Periscope Depth

at midnight, all the agents and the superhuman crew go out and round up everyone who knows more than they do

I have rather low hopes for Watchmen. Here’s why:

“Ground floor, coming up.” If you read the original graphic novel, you realize that fully half of David Gibbons’ panels take advantage of word play in Alan Moore’s script. Or perhaps vice versa. Look for double meanings while the cops sweep Blake’s apartment in Chapter 1. Or the intercut between the Dreiberg/Juspeczyk fight scene and the Dr. Manhattan interview in Chapter 3. It would get a little tired after a while if Moore and Gibbons couldn’t pull it off – but pull it off they have.

How that translates to the big screen I have no clue. If Zach Snyder, “visionary director of 300,” intends to use the graphic novel as a storyboard, will he intercut back and forth between disparate scenes as well? Because that may work in a comic book, but I can almost promise it will fail on the big screen.

“There is good and there is evil, and even in the face of Armageddon I will not compromise.” I worry that the director will try to make one of the cast into a hero, and that would ruin the story. The whole god-damned point of Watchmen is that our classical conceptions of The Hero are childish fantasies. Living in a world with people who wear masks, or walk through walls, would drive people insane.

I fear particularly that Rohrshach might come out the hero, because he has that edgy cool narration and he skulks on rooftops and he fights people with his bare hands. Sure, he’s an archconservative, but adolescent power fantasies are always archconservative – the dream that the world would be better if only the right people died. That’s why neocons got all wet and rubbery for the latest Batman movie. (Entirely different from the reasons I got wet and rubbery for the latest Batman movie, of course)

But even if the director rightly kills Rohrshach off in the climax – not in heroic sacrifice, mind you, but being put out of his misery like a rabid dog – Snyder still might try to make someone else the big hero. Night Owl, maybe. Miss Jupiter. And I suppose you could still tell a story with most of the same cast that has a happy ending and it’d merely look mediocre. But why call it Watchmen, then?

“Once more: I engineered a monster, cloned its brain from a human psychic, sent it to New York and killed half the city.” Finally, there’s the ending to deal with.

Simply put, the ending to Watchmen can only work in a comic book. It cannot work in any other medium. You have to get slowly drawn into a world where people run around in costumes – and if you ever saw any of that awful Stan Lee reality show, Who Wants To Be A Superhero, you know how ridiculous human beings look in neon spandex – and where the world regularly gets endangered. Only then does the notion of (1) cloning a (2) giant alien from (3) the brain of a psychic and (4) teleporting it to New York where (5) its death throes will kill three million make any sort of sense. If one link in that chain fails, the entire ending fails.

Watchmen pulls it off. Don’t ask me how. Even the characters in the story can’t quite believe it – Night Owl has the hardest time – because of the sheer absurdity involved. But it works, because it’s the “are you insane?” meaning of absurd, not the “ha ha, giggle giggle” meaning of absurd.

I don’t think the average filmgoer will buy it. I think Ozymandias revealing his plan to Night Owl and Rohrshach will be greeted with confused murmurs, derisive chuckles and outright “Say WHAAT?”s in most theaters. And I don’t say this because I think people are “dumb.” But Ozymandias’ plan – that is to say, the actual plot of Watchmen – is a very complex piece of genre work that requires a lot of buy-in from a willing audience. A book reader surrenders his credence to a book, but a movie watcher has to have it coerced out of him (which is another difference between books and movies, now that I think of it).

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Add to all of the above the fact that I don’t expect much out of any of the cast – except perhaps Billy Crudup as Dr. Manhattan – and that it’s the “visionary director of 300” behind the helm, and that the whole beauty of Watchmen was the immense, global complexity that Moore and Gibbons created, which you can’t exactly tell in two and a half hours … and, well, yeah. I worry that the best we’ll get is something that fuels a year’s worth of parody – what did 300 leave to the world other than “This! Is! SPARTAAA!”? – and a few columns in the Entertainment section wondering if Iron Man and The Dark Knight were flukes.

That’s all.

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