One of the great myths of modern art is that truly important and valuable works should piss off their audiences. If you wanted to provide a "big bang" moment for modernism and all that followed, you could do a lot worse than selecting the audience riot at the 1913 premiere of Stravinsky's "The Rite of Spring." Not only did this establish an audience revolt as the sign that a modern composer had made it (making Steve Reich, by virtue of his 1973 "Four Organs" inspired audience uprising at Carnegie Hall, the last composer to truly make the big leagues), but it helped establish a trope that has sustained generations of artists and hacks alike: a energetic boo is the applause of the ignorant.
I bring this up because when I say that several Courtesans walked out of Watchmen, the eagerly anticipated Snyder adaptation of the landmark funny book by Messrs Moore and Gibbons, I suspect that many will envision something heroic. Several of you will imagine that Snyder's film assaulted the smug assumptions of these complacent consumers who, used to being spoon-fed by the Hollywood dream machine, stormed off in an indignant huff when Snyder and Co. called them on their shit.
But, in actuality, it was considerably less energetic than all that. The Courtesans who abandoned the film did not resemble irate partisans at a barricade. In fact, they didn't even have the brittle self-conscious hauteur of those who perceive an unjust slight. Instead, they left in a slouch that called to mind the shuffle of a middle-aged man who, realizing that his eyes are growing slightly tired, decides that bed holds far more interest then the book he's reading.
This was not an energetic boo, but a barely suppressed yawn. In a way, it is a testament to the film's power that none of these retreating Courtesans were angry. I've seen Courtesans walk out on movies before and the leaving parties almost always announce, at great volume and length, their intention to seek full financial restitution from the management of Loews Theaters. Not this time. Placidly, almost accidentally, they filed out, checking their watches, stretching their legs, playing with their iPhones. One half expected them to rub sleep from their eyes.
While I did stay through the whole thing, I sympathize slightly with the Courtesans on this one. In the final analysis, the most interesting thing about the flick is that it ever got made. Insomuch as this is an interesting sociological milestone with regards to the relative weighting of mass cult genres in the balance sheets of your major media outlets, it deserves a passing mention. Doubly so in that, after becoming the poster child for how much excitement and buzz a movie can get out a cult property, the nearly $40 to $50 million dollar bath Warner Bros looks like they might take on it may make Watchmen the last exemplar of the "if you can win the fanboys, you win Joe and Jane Doe" school of greenlighting. Otherwise, the signal feature of the Watchmen film is how relentless average and unnecessary it is.
Like a proficient tribute band, the Watchmen flick is essentially a mash note to its source material that, at best, makes you think about how good the original is. This relationship to its source, and not any of the much analyzed plot alterations, is the truly significant difference between the film in and the book. The Watchmen graphic novel had a fairly complicated relationship to all the things that inspired it. Moore and Gibbons don't hate superheroes in the way Warren Ellis claims to, but I think it is fair to say that Moore and Gibbons question just what role these heroes have in understanding the conservative Reagan/Thatcher turn of the 1980s. If their affection for the capes-and-cowl set is complicated, their contempt for the logic of mutual assured destruction is not and Moore and Gibbons' disgust at 1980s culture is almost Swiftian in its virulence. Finally, they're too much the artists to just pour out some lefty cri de couer and call it a day. Instead, they invested most of his characters (the women excepted, I feel) with multiple facets. The disgusting neo-fascists at The New Frontiersman are racist jackbooted dillweeds, but they are also fairly spot on about what is happening behind the scenes. The psychopathic Rorschach is the only member of the troupe that is willing to lay down his life for the idea that humanity should not be blindly manipulated, even for the supposed greater good. This sort of thing is a repeated refrain and leaves the reader faced with a spectacle of people who are neither all good, nor all evil, struggling to make moral decisions in an infinitely complex world.
By contrast, Watchmen the movie is about how absolutely cool everything in the Watchmen graphic novel was. Where Gibbons's artistic choices were dictated by a need to communicate a morally conflicted and ambiguous story to the reader, Snyder's visuals were dictated by a need to show how great the work of Gibbons was. Often, this results in nothing more interesting or damaging than slavish loyalty. Where it goes truly wrong is in those moments where Snyder decides to really cut loose. It is these sections that Snyder reveals that he knows the Watchmen more by legend than engagement with the text. Whenever Snyder comes across an instance of restraint in the comic, he can't resist taking it over the top. The 300-style battles are an example of this. The fight sequences in the comics, for example, are not only less violent, but character specific. Rorschach is a ruthless ambusher, the Comedian is a bully, and so on. In the flick, everybody busts into crazy Zack-attack slo-mo action. Not only does it get tiresome fast, but it actually levels some of the story. Though we're told in the comic that the Comedian's assassin would have to been quite strong to toss his butt out a window, I've always felt that the absence of a fully visualized fight left open the question of how the Comedian would have done in a fight against somebody other than unarmed civilians, a half-naked and unsuspecting teammate, a preggers woman, or VC retreating before the might of Dr. Manhattan. In the flick, everybody is a kung-fu master and they just go ape whenever they get their fight on.
This might seem like a small point, but the effect piles up. Take the motivations of Dr. Manhattan: In the comic Dr. Manhattan is frustratingly hazy on whether or not, from his god's-eye view of the world, free will exists or not. At some points he seems to be making decisions and weighing options, but at other points he seems to be telling the other characters that all action has already been determined. Free will, fate? Don't worry, Snyder will work it all out for you. In the flick, the issue of predetermination is taken off the table and Manhattan's complicity in Veidt's plan becomes a simple matter of duplicity and persuasion. Finally, in the final scene of the film, Snyder plays the pathetic and heartbreakingly real acceptance Specter II gives her mother with all the emotional tidiness of one of those "Hey kids, we sure had fun today, but there's nothing funny about attempted rape" post-show edu-justifications they used to tack on the end of 1980s commercial/toons. The comic ends with perhaps the neatest statement of the book's relationship to superheros, metaphorically rendered as the relationship between Sally and Laurie: Laurie knows her mom is hopelessly screwed-up and delusional, but she can love her anyway. The movie plays the whole thing out as if Sally's relationship to the past was rational and all is understood and forgiven.
(Recently, despite overwhelming evidence from the director's incessant "I just want to be a loyal as possible to text" comments and the resulting film, a new critical camp has arrived claiming that Snyder's work is a Starship Troopers style provocation. (Like the final great battle in The Hobbit, new competing camps seem to keep arriving on the scene.) I can't see how this position could be defended at all and, perhaps more importantly, it wouldn't matter. The approach to Starship Troopers - adding a Naziploitation gloss – helped underscore the way in which the source material replicated the fascist fascination with force and regimentation that it attempted to critique. Snyder's Valentine to the comic book has no such critical distance. RE: The widely criticized sex scene in the Archie craft, Nite Owl's fetish for superheroics is established in the source text. Making a clumsy and overly lurid scene around it doesn't give us any more insight into it. It just makes the same critical point, but in a more heavy-handed manner.)
I don't want to make Watchmen sound worse than it is. It doesn't belong in the first rank of cape-and-cowl flicks, but it is far better than drek like Daredevil or the lame Fantastic Four flicks. It is competently made, reliably engaging, and occasionally thrilling. The plot changes and cuts are handled smartly and you'd have to be a pretty rabid fanboy to get fussy about that. Watchmen is a solid flick. But with such strong material, shouldn't it be more than just solid? In fact, the only real flaw is with the flick is that, unlike the graphic novel, it doesn't stride its medium like a colossus.