Saturday, May 21, 2016

Reconsidering Watchmen

I would not account myself a particular fan of Zak Snyder's work, but his film version of Watchmen has always struck me as grossly overcriticized.

Frankly, I thought it one of the best superhero movies ever made--perhaps the best of the "darker" superhero movies made so far.

Naturally I had occasion to think about why my response was so different from "everyone else's."

Early on it seemed to me that the film received the opprobrium that it did for its being more adult than the usual fare, and subversive of genre expectations, and its particular political edge--all of which made it a tougher sell to a mainstream which judged it by the old stereotypes about the genre that most of the films made to date have reinforced.1 Of course, devotees of the comic also seemed unsatisfied, many making much of the liberties the film took with the resolution of the story (which I thought minor, and in some ways an improvement)--but it seemed easy enough to chalk this up to an excess of purism.2

Perhaps more important, there is the kind of intellectual demand that Watchmen made on its audience--its concern with the "bigger picture," its associated sheer burden of information-processing, and in a deeper and subtler way what Darko Suvin, drawing on Viktor Shklovsky and Bertolt Brecht, called "cognitive estrangement." This is, after all, a movie that, true to the original comic, gives us an elaborately worked-out alternate historical timeline (brilliantly depicted in those opening credits) terminating not in the present but what is from today's vantage point the past (the 1980s). It is also explicit in putting at the center of its plot what it might mean to be a superhero not in Stan Lee's version of New York but in the actual world we have known, the differing philosophies of its various heroes, the posthumanity of Dr. Manhattan and the problems of domestic and international political life, not least energy scarcity and the threat of a third world war.

The result is that Watchmen is concept-rich, concept-dense and genuinely wide in scope--far, far more so than we normally get in superhero movies, science fiction movies and our movies in general. Even if they have not read the comic, a really hardcore genre fan may be able to take all this in stride, and even enjoy it (certainly this was one of the things I liked about it), but to the mainstream this was unfamiliar and generally unpalatable, and even those who may be used to such things in print are, understandably, less accustomed to getting them on the big screen. The poor response was therefore as predictable as it was unreasonable.

1. Movies are less often forgiven for being political in something other than a clearly right-wing way when they are of the big, popular type.
2. Connecting the faked threat to the world with Dr. Manhattan rather than space squid, for example, made for a tighter story--while avoiding elements that would have looked very hoky on the big screen..

My Posts on Superhero Movies
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