Wednesday, July 22, 2009

Under the Hood

Watchmen (1986 - 87)

Malin Akerman is Silk Spectre II.

THE seminal text of the comic book medium, Watchmen - written by Alan Moore and illustrated by Dave Gibbons - reflects contemporary anxieties, deconstructs the concept of the superhero, and is a masterpiece of power, corruption and human frailty. The story takes place in an alternate 1980s United States, where the country is edging to a nuclear war with the Soviet Union. Closely mirroring modern society, the main point of divergence is the presence of outlawed costumed vigilantes. Moore intended the characters of Watchmen to be ambivalent, a set of people who - although dressed as "four-colour heroes," would be poignant and touching in the real world. The crime fighters have complex psychological profiles: beneath his ever-changing mask, Rorschach is a sociopath loner, the gadget-dependent Nite Owl is impotent, and Dr Manhattan - the only character who genuinely possesses superpowers - is a blue demi-God who appreciates humanity only on a subatomic scale.

The description of Watchmen as "grim and gritty" is greatly overused; after all, even at the start of the 60s, Stan Lee and Jack Kirby tried to create more tangible characters. What Watchmen did do was to create a whole new way in which comic books could tell a story through dense layers of symmetrical reference and inter-linking companion pieces. Utilising the nine-panel grid which echo both EC and the feverish layouts of Steve Ditko, each page gains a sense of control and, as Gibbons states, "authority." The story offers a simultaneous world view, exploring new possibilities on how we perceive interaction in an increasing ambiguous, "rudderless world." The irony is that this work - which aimed to break the stranglehold of the superhero genre in American comics - actually lead to the market leaders forcing their own mainstays through epic scenarios (DC's Kingdom Come, Marvel's Earth X et al).

Alan Moore shows how reality can be deadlier than Kryptonite.

Zack Snyder’s fan boy film version WATCHMEN is awash with retro production design and lifted dialogue, with no expense spared to visualise every frame. Yet it is ultimately undone by its own reverence; there is simply no room to breathe, making the film bloated and unfocused. For all its considerable visual accoutrements, this is a release that still finds the need for voiceover monologues, and a long-winded villain declamation similar to so many B-movies. The one major alteration to the graphic novel (dropping the Space Squid as a means to unite the world against the nuclear threat in favour of blaming Dr Manhattan) actually improves upon the comic's weakest idea, and there is also a priceless image where the final transformation of Rorschach is a blot on the Antarctic snow.

But the main problem is Snyder himself. His "visionary" signature style is of a music video aesthetic, with little room for depth or momentum. His inability to manage dialogue forces scenes to be reduced to self-conscious zooms - into close-ups for crowd-pleasing one-liners - which only really work with Rorschach (Jackie Earl Haley). The violent scenes also suffer from Snyder's fixation on speed shifts so spuriously used in his 300, turning the action into lethargic, over stylised set pieces. Comic book frames are not film storyboards; instead they capture characters in frozen fragments of time, where the reader can absorb and reflect - Snyder’s habit of interrupting action with slo-mo emphasises this. Watchmen is about power and violence: its questionable efficacy in solving global problems, and the animalistic thrill of crushing human beings. With the film luxuriating snapping bones, it is here that the gulf between comic and film becomes clear; the difference between purpose and glorification.