Sunday, March 1, 2009

Rorschach Test: What will you see when you watch the Watchmen?

Everyone seems to be asking “Who will watch the Watchmen?” Mainly because it’s a slogan from the book. I was going to ask the same question too, but when I thought about it, it became pretty obvious: many, many people will watch the Watchmen.

The real question is what will you see? A really cool movie? Over-stylized crap that misses the point? Something just a little more disturbing than you expected? I think that what you see in the movie hinges greatly on what your relationship to the comic book is.

Watchmen, written by Allen Moore, is considered the Citizen Kane of comics. In a time (1985-1986) when your classic superheroes were becoming stale, Moore asked some hard, comic book questions: What if there really were superheroes? What kind of people would become superheroes? How would it really affect the world? He then set out to write the anti-superhero comic.

Without going too much into it, the book is dark, dense and considered to be un-filmable. So, of course, someone filmed it. And according to most of the early buzz, the movie is extremely faithful to the source material to the point of reverence.

But because enjoyment of the movie will be shaped by feelings for the book, most of the audience will break up into three major groups.

The first group is the uninitiated: They have never heard of Watchmen. They think that maybe Allen Moore used to play James Bond or something… didn’t he host a game show in the 70s? They are anticipating the movie because they have been hearing about the whole legal megillah in the news and they are being told that they should be greatly anticipating this movie. The trailer looks cool, so they’ll go see it. This is the majority of the audience.

These folks will most likely be bewildered by what they see. It is very different from any comic book movie they’ve seen. They will like the stylization and the general “coolness” of the movie: the real-time-to-slow-motion action sequences, the moody soundtrack, the sleek art direction.

But they will be a little turned off by the general lack of action and the un-likeability of the characters. As dark and brooding as The Dark Knight was, Bruce Wayne is a stand-up, moral guy. Not-so-much with the Watchmen. You really don’t want to cuddle up to The Comedian… he just might try to rape you.

The second group is the other extreme: the religious zealots. They have read and re-read Watchmen. They have dressed up as Rorschach at least once for Halloween (or Comic-Con). They believe that God lives in Allen Moore’s beard. They might have a smiley face with a drop of blood tattooed onto our asses. If not, they want one.

While awash in the excitement of their favorite comic brought to life, they will probably be annoyed by this movie. They will cringe when content is sacrificed and replaced with style. And, according to the director, there’s a lot of content that is sacrificed. And according to the trailer, there’s a lot of style.

The religious are already irritated that the comic-within-a-comic is not included (yet, they are happy that it will be on the DVD). They will appreciate a good effort to make Watchmen into a movie but let’s face it: you might as well make the bible into a movie. I mean the whole Bible.

The third group is the smallest. I call it: me. I’m sure there are others out there like me. We are new to the Watchmen experience. We only recently even heard of Watchmen. I first heard about Watchmen when I saw the first trailer. I got the book as a birthday present shortly after. I’ve only read it five times.

The timing of this movie is perfect for us. We love Watchmen, but we are only vaguely aware that Allan Moore has a beard. We don’t have the smiley face tattoo, but would like a blood-spattered smiley face button.

We can see the movie more objectively than someone with a true passion. We will not see sacrilege in omissions or misrepresentation of characters. We will be able to enjoy the ride while still understanding the context of things that are glossed over.

Even so, I am expecting this movie to be over-stylized to compensate for the loss of content. I know that you can’t put everything from the book into the movie. But I still have trouble imagining how you can put enough of it into a movie. Seriously, show me how time is simultaneous without loosing the audience. Right now, my biggest problem is how the movie is being marketed as a whiz-bang action movie. It really isn’t about the action.

In the end, my prediction is that in all of these groups, their basic opinion of the entire movie will be the same: “It’s OK.” You have too many people from too many angles that you need to please. And you can only satisfy each group so much.

First, you need to have the nerd-cred. Without any approval from the hard-core fan base, you’re not going to get a comic book movie off the ground anymore. Spider-Man and the new Batman movies are chock-a-block with nerd-cred.

Then you need to appeal to the masses. The dumb, awful masses who want everything in washed-out, easy-to-digest servings. This is easier to do with a comic book franchise. Dole out The Green Goblin here and Dr. Octopus there.

It is a tough balance that you need to strike either way. Spider-Man and Batman have been able to successfully strike these balances. But with source material that is as uncompromisingly un-balanced as Watchmen, it becomes one hell of a challenge.

In the attempt to appeal to nerds and appeal to the masses, Watchmen will loose most of it’s punch. It will most likely be like hearing Led Zeppelin performed by the London Philharmonic. Robin Williams without the cocaine. A martini with too much vermouth.

I hope that this is a really great movie. I'd be surprised if it is a really good movie. But I expect it to be an OK movie.

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