Wednesday, February 11, 2009
Who Waits for the Watchmen?
(A promotional poster for the film Watchmen done in homage of the original comic book. Click for a larger view. Fans will note the Gunga Diner.)
If, like me, you saw the trailer for Watchmen and said, "Please don't suck please don't suck please don't suck"… I may have some good news. The film may not wind up being brilliant, it may be great in some sections but uneven overall, and it will definitely not include every detail of the groundbreaking graphic novel. Who knows, it might turn out to be stupendous. I'm going in cautiously optimistic. But I'm pretty sure it's not going to completely suck.
The ads for Watchmen, which is opening in less than a month now, are ramping up. Back in September, a friend invited me to attend a semi-preview junket thing for Watchmen. Director Zack Snyder showed three clips, about 20 minutes of the film in all. Afterwards, he and Director of Photography Larry Fong and Costume Designer Michael Wilkinson fielded questions. We were also able to look at a host of production materials – costumes, newspapers, books, the Owl Ship, and so on. I've been to fair number of preview screenings, and a decent number of Q&As with actors, directors, writers and other crew members, but this was the first time I had attended this sort of event. Obviously, studios do this, and hand out free sushi and free booze, to try to get good buzz and favorable reviews down the line. (So read this post with caution, I guess.) The studio apparently previously had shown about three minutes of footage, and had the Owl Ship, at Comicon. Lord of the Rings demonstrated the wisdom of courting the fan boys and fan girls ahead of time. There's always a danger with possessive fans, but if the film itself is good, the approach will normally pay off. (When Peter Jackson was shopping around LOTR, some of the story changes that studios requested were atrocious, and would have faced major and justifiable fan wrath, but that's another post).
Watchmen was first published by DC Comics as a 12-issue limited series in 1986-87 and is set in 1985. It's been continuously in print ever since it was first sold as a trade paperback, and can be bought at many bookstores. (I should also note it has nothing to do with the DC Comics universe of Superman, Batman, etc.) Not to slight other work of the era, but two pieces really revolutionized comic books back then and have remained enormously influential: Batman: The Dark Knight Returns by Frank Miller, and Watchmen by writer Alan Moore and artist Dave Gibbons. (To date myself, I collected comics back in the 80s as a teenager, which in retrospect was a good era for it. My geek cred is strongest on the Marvel titles.) Watchmen was much more serious and realistic than the average comic book – it looked at what the world might actually be like if there were costumed heroes running around. And in some cases, those heroes had changed history as we know it, from the outcomes of wars to presidential elections to technological advances. Watchmen starts with Rorschach, one of the few masked heroes who refused to "retire" under the Keene Act outlawing costumed vigilantism back in the 70s. He investigates a murder and concludes that someone might be out to kill off the old heroes. He visits his old fellows to warn them and gather clues, and begins to uncover a conspiracy that only seems to get bigger the more he digs. Each issue of the comic ended with some piece of non-fiction from the Watchmen world – excerpts from a retired costumed hero's autobiography, newspaper articles, a psych case file on a character, a piece written for an ornithology journal by one of the characters, and so on. On repeated readings, many readers would begin to notice the wealth of small details in the series. These would include subtle plot points, but also the comic panel backgrounds, which feature advertisements, movie posters, and company names that relate to the story. Plenty of novels don't possess Watchmen's depth, complexity, and precision. It features a large cast of characters, but they're fleshed out over the course of the series, and many of the key players have radically different world views. The series also has one hell of an ending, very divergent from the usual comic book fare of the time (or current Hollywood, for that matter).
Fans of the series probably know that mad genius Alan Moore has refused to be involved with the film, just as he refused to be involved with V for Vendetta after seeing what was done to League of Extraordinary Gentlemen. However, artist Dave Gibbons has been involved throughout, and has been very enthusiastic.
If you haven't read Watchmen, I'd recommend either reading it before going to see the movie, or going in cold and avoiding any detailed plot summaries.
In any case, on to the clips I saw and what we were told. I'll try to describe these so the fanboy and fangirl can get their fix without giving away key plot surprises to the uninitiated. I'll save slight potential spoilers for the very end, and label them as such.
The first clip was the opening – a fight between an unknown assailant and Blake in his apartment (from issue #1). The TV is on, and two political pundits (actors playing well-known figures) are jabbering away about escalating tensions between the U.S. and the Soviet Union. The "Doomsday Clock" is also mentioned. Snyder overdoes it a bit with the famous smiley face button for my tastes, but he knows how to stage a fight and how to open with a bang.
We next shift to the opening credits, which were brilliantly done and often funny (sometimes very darkly so). While music plays, we see a series of staged "photos" with some motion. These bring us from WWII up to the present day of 1985, with several references to famous historical stills. But with impressive economy, we're filled in on all the major ways this world's history has diverged from our own. We're introduced to the major characters (sometimes as children), to the Minutemen (America's WWII masked hero group), and the younger generation of heroes. I don't know how everything else plays out later in the film, but this was first-rate adaptation and very encouraging.
