rorschach-from-the-book, while also condemning Abu Ghraib for example.
[User Picture]
Date:March 13th, 2009 05:48 am (UTC)
See under Nice Things, Why We Can't Have. :)

And yeah, that's one of the most infuriating things about being an amateur culture critic, trying to provoke a little conversation about these issues. You bring up a moral flaw like this in a work, and so many people knee-jerk assume that you're saying it's bad all-around, poorly crafted, poorly written, unentertaining.

But exactly the thing that's scary, and makes cultural criticism a worthwhile exercise -- bad ideas are so often carried by really good art. In fact, they're BETTER at it. Artistic quality and philosophical quality have very little to do with each other.
Date:March 14th, 2009 09:37 pm (UTC)
Watchmen is a visual and psychological cornucopia -- definitely worth watching
Date:March 16th, 2009 02:37 am (UTC)
Did you overlook the prisoner who Kovacs assaults in prison with the deep fryer grease who is put into critical condition and is said to be terminal?

Really, I did not feel the movie went out of its way to emphasize a new view of Rorschach - what spin it does create on his character and actions may be inadvertent, due to having to leave out so much of his diary monologues and other incidental dialog from other characters that testifies to his own moral culpability. And there are still some indications for those who listen carefully: for instance, Rorschach's narration does blame one past hero's death on her being a lesbian, a pointer towards his homophobia.

Ironically, the two characters in the movie whom I felt were painted in a far more positive light than in the book were Dan and Laurie - Nite Owl II and Silk Spectre respectively. Dan is practically the moral center of the film, an innocent geek who finds his foundation for heroic work again, and Laurie comes across as a much stronger female character than in the book. In the book, Dan and Laurie accept Veidt's plan and conspire to keep his secret largely out of defeatism and humiliation: he has shown them the folly of their absurd costumed hero work when leveraged against the scale of the world's problems. Novel-Dan in particular is a sad, broken man, who is allowed to find a tiny amount of solace in Laurie's arms.

In the movie, one of the most critical changes - and a whole new idea - was that Dr. Manhattan's murder of Rorschach is not a secret. Dan witnesses the entire thing and this enrages him, outrages him. Movie-Dan has a personal stake, literal blood, invested in the price of keeping Veidt's secret. Rather than appearing broken, he seeths with anger, literally beats on Veidt, and agrees to keep the silence under clear ethical protest - and, one would have to assume, the apparent threat of Dr. Manhattan being the omnipotent force who has sided with Veidt. Dan just saw Jon blow Rorschach to pieces to keep Veidt's secret: it seems only natural that he would then feel he had /no choice/ but to go along with the plan, held at gunpoint.

This defiance in his attitude seems to accent Dan and Laurie's later resolve to continue hero work. While they resolve to do this in the book as well, in the movie it seems to resonate a little more, as a direct challenge to Veidt's dissmisal of their costumed crime fighting efforts.

Really, the biggest lack I felt the movie had - and something I'm curious to see whether it is changed in the significantly extended director's cut of the film - is the removal of the final conversation between Manhattan and Veidt. Clearly, Jon's final line - "nothing EVER ends." - was known to be important by the director and screenwriter, as the movie has Laurie musing that very line. But while the slow pan away from Veidt in the ruins of his lab facility is done with sufficient darkness to suggest that his own vision may be doomed to ultimate failure, I believe it was vitally important that we see Veidt asking for validation of his efforts, and that we see Dr. Manhattan - a figure who in the context of the story is tantamount to God - be the one to tell him the bad news: that "nothing EVER ends", or in other words "you bought a little time, but in the end, did not have superior insight on how to save the world".
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Date:January 12th, 2015 02:22 am (UTC)
Thank you for your recommendation. I am adding this to my watch list.
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