Wednesday, March 18, 2009

I Like To Watch

Went to see "Watchmen" again, alone on an early afternoon, and I was slightly surprised by the incredibly small audience. Only slightly, though. I may be a "Watchmen" freak, but clearly this is a minority taste. After a decent opening for a nearly three-hour film, ticket sales for Zack Snyder's adaptation dropped by two-thirds; and while "Watchmen" will make money over the long haul, it doesn't have the legs of "The Dark Knight," or other, more familiar fare.

None of which bothers me. I don't have a stake in the film's profits. I've contributed twice to the cup, and will again should Snyder's even-longer director's cut appear in July. And then there's the special edition DVD set, and maybe a Rorschach mask, though I'm much closer in temperament and body type to Nite Owl II (who, let us not forget, has mad sex with Silk Spectre II). So to those like comedian Patton Oswalt, one of the film's most vocal champions, I've done my part to help "Watchmen" along. But again, we are a small, geek collective. There's only so much to give.

As I watched the film a second time, sinking deeper into the experience, now that I know what Snyder kept and changed, I realized what a weird, off-putting mainstream vehicle "Watchmen" truly is. If you have no prior knowledge of the book or the characters, it must come off as bizarre if not boring. And to those who flocked to see "Watchmen" the first weekend, expecting a typical superhero popcorn flick, it doubtless confused and angered them, poisoning word of mouth.

The problem with these expectations is that "Watchmen" really isn't a superhero story. It's a meditation on power, political and personal corruption, the morality of the end justifying the means, which in this case entails mass murder on a global scale, all wrapped in an alternate timeline where, among many twists, the US wins the Vietnam War, a victory that keeps Americans from going crazy, as Edward Blake observes. Being The Comedian, Blake was clearly joking. Despite that Cold War prize, Americans of the "Watchmen" world are already around the bend. Mixed in among them are a handful of adults who dress in masks and costumes and assault and kill criminals and psychos, when not turning on each other.

I don't know if any version of "Watchmen" could grab a mass audience. When one of your main characters talks about the futility and meaninglessness of human existence while on Mars, you're not going to appeal to the Good vs. Evil demographic. As my friend Dwayne, another "Watchmen" nut, told me, the one thing we can be grateful for is that Zack Snyder always stays true to his source material. In the hands of a more "creative" director, who knows what kind of "Watchmen" we would've gotten. A better version? Maybe. But a truly better version would have to be much longer and more detailed. In that case, I definitely would want someone loyal to the original story. Imagine Joel Schumacher's cut.

Here are the opening credits to "Watchmen," a montage that even the film's critics lauded. Snyder does a nice job establishing the alternate history, and perfectly captures the look of the original Minutemen. The first Nite Owl, the first mask you see, doesn't appear as dorky as he does in the book, though he was an especially savage fighter. I could've used more Silhouette, the sleek dyke who falls to the prejudice of her time. I've never understood Mothman, who as you'll see goes insane. His costume makes no sense. Then again, he was crazy. And poor Dollar Bill. Another victim of a useless cape. And no body armor. You can get hurt going out like that.