The second clip was Dr. Manhattan's memory of his origin as he walks on a certain faraway beach. Not all of the effects were finished. As in the comic (issue #4), this was a series of interlacing flashbacks. The temp score was music from Koyaansiqatsi by Philip Glass, and worked so well I hope they keep it (it's also used in at least one of the trailers). One fanboy I spoke with afterward was disappointed they didn't use the exact "In five seconds, the photo will leave my hand" stuff from the comic, but I thought the overall aesthetic and Snyder's love of slow-mo was very effective here, and faithful to the spirit of the comic.
The third clip was Dan (the second Nite Owl) and Laurie (the second Silk Spectre) trying to rescue Rorschach (issue #8, if you're keeping track). Basically, as Snyder said, he's an action nut and he wanted to include some ass-kicking to break up the slower sections (of which there are plenty in the comic). It's was a well-staged sequence, a more dynamic presentation of what's in the comic.
Let's cover some general issues. Part of me still thinks Christopher Nolan would have been a better fit for the material given his more literary bent. But Zack Snyder is a big fan of the original series, and has one hell of an eye. His love of slow-mo can border on the gratuitous, but it worked pretty well in the clips we saw. Snyder was both amiable and quite inarticulate, but could speak with much greater ease as soon as we moved off general adaptation and story issues and he was describing the actual production or a given sequence. He was asked about the length, which was about 150 minutes (some recent reports peg it at roughly this length, too, but we'll see). He felt there would have been advantages to doing Watchmen as a miniseries, but then Dr. Manhattan would have been some guy in blue body paint. Because of production costs and visual effects demands, he felt a feature allowed the core story to be told with more bang, and felt the many DVD extras would satisfy fans hungry for more. As Snyder pointed out, in the world of Watchmen, with masked heroes in real life, comic books instead focus on pirates. The Tales of the Black Freighter comic book storyline that weaves throughout the original Watchmen series will be animated, and released on a separate DVD along with a mockumentary for Under the Hood. Fans of the series know that Under the Hood is the autobiography of Hollis Mason, the original, WWII-era Nite Owl and one of the first masked heroes. The mockumentary is apparently shot as if it were filmed in the 70s, asking its participants to remember earlier eras. Meanwhile, a fan-created ad for a Veidt product may appear somewhere in the film. I don't know to what degree the Black Freighter tale and these other elements will appear in the feature, if at all, but my impression was we'd see a bit, and the DVD would show the whole thing. The eventual DVDs are bound to be loaded with extras, and while all this stuff is smart fan bait, it also shows a level of background and love for the material that are very heartening.
Long-time fans may be aware of the film's very long and tortured development history, from the days when Terry Gilliam was slotted to direct it. Snyder read one draft that put the story in contemporary times and dealt with terrorism, but they thought it lost too many elements and felt forced, so they went back to a draft that maintained the original periods depicted in the series.
Snyder was asked about Watchmen deconstructing the whole superhero mythos, and he said it's really an unavoidable, integral part of telling the story. He mentioned that when he explained the plot to someone, the person said, "That sounds like The Incredibles," and that's one challenge – other works better known to the general public have been influenced (or borrowed heavily from) Watchmen. I think they'll be all right. I love The Incredibles, but several of its central plot elements and its basic premise are clearly Watchmen-inspired – Snyder didn't mention it, but the "no capes!" bit comes directly from Under the Hood. That said, The Incredibles gives that bit an extended treatment, and it's mostly comic versus tragic, as is the case for the film overall. There's certainly room for both films. (I'm less keen on the TV series Heroes seeming to go beyond homage to outright rip off a few plot elements, but that series has really declined, so it may be moot. Lost may be the closest TV series ever to Watchmen's style, and the Lost writers are fans, even though the actual plots are significantly different. But the large cast of characters, the flashbacks, and the love for intricate plotting without losing focus on human emotion are all similar.) Meanwhile, with the series Top 10 Alan Moore has also deconstructed super-heroes, but in a much more comedic (if occasionally very dark) way. Snyder's funniest line on Watchmen went something like: 'People thought The Dark Knight was dark. That's not dark! Having to dress up in spandex and go beat up people to get it up, that's dark!'
I really enjoyed seeing the production design materials afterwards. Movie art departments are generally filled with enormously creative, wonderfully knowledgeable and irrepressively geeky people, so their work may be deceptive as to the quality of the overall film, but the sort of detail and fun evident in the props suggested these people really know and love the material. Yeah, the Owl Ship and the costumes were cool (Michael Wilkinson enjoyed all his costume work, but said Rorschach was his favorite character). Still, I liked the small touches. A slip jacket for a copy of Under the Hood had a 70s design and printing style. Carla Gugino looked authentic and great in fake era photographs as the original Silk Spectre. A chart, probably put together for the production team or for press packages, listed the alternative timeline in relation to ours (it'd be a very useful reference for reading the comic). Perhaps my favorite bit was a fake newspaper showing that the original Nite Owl had defeated "Captain Axis," a villain being lead away, dejected, by the police as our hero struck a bold pose. It just made me laugh – in case you couldn't tell this guy was a villain, he'd decided to call himself "Captain Axis" and put a giant swastika on his chest! I can't remember if that's in the opening credits sequence, and don't know if it makes it in the final film (a similar shot appears in the PSA below), but that square-jawed, black-and-white morality play world is a perfect contrast with the moral complexity of Watchmen.
