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WATCHMEN REDUX - the wertz generation
the scourge of complacency
In response to my comments on Watchmen, rpeate raised a number of good questions. My original post can be found here. His comment was as follows (and I'd like to thank him for his reasoned response):

First, let me thank you for this reasoned review. You like the film, but you analyse it rationally, which enables me to take you seriously and to reconsider some of the bad I've heard. That said:

I have heard bad things about it, and what you post here does not assuage my concerns. Two specifics:

1. "The violence anchors the story firmly in the all-too-real world and illuminates the characters, raising questions that should be evident in any costumed vigilante film (there's a big difference between a 'POW!' graphic and a compound fracture tearing through a bad guy's forearm)."

How does what you say here differ from this criticism in the negative New York Times review?

The sex may be laughable, but the violence is another matter. The infliction of pain is rendered in intimate and precise aural and visual detail, from the noise of cracking bones and the gushers of blood and saliva to the splattery deconstruction of entire bodies. But brutality is not merely part of Mr. Snyder’s repertory of effects; it is more like a cause, a principle, an ideology. And his commitment to violence brings into relief the shallow nihilism that has always lurked beneath the intellectual pretensions of “Watchmen.” The only action that makes sense in this world — the only sure basis for ethics or politics, the only expression of love or loyalty or conviction — is killing. And the dramatic conflict revealed, at long last, in the film’s climactic arguments is between a wholesale, idealistic approach to mass death and one that is more cynical and individualistic.

What's wrong with wanting to like the good guys, to think there are good guys, guys (metaphor for "men and women") who actually behave morally? I don't want to leave a movie feeling sullied by immorality or apathy. I don't want to see a story raise big questions only to answer them negatively or not at all.

And why do I need to hear bones cracking to get a lesson? I don't. Presentation can be less violent yet instructive. My big complaint is with gratuitious violence, and everything I'm hearing says this film is chock full of it. A three-minute rape scene? No, thanks.

2. "It's just too long," a man on the radio said last week, while also saying that he thought young nerdy males would like it and everyone else would not, because it's too violent, dark, and dreary.

My own personal complaint with the storyline (as opposed to its violent execution) I read on Wikipedia is that the transition from superheroes helping society to being outlawed is not explained. Is it explained, ever? Why the turning against heroes?

Thanks again for thoughtful commentary!

Dr. Manhattan

My response, unfortunately, ran over the allotted number of characters for a comment. Hence, this new post. So... my reply:

How does what you say here differ from this criticism in the negative New York Times review?

First, I think A.O. Scott (of the Times) may have been seeing what he wanted to see. We are talking about a film (or graphic novel) that examines the genre itself. It's not so much a parody or a pastiche (or a "deconstruction", really), it is a commentary, a critique. Clearly, the costumed vigilante genre is violent - and any examination of that genre (and virtually every example of it) will necessarily incorporate violence. In a film dealing with the hypothetical of such characters in "real life", the handling of violence is one of the keys to making the fantasy realm of the superhero real. My judgment is that i was appropriate to the material and that a "less violent" treatment would have avoided some of the works main concerns. Is violence the best option, however effective? What are the consequences of acts of violence on both the "victim" and the "perpetrator"? How long can one stare into the abyss?

Rather than being gratuitous or exploitative, I see the violence in Watchmen as something of an admonition. In most superhero comics, we have a panel or two of the protagonist swinging punches, then a next panel where the bad guy is slumped in a neat bundle awaiting the paddy wagon; the violence is often bloodless, antiseptic - "acceptable".

Superheroes seldom use the threat of force to defuse a criminal situation, they use force (that's what superpowers are for). Sure, they rescue people from fires or fix collapsing bridges, but the bulk of their occupation is thwarting crime, usually forcing outlaws to submit to their self-appointed authority (using their superior strength or agility or weaponry). Watchmen (and it's hardly the first film to do so, though it was one of the first comics) makes the obvious point that, in the real world, the use of force isn't clean - and has serious, often mortal, consequences.

Does the relatively sanitized violence of other genre pictures innure us to violence? Does it make us more likely to endorse vigilantism? The only thing, really, that separates a caped crusader from an armed militia or a "lone nut" is the cape. And, even if one does condone people "taking the law into their own hands", does that mean we should also celebrate their means of exacting justice? Violence, even necessary violence, shouldn't be exhilarating; it shouldn't make one cheer, it should make one cringe. At least, that's what I got from Watchmen. Scott presumably read what he saw differently.

I'm not saying either reaction is "correct", but it should be noted that there was much less graphic violence in Watchmen than there could have been. Several violent crimes (or acts of vengeance) happen offstage - at least one of them, presumably, fairly bloody. The violence that we do see is not really dwelt on, however unnervingly realistic: the now infamous compound fracture, for example, is a very quick cut-away (probably less than 24 frames) during one of the few extended fight sequences in the film - enough for us to recognize that being brutally disarmed hurts. And I can't think of any acts of violence that don't either advance the plot or provide exposition about the characters.

