March 11, 2009

All along the watchtower

Enough with “Watchmen” already?

No. We’re just getting started. If you are a dutiful follower of pop culture criticism, you have no doubt heard about how “Watchmen” is the Holy Grail of graphic novels, how its writer, Alan Moore, is a high-functioning weirdo who has denounced any and all film treatments of his work, and how his masterpiece is an uncompromisingly dark take on the superhero concept. You may have even read a (traditional) movie review that considers the effectiveness of the adaptation, the script (which is almost an exact lift from the source material), the special effects, the acting, the soundtrack and etc.

If you’re a comic book geek, you probably got into a half dozen conversations (all very civilized) about how the change at the end was or wasn’t effective. You might have shared a variety of complaints, but it seems that almost everyone, across the spectrum of interest, has endorsed the movie, recommended it to friends, even if these recommendations arrive with reservations: It’s more violent than it needs to be, and, um, it’s a downer.

But there’s something happening here, and it’s worth considering beyond the fact that a challenging comic book has hit the big screen with a big sunny yellow splash. The multiple levels of irony aside, Moore’s writing is loaded with ideas that can bring viewers together in many conversations beyond whether the explosions were awesome.

Before I go any further, I think you may be interested to know one of those random (but immediately significant) things about me, and that is: I don’t really mind if you “spoil” a movie by telling me how it ends before I get to see it. I generally believe that plot points aren’t the most important elements of a good movie.

I don’t think it’s wrong to reveal climactic details of a movie like “Watchmen,” because knowing them shouldn’t damage an intelligent person’s ability to appreciate the film’s finer points.

Over the last 20 years, our mainstream culture has been dealing with the residual effect of the graphic novel and, in particular, the way it portrays heroes with a variety of significant human flaws in almost every iteration of the concept, from “Die Hard” to “The Dark Knight.” Set in the mid-’80s, the movie is dated but, surprisingly, still relevant beyond the specific circumstances of the drama.

And that is because three of the main characters represent new archetypes for human responsibility. Rorschach, the psychologically damaged outsider, has an uncompromising commitment to truth and justice, and he adheres to it to his own detriment. His back-story involves a transformational loss of innocence that turns him into a seemingly unstoppable force of nature. Unfortunately, his position limits his abilities to ground-level pursuits — purse-snatchers and private investigations, for instance.

On the other end of the spectrum, Ozymandias, the supposed Smartest Man in the World, uses his understanding of finance and psychology to approach “heroism” on a global scale. He amasses a fortune and then uses it for the good of the human species, as he sees it. Unfortunately, his approach involves the killing of millions of innocent people. Oops. Spoiler alert.

The Nite Owl represents the median of these two characters. He is wealthy enough to finance heroic missions on a larger scale than Rorschach, but he doesn’t have the ambition to operate on the level of Ozymandias. What sets him apart from the extreme dichotomy represented by the other two is his wavering commitment to heroism.

The most significant elements of “Watchmen” (and they are evident in both the graphic novel and in the movie) are Moore’s sub-textual points about heroism (or good works) and the nature of God, oddly enough. For instance, given the opportunity to act, to do something good, to be heroic, it is not who watches who decides what is the standard of goodness. If global peace can be established only by committing mass murder on a global scale, who should have the power and position to make such a decision? More importantly, each viewer might ask himself, “What kind of hero am I?”

Meanwhile, the character of Dr. Manhattan, the only truly super-powered hero in the movie, has god-like power but is susceptible to manipulation by Ozymandias. His speech about the nature of miracles is worth seeing and hearing even if you can’t stand the other two and a half hours of the movie.

For further consideration: Check out Woody Guthrie’s Dust Bowl Ballads. Pop culture heroism on a very immediate, human level.