For me and many other young readers of Watchmen, the series was a revelation, a jolt. Issue #6 (Rorschach's origin) was one of the most provocative (and depressing) things I'd ever read up to that point, while other sections (Dr. Manhattan's cosmic views on life) were equally thought-provoking but much more hopeful. Above all, I was bowled over by its depth, its complexity and utter mastery in weaving together seemingly separate storylines. Everything about the storytelling is deliberate. Every payoff is set up, but often very subtly. (Hell, the title alone is significant in over half a dozen ways.) I've introduced the series to quite a few people over the years, and given out the trade paperback as a gift, in part to show what the medium could do and that it wasn't just for kids. It's been a very inspiring work for many a writer. The comparisons may seem grandiose to some, but for me, Watchmen reminds me of two Shakespeare plays (or at least my interaction with them). The first is As You Like It, in that all its characters react to the Forest of Arden in very different ways, and their responses reveal their natures. The major characters in Watchmen possess very divergent views on the nature of the world, on morality, and how one should respond to the world, and the series is more of a dialogue than a statement. The second is King Lear, less for its sober world view (although that's relevant), but probably because I've been re-reading both works for about the same length of time. One of many wonderful aspects of any great work is that you can revisit it and get something new. For Lear specifically, age plays a key role for many readers/viewers, and has for me. When I was a teenager, I was pretty unsympathetic to Lear for being so obviously clueless. Meanwhile, in college, I had an authoritarian teacher for one term who thought the moral of Lear was (I kid you not) that Cordelia learns to accept Lear for who he is. In any case, I've grown more forgiving of Lear's failings over the years. Edmund used to be my favorite character, followed closely by Cordelia and the Fool, but I've found a new appreciation for Edgar, and a deeper love for Kent (who I always liked). And so on. The point is that art is often a mirror, and great art can weather an inexhaustible amount of scrutiny and provoke limitless reflection. It may not be the case for everyone, but for me Watchmen has consistently spurred new thoughts, and my take on characters has changed over time. When I first read it, maybe due to teenage angst, I related most strongly to Rorschach, his far right political views notwithstanding. These days, while I'm still sympathetic to him, I gravitate more to the other characters and am more intrigued by how all their views interact. I think it was the second or third reading before I really understood the significance of the Black Freighter subplot, and caught one character's key-but-fleeting reference to it. Perhaps all this is a roundabout way of saying that I'm sympathetic to the filmmakers, carrying the burden of expectation from fans, but also know very well the fan anxiety that the film of this beloved series is gonna suck. Here's hoping for the best.
There's a mock site up for the film, The New Frontiersman, named for Rorschach's favorite newspaper, that gives some background on the world.
They've also released two promo videos. Here's NBS Nightly News with Ted Philips, March 11th 1970 – "Looking back on 10 years of Dr. Manhattan."
I'm pretty sure the guy with the sunglasses is director Zack Snyder.
Meanwhile, here's "The Keene Act & YOU" (1977) – "Government PSA on behalf of the House Committee on Un-American Activities."
(The blood drips appear to be an homage to the back covers of the series. Nice touch.)
I love this sort of thing. Again, while it's good fan bait, it's also a positive indicator the filmmakers really know and appreciate the material.
Here's a studio promo about the background on the first super-hero group, The Minutemen:
Here's trailer #1:
This post notwithstanding, I'm actually not trying to find out every single detail of the film. I figure I know the source material, and don't want to be too excited or disappointed before seeing it. (It will be playing in IMAX out here, though, which could be fun.) A fair amount of people attending this partial preview/Q&A session had clearly read the series, but nonetheless, Snyder and the others were wisely cautious about giving too much away. While I don't think any of these are revelatory, here's the…
(POTENTIAL SLIGHT SPOILERS)
The political figures impersonated/spoofed in the opening sequence are Pat Buchanan and Eleanor Clift.
Zack Snyder has said he's changed the ending slightly, but thinks it preserves the "moral checkmate" of the original. (This is the part I'm most nervous about.)
He said if you're determined to see what a certain entity looks like, you can search the web and get a decent idea, but he thinks it looks pretty shocking.
During the opening credit sequence, one "photo" shows a newspaper headline being read by someone in an apartment building. The headline is the key info, but the "photo" also seemed to be depicting Rorschach as a child, his mother, and some man. That's a cool fan detail and potentially a good reference for later scenes in the film, so I feel comfortable mentioning it, and also that a Silk Spectre pin-up gets a prominent cameo. But it'd be criminal to reveal more about this sequence, except that if you're a fan, you'll enjoy it.
The Wiki entries on the original series and the film are quite good and give some details I hadn't known, but if you haven't read the series, I'd avoid reading the detailed plot summary sections.
In any case, I'll be seeing this one for sure. I'll be happy to compare notes afterward. Who Watches the Watchmen?
(Another promotional poster. Click for a larger view. Note the comic book in the lower right.)