The "rape scene" to which Scott refers (which is actually an "assault scene" or "attempted rape scene"), as another example, involves two of the central characters. The perpetrator, we have already seen, has no compunction about blowing away bad guys (or Vietcong) - and it's not entirely clear whether he's motivated by altruism or sadism. The assault kinda demonstrates that the character is as much about power as public spirit. His amorality is further demonstrated in another unsettling scene, which reveals as much about a bystander as the character himself. Heh - sorry for the oblique phrasing of all this, but I'm trying to avoid spoilers in the event that you should see the film - or the less likely event that someone else reads this.  :)

You may already have "got the message" that the film sends about the reality of violence and, for you, it may well be unnecessary. If you find graphic violence offensive or disturbing of itself, you may want to avoid the film. I had pretty much taken the violence argument on board well before the release of Watchmen, but I didn't find that the violence permeated the film enough to detract from other themes and issues that it was addressing.

Second (!), most examples of the masked crime-fighter genre also incorporate things like crime-fighting, vengeance, secret identities (and alter egos), fairly adolescent notions of romance, and, often, the conflicting relations between the masked vigilantes and law enforcement or the media (not to mention the public at large). Watchmen also treats these elements, as well, sometimes in conjunction with the role of violence in the vigilantes' lives. To me, Scott throws an unnecessary spotlight on the violence of the film at the expense of a lot of its other elements. He may, quite possibly (and not unjustifiably), object to depictions of violence in general and this may have colored his entire experience. As I mentioned, the use of graphic violence at all (whether it serves the objectives of the film or not), may turn some viewers off - and they should, perhaps, avoid the experience.

I disagree with his assessment that killing is the only action that makes sense in the world of Watchmen - though that is certainly the case with one of the characters. For others, it is money, fame, love, power, guilt, altruism, ruthless principle, or some combination of the above. Killing is sometimes the means, but it is seldom the end and it is certainly not the only currency in the characters' social transactions.

I don't entirely accept Scott's characterization of "shallow nihilism" (as opposed to "deep nihilism"?), either. There is one character who is decidedly nihilistic, but his is not the only voice in the story - and I don't think he's the spokesperson for the author or the director. Most of the characters are attempting to save a world that they think is worth saving, though their methods vary somewhat wildly.

What's wrong with wanting to like the good guys, to think there are good guys, guys (metaphor for "men and women") who actually behave morally?

Nothing at all - but this isn't that film. Watchmen is not a good vs. evil narrative, though it does raise a lot of questions about what constitutes good and evil. One or two of the characters do have such a Manichean worldview and are convinced that they are the good guys - and some viewers may see them as such. But the film questions what moral behavior actually is and where lines should be drawn. Watchmen is not an escapist adventure (though there are elements of such), it is a serious dissertation on right and wrong, actions and their consequences, and how moral dilemmas should be addressed. To simplify one of the central moral quandaries of the story, is it worth sacrificing a few lives to save many lives?

I don't want to leave a movie feeling sullied by immorality or apathy. I don't want to see a story raise big questions only to answer them negatively or not at all.

I don't think Watchmen embraces either immorality or apathy - though it does, as I mentioned, question what exactly constitutes morality (or which choices are more "moral"). The story does raise a number of questions - and answers several of them (though, the answers can vary from character to character). It is left to the audience to decide which choices are "correct" or which characters make the better decisions. Depending on one's point of view, some of the answers may well be negative - but that judgment is left to the viewer (or the reader).

I don't actually mind fiction raising questions and leaving the answers somewhat open, though. I'm more or less wqith Tom Stoppard on this one when he cites Turgenev's "I'm not a pure spirit, but I'm not society's keeper either." As he says in The Coast of Utopia:
People complain about me having no attitude in my stories. They're puzzled. Do I agree or disagree?Do I want the reader to agree with this man or the other man? ... Where does the author stand? Why doesn't he come clean with us? Well, maybe I'm wrong, but how would that make me a better writer?

Some works of art draw clear conclusions - or provide an instructive "lesson" (with which, granted, one may agree or disagree). Others raise questions to stimulate thought or debate or address issues for which there is no definitive answer, no clear right or wrong. Watchmen definitely falls into the latter category.

My own personal complaint with the storyline (as opposed to its violent execution) I read on Wikipedia is that the transition from superheroes helping society to being outlawed is not explained. Is it explained, ever? Why the turning against heroes?

