A comic that “deconstructs the mythology of comics” is still a comic. That’s been Alan Moore’s dilemma all along. If he wrote fairy tales he could be Angela Carter, and Watchmen would be his Company of Wolves. But he writes comics. And comics are always hamstrung by their form. Using pictures to tell a story means you lose interiority. There’s only so much depth that can be crammed into a thought bubble. So even though Watchmen does have characters with rich interior lives, we still only glimpse a fraction of the whole. The movie version of Moore’s opus doesn’t conquer its progenitor’s problems, but it’s a stunning-looking miss.
Set in an alternate 1985 where Nixon is still president and costumed (if not-quite-super) heroes are commonplace, Watchmen is very much a dark fantasy story. It plays out like a murder-mystery. A quasi-fascist “hero” known as The Comedian is thrown out a window. His quasi-fascist friend Rorschach decides to investigate. Not all the heroes of Watchmen are quasi-fascists, but moral compromise is to Watchmen what gay allegory is to the X-Men, so no-one gets away entirely clean. It seems there’s a war brewing between the “super-powers”. And America and the Soviet Union are knuckling-up at the same time. Strange – You’ve got fallible men with the power to destroy the world – and global statesmen; together in the same story. Could it be that Rorschach’s about to uncover a Cold War allegory?
I’ll admit I’m a bit of a cynic when it comes to the “genius” of the original Watchmen. I don’t know that there is a fountain of ideas for director Zack Snyder to draw from. But there are fantastic images. Whether it’s the palace on Mars made from the inside of a watch (watch-men… Sheesh, that one’s worthy of Salman Rushdie), or the history of the American century re-enacted by men in capes, Watchmen – for all its faults – is intoxicating to look at. It bears comparison with Blade Runner – that same oily, lustrous, demonic beauty – hell-chic. If only Synder had had the balls to let Vangelis do the score – embrace the 80s unabashedly – it could be perfect. But then, maybe I just want Watchmen to be Blade Runner meets Black Rain.
Performances vary, but there are at least two members of the cast who do good work. Billy Crudup is credible as a despairing, naked, blue super-hero. He’s been given the power of God by a (conveniently) never-to-be-repeated experiment. He can see through time and alter the atomic structure of things, but (remembering his audience) he still has trouble with girls. His character, Doctor Manhattan, is a deity without conscience, and the movie doesn’t shy away from the philosophical ramifications. Jackie Earle Haley, as Rorschach, is also someone who benefits from playing a character who was interesting to begin with on the page.
Women (as usual in comics) do less well. Malin Akerman has probably the most gratuitous sex scene in recent memory and (as usual in movies) mostly asks men why they’re doing things or cries when it all gets too much. She does get a romance with a perfectly nice, though slightly psychotic (what was up with that alley fight?), Patrick Wilson, but Russ Meyer-feminism still rules in Watchmen. The movie’s attitude to sex is summed up by Akerman’s costume; at the same time self-consciously exaggerating a stereotype and barely even conscious other types of women exist.
Comics aren’t literary because you can’t draw metaphors – at least not subtle ones. If Watchmen works on a metaphorical level – it’s pure Robert Ludlum, with a message even CND would have frowned on as obvious. For Alan Moore, writing for twelve-year-olds, that message was sufficient to seem “adult” in a medium where most protagonists wear their underpants on the outside. But Watchmen isn’t literature. If the movie seems crass or adolescent or gloomy – that’s the comic book’s fault. With fairytales it’s easy: themes can survive transition. In comics – without the capes – you’re watching Death Wish.