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Watchmen ***

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Critics have had little patience for Watchmen (indeed, un film de Zack Snyder). Roger Ebert, with his context-specific assessment criteria, gives it a fair shout. Watchmen must be understood in the context of its source – the filmed graphic novel versus the filmed comic book, the ambivalent priorities of writer, director, editor and studio, political and ideological remit. It could use harsher editing. It is too reverent to the text, and fails on a structural basis. But on the whole, I found it quite satisfactory work. The trick is to go in expecting little.

WatchmenBased on the graphic novels by Alan Moore (who refused to have his name attached, as with V for Vendetta) and Dave Gibbons, Watchmen follows a group of retired costume-clad vigilantes in the comic book alternate-reality 1980s. The existence of superheroes has radically contorted twentieth-century history, ending the Vietnam conflict in overwhelming favour of the US, and facilitating a three-term run for Richard Nixon. But the Watchmen have since been outlawed, and tensions have irreparably escalated with the Soviet Union – the comically metaphorical Doomsday Clock is pushed perilously close to midnight. I’m sure all of these conceits are more incisively and chillingly executed in the novels. A conspiracy unfolds to subvert nuclear war, implicating more than one of the heroes. 

Lane at the New Yorker has claimed that Watchmen “is so insanely aroused…by the stylized application of physical power, that the film ends up twice as fascistic as the forces it wishes to lampoon”: unfair, if understandable. The symptoms are there, the diagnosis incorrect. Power embodied, Dr. Manhattan, is allegedly increasingly inhuman, divorced from men (women) and the world. He blasts stereotypical Vietcong to smithereens (when we surprisingly cannot tell whether he is aroused); he lets the Comedian kill an innocent woman; he loses his girlfriend. The only thing that can offset the banal evil of his indifference is discovering (glibly) the value of life. The ideologue, Rorschach, has a face whose symbolic associations cast him as reflective, as a monad. He incorporates the two infamous faces of contemporary ideology, in the extremist’s righteous outbursts of violence, and the liberal democratic willingness to torture for utilitarian and private ends. He cuts up paedophiles and bashes midgets. Ozymandias uses power to effect ideology in its truer, pure form. Manipulating Manhattan and employing Realpolitik, he puts in place the Master-Signifier, the great lie which sustains the “new, better” status quo at the film’s conclusion. And minces around, failing to convince us of his speed or intellect. This villain of the piece is the liberal communist who with one hand offers harmony, with the other takes millions of lives to instigate and sustain symbolic and objective systematic violence. He gets away with it. The overt, political ideology of Rorschach is annihilated and, in the Hegelian coincidence of opposites, Ozymandias’s new world manifests his ideology in its unevaluated norms. The only way out? For a journalist to unstitch the Master-Signifier, destroy peace and harmony.

This film, if we understand it as critical of its propositional content, is almost revolutionary in its leftist credentials. If we find its non-propositional content the determining factor, then perhaps it supports the fascistic tendencies of the liberal communist – ‘peace’ built on a lie, the perennial treatment of systemic externalities, the good man perpetuating the regime, the capitalist complex without its excesses in other words – but it gives us the choice to agree or disagree. If you can’t think for yourself, then maybe it is fascist, in its fetishistic aestheticization of violence.

Watchmen2I cannot condone the irrelevant use of violence at certain points in the film (and therefore, in the novel, as it seems so true to form). Why the cutting of the prisoner’s arms? Why the cleaving of the child-killer’s skull? Why the criminal entrails hanging from the ceiling? It is not done with enough beauty to justify nor is it done to shock and perversely thrill. And if fascism was the aestheticization of politics, perhaps Watchmen tries in vain to purvey the cultural fascism of aestheticized violence. But it makes a good point. Ozymandias (and what he stands for) is all asshole.

Snyder is careful and respectful in the graphic novel adaptation, and uses fewer ridiculous stylistic devices to help him along – a little less of the obvious motion slow-downs to mirror frames in the source. Yet a lot of the sexual elements, as well as the violence, could have been omitted (to the immense chagrin of fans?) and it would have possibly improved (and achieved 15 certificate) as a result; the post-violence coitus is fascinating (as are a number of the sexual and political points made in the film) but completely undermined by the comically awkward use of a hoarse version of ‘Hallelujah’ as backing track. There many such excellent ideas squandered by mediocre execution. Nevertheless, due to the calibre of the source, and the easy fun to be had if you don’t expect much, Watchmen isn’t that bad.


Watchmen, Dir. Zack Snyder, Writ. Hayter & Tse, Warner Bros, USA, 2009


Written by James P. Campbell

06/03/2009 at 12:10

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