Complaints about the Watchmen movie and gender roles

So, I haven’t blogged in forever, but at last the term’s winding down, and my workload is (slowly, slightly) dissipating. Soon winter break will be here and I’ll have little better to do than spout out thoughts onto the Internet. In any case, I’ve got some random thoughts clotting up my brain: movies I’ve been watching lately, good & bad. Gender roles and perceptions. Feminism, activism, and privilege. Where to start? My ideas aren’t really in any kind of especially useful or coherent form. But I’ll see what I can do.

[Watchmen SPOILERS!]

First of all: the Watchmen movie. I wanted this to be good. I honestly, sincerely wanted to see Watchmen and enjoy it, and say, “Well, that was a worthy adaptation.” Alas, that was not to be. I know everybody went over all of this months ago, but I just now caught up with the film, so I’m going to speak my piece: I love Alan Moore’s Watchmen. I read it for the first time when I was a senior in high school. Its merits (and its influences) are endless. With Dave Gibbons’ impressive artistry and Moore’s blow-you-the-fuck-away writing, which veers between the trenchantly political, satirical, personal, and epic, it’s an ambitious, mature work of art that changed both how readers thought about superheroes, and how comics writers wrote about them.

But praising Watchmen is like bringing coals to Newcastle – it’s been declared the greatest graphic novel of all time, and so far, that claim seems at least as legitimate as calling it “the Citizen Kane of comics” (just try searching that phrase and see what comes up). My point is, I’ve loved the book for a while, loved how it lures you into its dystopian yet recognizable world and gives you pathetic has-beens to identify with (Dan and the insulated Laurie), loved its intelligently crafted images from the snow blindness of Karnak to the majesty of Jon’s Martian solitude, and loved how they all came together to form a brilliant and imaginative end result.

Then I saw the movie.

Yes, it’s faithful, but only to the letter of the original, not to the spirit. A real Watchmen adaptation (IMHO – after all, who am I?) would have acknowledged that comics are a different medium than film, so the techniques that worked so well in one just wouldn’t translate to the other. Similarly, we read comics in a different way than we watch movies. In comics, you can page back and forth, reconnecting subplots, noticing subtle visual clues, and resolving suspicions. Moore & Gibbons used this to their advantage time and time again. In a movie theater, though, you can’t slow down the pace at which you’re taking in information – it’s going to be constantly hitting you at 24 fps – and you can’t ask the projectionist to rewind to a earlier reel because you want to check something. (Maybe Watchmen can be an object lesson in medium specificity.)

Dr. Manhattan in Alan Moore's Watchmen

What this amounts to is that 1) while in the book, we could extract all the detail out of Gibbons’ art by lingering over each panel, we don’t have time for that in the movie, especially when so much jumbled, hyperkinetic action is being thrown at us and 2) the complex, interweaving strands of narrative and character development are reduced to chaotic attempts to give each character his due. Robert Altman could dart back in forth between sets of characters and do each one justice, showing the audience how they all intersect and what that means. (See Nashville, Short Cuts, or Gosford Park.) Zack Snyder just can’t. So what ended up happening?

The viewer’s assaulted with chunks of pages ripped from the book, with no chance to appreciate any of their nuances. We get one flashback, then another, then another, with a little bit of the present day thrown in for good measure. What was a fully-developed world full of unhappy, relatable people becomes a competing mix of garbled ideas, some carried out well, others not. The massive background of Watchmen, apparently tossed in as one of many efforts to please fans, instead becomes a contextless distraction. Who’s Dollar Bill? Who’s Hooded Justice? Snyder might as well have tacked a note to those scenes saying, “If you can’t tell what’s going on, go read the book, then come back.” This is by no means a stand-alone project; instead, it’s like a parasitic twin sprouting out of the Watchmen legacy.

So what the film’s unflinching “faithfulness” to the book means, in the end, is that it’s a rushed, 3-hour attempt to tell a huge story. And to paraphrase Citizen Kane‘s Bernstein, “It’s no trick to [tell a huge story], if all you want to do is [tell a huge story].” Well, OK, it is something of a trick, but my point is that Snyder doesn’t tell the story well or interestingly or in a way that adds anything to the body of cinema; he just tells it. Sure, every plot point is filled in, but they’re done perfunctorily. In the book, the ending is cathartic and daunting – with Dan and Laurie still together, two people in a shattered, confused world, and the New Frontiersman potentially about to change all that.

Dr. Manhattan in Zack Snyder's Watchmen

Having felt for these two and been involved in their lives over the preceding hundreds of pages, I could sympathize with the crises they’d faced and the uneasy point at which they’d arrived. In the movie, however, I just didn’t care about Laurie. Maybe it was fucking Malin Åkerman. Or maybe it was the way she was squeezed into all of these emotionally loaded situations – her mom popping up briefly at the beginning and end to reminisce, Dr. Manhattan with his making-you-remember-things superpower (where did that come from?) to let her know that the Comedian is her father. All the right words and pictures are there, but none of the feeling.

