Friday, November 08, 2019

WHO WATCHES THE WATCHMEN (on HBO)?


Image result for who watches the watchmen logoSome thoughts on WATCHMEN - graphic novel wise, movie wise, HBO series wise, and otherwise.

So my wife and I have started watching the HBO series, which has moved me to take the graphic novel down off the shelf for the first time in years. It also moved me to try to watch the movie adaptation again today.

The graphic novel is brilliant but very deeply flawed, on both a conceptual level and in terms of its execution. There are a lot of things I dislike about it, and some of them I've already written up, in places like http://miserableannalsoftheearth.blogspot.com/2010/07/who-watches-you-know.html. Leaving aside that, I still can't get past the fact that Moore seems to have written WATCHMEN as if it was set in a universe with hundreds or thousands of superhumans in it, like the Marvel or DC universes. But WATCHMEN has, at most, like fifteen superheroes in it, and at the time that a national police strike over, apparently, superheroes paralyzes the country and causes Congress to make masked vigilantes illegal, there are all of five active. Five heroes, four of whom have no powers, are not gong to make police forces from coast to coast go on strike. Five heroes, four of whom have no powers, are not even going to be a thing.

Moore's choice to make all but one of his characters simply 'costumed athletes' is also, well, sloppy, lazy writing. He wants to examine the psychological impact that the existence of a godlike human has on our culture, but he doesn't want it to get too messy or complex, they way it necessarily would be if he were trying to do a realistic, four dimensional analysis of a world with thousands of superhumans. So he created a handful of men and women who dress up and fight crime, mostly for unworthy reasons because Alan Moore simply doesn't believe in actual heroism in real life, and then he creates one character who is basically god in human form, and he leaves it at that... but that's nothing like a 'realistic' examination of superheroes. It's, frankly, a cop out.

I also don't believe the ending of WATCHMEN and never have. I still think that what should have happened was, Ozymandias' manipulations should have brought the world to the brink of nuclear war -- and then, when he teleported his artificial space squid into New York City, it should have triggered the nuclear exchange he was trying so hard to prevent. The last people alive on Earth should have been a small collection of costumed adventurers in an Antarctic retreat. That's how it should have ended, logically.

I'm also starting to find a lot of Moore's stylistic flourishes tiresome and clumsy. I especially feel this way about the constant use of parallel narratives in WATCHMEN -- where narration from one particular subplot will be used to overlap another, separate subplot, in ways that are supposed to be dramatic, evocative, and emotional. In the first issue, when the two detectives dialogue is layered over the flashbacks of Veidt beating the shit out of Blake and then throwing him out the window, it's contrived and clumsy and painful to read. The frequently doubling of the pirate comic book narrative over whatever the hell else is going on in the rest of the world is just annoyingly strained and false seeming. Occasionally Moore makes it work, but most of the time it just falls flat.

I tried to watch the movie again today and just couldn't do it. The visuals are lovely but the dialogue is terrible. Carla Gugino and Jeffrey Dean Morgan clearly have no clue how to handle their characterizations in this film ,and it's just as clear that Snyder has no better idea how to guide or direct them. Where the script keeps the original Moore dialogue more or less intact, the actors chew it up like beef jerky, and where they change it it's just awful. The whole movie is just excruciating to watch whenever any character is saying anything at all, ever. (I will give a hat tip, though, to Jackie Earle Hailey's inspired rendition of Rorschach, while singling out whoever played Dreiberg, Veidt, and Osterman for especial ridicule.)

The changes that the script makes to the original storyline are always, always, always objectionable and wrong. The very concept that there was a second superhero team called 'The Watchmen' enrages me, and it further infuriates me that poor Captain Metropolis got one lousy cameo in one lousy flashback, and the astonishingly short and precious Ozymandias of this movie took Cap's place everywhere else in the plot. And having Dreiberg go talk to Veidt about the mask killer instead of having Rorschach show up to warn him was dumb as fuck, too.

Given that the WATCHMEN series on HBO is obviously not in any way related to the movie, though, I guess the movie hardly matters to this essay and I needn't have wasted time on it.

In the series itself so far (spoilers!) the writers seem to be trying hard to direct us to certain fairly obvious conclusions. One is that an elderly black man who was alive during the Greenwood Riots/Massacres of 1921, was apparently Hooded Justice. I love this idea; it would be nice to have a central non white character in WATCHMEN from the beginning, and really, Hooded Justice is the only one who could feasibly be shown to not be Caucasian, as we never saw anything of him in the comic except the skin around his eyes. But Hooded Justice was also depicted as a homosexual and a Hitler supporter, and it just seems kind of unlikely that the wheelchair bound elderly black man portrayed by Louis Gossett Jr is either of those things.

The plotters could still just shrug and say "yeah, though, he's Hooded Justice and that stuff you read in UNDER THE HOOD is just wrong". But that would seem like, again, a cop out on the part of the writers.

There are also strong indications that the sheriff who was hung at the end of the first ep was actually Nite Owl. But in the second ep, we discover that that sheriff had a Ku Klux Klan outfit hidden in his closet, and in the third ep, we're told that Nite Owl went to prison. So that would seem to let that out, leaving us only to wonder, how did this guy get hold of Nite Owl's flying ship Archie?

There are other strong indications that Adrian Veidt is actually Dr. Manhattan in disguise -- he seems to have created semi functional artificial humanoids, and he's writing and staging a play that depicts the events of Dr. Manhattan's life -- something Adrian Veidt seems unlikely to be interested in.

All I can really say at this point is, I find the HBO series to be so far more interesting than the original graphic novel or the movie. But it's always much easier to create tension than it is to resolve it satisfactorily, and I have little faith that the showrunner who brought us THE LEFTOVERS and LOST will do any better a job on this than he did on those other two.

Still, we're still in the building tension phase right now, so the show hadn't fucked itself up too badly yet.

It's when we get to the 'release the tension in a satisfying manner' stage that stories generally so badly south (see, LOST and GAME OF THRONES, just to name two).   It's why many shows with continuing storylines that seem to be building to some sort of big blow off have great first seasons and then seem to end in such a disappointing fashion.  A lot of content provides out there have mastered the art of creating tension -- J.J. Abrams and George R.R. Martin, for example, are great it it -- but they don't seem to be able to release that tension again in a way that the audience will find satisfying.

We'll have to see if WATCHMEN can get over that hurdle that has tripped up so many, many others.

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