Whew - at least this one is easy.  :)  As is the case with films as varied as The Dark Knight and The Incredibles, public opinion turns against vigilantism and the "heroes" are eventually seen as being just as lawless as the outlaws they are "bringing to justice". In Watchmen, what finally prompts the Keene Act (which makes such amateur justice illegal) is a police strike protesting the unofficial "law enforcement" by masked crime-fighters. Essentially, superheroes are seen as scabs.

I would not recommend the film without reservations. I have no doubt that some may find it too violent (or the violence too gratuitous). Personally, I didn't find the violence overwhelming and, given the length of the film it is relatively sparse. Nor did I find it particularly exploitative. There was one sequence which I found a bit excessive - and which didn't exactly appear in the original graphic novel - though it did demonstrate the extremity of one character's vengeance. As this character was one of the only real criminals that figured in the story, I was willing to let the director get away with making him look more extreme than what we'd seen from some of the "heroes".

But it is a very dark and often bleak story, with moments that are very uncomfortable and moral questions that very challenging (I guess that's the "intellectual pretensions" to which Scott refers), but I did not find the film cynical, nihilistic, apathetic, or immoral. I wouldn't call it uplifting by any means, but the story ends with a tenuous world peace, albeit at some cost to the central characters and to humanity itself. And even the most detached, misanthropic character ultimately feels that life is worth preserving.

For me, some of the visuals alone were worth the price of admission. Seeing the hypothetical of superheroes impacting real events in the real world played out was also pretty fascinating - and stimulating. You may find that other elements of the film or the story itself overshadow any of its positives and you could well see some of your reservations borne out. So, while I do recommend the film, it is with certain caveats. It would be difficult for me to predict whether anyone will love it or hate it, be excited or be bored by it. The only thing I can predict with any certainty is that opinion will remain very divided.

humour: contemplative contemplative

4 others have so why not generate commentary
the_grab From: the_grab Date: March 10th, 2009 01:50 pm (UTC) (link)
I'm reminded of George Bernard Shaw's reaction to the "sex dramas" of his day, i.e. romcoms. He noted, quite wryly, that none of these stories or plays revolving around the central romance of man and woman ever really broached the subject of physical intercourse - they chose to remain dutifully Victorian, sentimental and superficial in their treatment of sex. What would happen if authors and playwrights took off their kid gloves, Shaw postulated, is that they would make markedly different characters and markedly different narratives that made sex comedies more authentic, more social, and more authentic (I'm taking this commentary from his prefatory epistle to Arthur Bingham Walkley in the 1903 printing of Man and Superman).


I can see a direct parallel to Shaw's complaint of sex (or lack thereof) in romantic comedies to your defense of violence in superhero films. This is what happens when we treat violence as violence - people cringe and want to turn away. Isn't one of the main complaints of cartoon and video game violence that by treating it as, well, "antiseptic" as you so wonderfully put it, that it dilutes the visceral impact of violence, an impact necessary to train us that violence is brutal and often sickening? Either violence is not violent enough or it's too violent, and apparently the only way to remedy the situation is to remove it completely.

Sex and violence, huh. Too much is never enough and too little is too much.
wertz From: wertz Date: March 10th, 2009 04:37 pm (UTC) (link)
Heh, you had me at "George Bernard Shaw" (one of my heroes). And you made my point much more succinctly: without the graphic depiction of violence in Watchmen, the visceral impact would be diluted and, like many other quasi-violent films, the necessary "training" would be absent. Of course, many people (and rpeate is probably among them) are already aware of the sickening brutality of violence and may find such reminders unnecessary.

This does, however, raise a few issues regarding his question, What's wrong with wanting to like the good guys, to think there are good guys, guys who actually behave morally? Is violence, for example, ever "moral"? If the good guys use excessive force, are they still "good"? They're not easy questions - which is one of the reasons Watchmen is not an easy film.
scaredsquee From: scaredsquee Date: March 10th, 2009 08:08 pm (UTC) (link)
holy shit tl;dr.

i just finished racking my brain to remember the names, dates and salaries for the past 5 years. that was like pulling teeth. old general managers that i used to work for are no longer part of the company, etc.

your reviews for watchmen have definitely interested me, but i haven't read the graphic novel.. so i'm not really sure if i should bother seeing the movie.

i'll read this redux later when i don't feel like gouging my eyes out.
wertz From: wertz Date: March 10th, 2009 10:27 pm (UTC) (link)
I don't really think it's essential to read the graphic novel before seeing the film. The three people I saw it with hadn't and seemed to enjoy it quite a lot. In fact, the one guy that I know personally who saw the movie and was decidedly underwhelmed was an ardent fanboy (if fanboy can be used to describe someone roughly my age who bought all the original comics as they were released in 1986/87). So maybe not having read the original is an advantage. If nothing else, the movie omits a few of the things that I found a bit dopey in the graphic novel...
4 others have so why not generate commentary