I’ll keep my minor complaints to a minimum: for example, why did the masked heroes call themselves “the Watchmen”? I’m not a purist who insists every detail in the book must be in the movie, but there was a reason for the group in the book to be called the Minutemen instead. The title derives from a Juvenal quote, graffiti’d on walls periodically throughout book and film, “Who watches the watchmen?”, an explicit questioning of the pre-Keene Act team’s power and lack of oversight. If the team calls itself the Watchmen, that takes away the whole critical aspect of the title, and reduces it to a simple descriptor. Of course, as Ashley pointed out, if they’d called the team the Minutemen, audiences would’ve been confused and upset, so it’s probably all for the best.

Other minor complaints: the soundtrack, dear lord. Hey, who wants another montage, action scene, or random transition set to the best of classic rock? “99 Luftballoons” appeared for about a minute as Dan and Laurie went to dinner together. You’re just left guessing what not-really-that-appropriate song they’ll turn to next. And finally, this isn’t really minor, but I can’t imagine enjoying this movie if you don’t enjoy stylized violence. All the time. Like blood splattering places for no real reason. Bones cracking in slow-motion. People being exploded by Dr. Manhattan, a lot, and having their guts stick to the ceiling. It’s not a party if no one’s being exploded.

The wrong Manhattan

So that’s my take on the Watchmen movie, and as you can imagine, I’m kinda sick of talking about it. Was it insufferably bad? Not really. Was it good? Eh. Jackie Earle Haley made for a suitably grungy, psychotic Rorschach. The general visual aesthetic worked well enough. But on the whole, especially in comparison to the book, no. Pretty much the only correct response to the existence of the film Watchmen is to go read the book. In cinematic form, it has all of its energy, emotion, and political inquiry sucked out, replaced with interminable blood-letting and tedious plot re-enactments, until you practically want to blow up New York yourself just to get it over with. (Another minor complaint: the changed ending also sucks, and it lacks the curiosity-piquing build-up of the book.) I may be a little tardy in reviewing this, but it doesn’t really matter. Maybe someday they (this mysterious “they”) will take the same route as with the 2003 Hulk, and reboot it all entirely. But given the legal quagmire this adaptation got stuck in, I doubt we’ll be seeing a brand new one any time soon.

One piece of Watchmen I did enjoy, though, was something lifted from another movie: the use of Philip Glass’s “Pruitt-Igoe” among other pieces from Koyaanisqatsi. The main effect, though, was to make me think, I want to go listen to some Philip Glass music, without Zack Snyder’s involvement. Listening to Glass makes me wish I knew anything about music. He’s called a minimalist, which makes sense to me – his compositions are often repetitive and cyclical, but beautifully so. When Godfrey Reggio approached him to score Koyaanisqatsi, he originally said he didn’t do film scores. Thank God he reconsidered, because what resulted was one of the greatest feature-length mergers of image and sound in film history. Since the film is entirely without dialogue (or narrative), the music speaks for it in a similarly universal language.

From what I’ve learned about him and heard of his music, Philip Glass is just cool. I first heard his name in connection to a new score he composed for the 1931 Dracula – I mean, how much more awesome do you get? He’s based symphonies on David Bowie albums. His score for Mishima, despite being totally un-Japanese, somehow fits Paul Schrader’s depiction of the author’s dark visions and imperial dreams. With Errol Morris’s The Fog of War, his music aurally illustrated the historical implications of Robert S. McNamara’s life. I can’t imagine a Glass score ever being a liability; I would (and have) watch a movie just to hear one. Out of all the classical musicians in the world today, I’m skeptical that any are as plainly awesome as Glass. Need proof?

That’s right, Glass composed music for Sesame Street. He’s just all over the place. And I salute his extreme versatility, ingenuity, and the great pleasure of his music. So, that done, I think I’ll take the time I have left at work to switch to a very different vein: talking gender roles, as I often do. Today in my often thought-provoking (and always very easy) Psychology of Gender class, we were watching clips of John Gray (of Men are from Mars fame) and Dave Chapelle talking about the differences between men and women. To put it directly, bullshit. In addition, fuck that. To make matters worse, last night Ashley and I were looking at a disturbing “trending topic” on Twitter: #arealwife. To give some random, unpleasant examples:

“sticks by her man thru thick or thin, rich or poor, her friends all hate him or not….”

“runs the family but acts and lets everyone think like her man is really running shit!”

“will give u a massage after a long day at work n will cook ur fave meal…. tell u she loves u n kiss u”

“will feed u, please u, need u, and always be right there for u”

Here’s what’s (obviously) wrong with this situation: these statuses are advocating deeply regressive gender roles that negatively affect both men and women. They’re claiming that “a real wife” should be subservient, sycophantic, hard-working, and sincerely caring all the time, subordinating herself to her almighty husband regardless of his behavior. It’s just a big, tiresome, worthless set of lies that people feel strangely compelled to fulfill. They’re similar to the lies we were discussing in class today: all women are [adjective], while all men are [adjective]; men and women apparently can’t talk to each other, but must do a formulaic dance in every relationship, struggling to reconcile they’re absolute goals (generally this means sex for men, and some combination of wealth, family, and commitment for women). Love, it would seem, has nothing to do with it.

And naturally feminism is very problematic, because it upsets all these supposedly universal desires of men and women. After all, if women expect to be treated like human beings, how are men supposed to degrade them and coerce them into sex? And if the men can’t do that, how are the women supposed to latch onto them for security and start producing babies? Why, feminism is just a wrench in the circle of life! It frustrates assumed life roles, it messes up how people of different sexes are supposed to relate (and really, without these schemata, how can men and women even talk to each other?), it just makes everything impossible!

That’s some extensive sarcasm, of course. I’d like to discuss this more, but I have some business to attend to for the rest of the evening. My point is that this #arealwife shit is just kind of saddening. Everyone should feel like they’re a worthy human being on their own, with no need for the validation of a set-in-stone relationship. Men and women are more similar than they are different, dammit. I feel like this should be obvious, but for some reason it’s just easier to perceive the world and relationships through the lens of oversimplifying roles. Hopefully people can gradually come to realize what confining, damaging bullshit all of this is – hell, I feel insulted when I’m told “men only want sex!” – and all of society can continue changing. I mean, we’ve made some progress in the past century. But so much of it lingers. The battle’s never over.

Moral of the story? Watchmen movie and gender roles bad; Watchmen book, Philip Glass, and liberation good.

3 Comments

Filed under art, Cinema, Music, Politics, Sexuality

3 responses to “Complaints about the Watchmen movie and gender roles

  1. I saw Watchmen the other night after my boyfriend talked me into it. I never read the comic, so I know nothing about anything. But I was greatly disturbed by two things: 1. the chick’s OMG I’M SEXY superhero garb, 2. the terrible, terrible, horrible sex sequence with Leonard Cohen over it. Worst choice of music ever.

    • Andreas

      I definitely recommend reading the comic, even if you’re not generally a comics person – it’s that good. I think you have some points there: Laurie takes on more of an un-self-conscious eye candy role here (since the movie is less about deconstruction, more about action), and as for the sex scene, Snyder said something about it being “ironic and ridiculous,” which I don’t see at all in the original text. Compare this to the movie:

      Thanks for commenting, Epiphora!

  2. The Awful Doctor Orloff

    This is a belated response, but hey, it was a belated review. I entirely agree with you about the absurdity of trying to exactly replicate panels from a comic in a movie; hey, if it was just a question of using the comic as a storyboard, why did they even bother hiring a director? Also, there are places where this makes absolutely no sense. To give just one example out of many, the gag where Silk Specter is looking for a cigarette lighter on the owlship and accidentally sets off the flamethrower is exactly replicated, except that since she doesn’t smoke (note the way that glamorous characters aren’t allowed to puff the evil weed in case all the little kids watching this dumb superhero movie copy them… hang about, isn’t this film certificate 18?), it appears that she’s so stupid that she wanders around heavily-armed aircraft pressing random buttons for no reason at all.

    Also, I’m surprised you didn’t mention Ozymandias. In the graphic novel, he very much comes across as somebody so vain and self-obsessed that nobody else interests him enough to turn him on, so he’s essentially asexual, or rather autosexual. The only direct reference to his sexuality is when Rorschach suggests in a condemnatory way that he may be a homosexual, basically because he’s well-groomed (though compared to Rorschach, so is every superhero except possibly Toxic Avenger). Actually, the extent (in the book) to which just about all the characters behave as if their superheroics are either a major component of their sexuality or a substitute for having any sex-drive at all is truly astonishing – perhaps we should be thankful that we didn’t get something resembling a cross between “Wonder Woman” and “Glen Or Glenda?”. Then again, that might have been a lot more fun…

    Anyway, I couldn’t believe how this one hint, which was only meant to illustrate the mindset of a puritanical loony anyway, resulted in poor Ozzy being portrayed on screen as a screaming queen who looked about as capable of winning a fight as Burt Ward’s Robin, and unless I was seeing things, was briefly glimpsed during the opening montage hanging out with the Village People! Whereas he really should have been played by somebody as much like Christopher Walken as possible, only a lot younger. For that, I might almost have forgiven the inexcusable omission of the giant kamikaze one-eyed transdimensional psychic octopus! Almost.

    However, it could all have been so VERY much worse! Did we really want Terry Gilliam to make the film? I doubt it, if “Baron Munchausen” is anything to go by. And it would have meant Big Arnie as Doctor Manhattan – Mister Freeze for three hours with no clothes on… And there is of course the small matter of the script they were going to use if the film had gotten off the ground in 1989. Have you read it? If not, check this out:

    http://www.scifiscripts.com/scripts/wtchmn.txt

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