Friday, March 20, 2009

Who Watches the Watchmen? Me...

...Soon, at least.

I fully intend to see Watchmen, Hollywood's latest attempt to capture comic-book lightning in a bottle, despite the disparate opinions it's generated (a Dark Knight-style critical and financial slamdunk it ain't). I'm fresh off of reading the original graphic novel, and my curiosity has the open-minded better of me.

For those of you who actually possess, you know, lives and don't know the comic's/film's basic premise, Watchmen follows the multi-layered saga of an estranged superhero team, in the wake of the murder of one of their number (a thug of a crimefighter named The Comedian). Some of The Comedian's former compatriots attempt to solve the mystery; others attempt to live normal lives in the wake of public outcry against them; all of them are pretty messed-up pieces of work, thrown into machinations much more complex and frightening than solving the murder of one slain 'Good Guy'.

Dave Gibbons' art undeniably gets the job done--it's solidly rooted in the grand olde tradition of comic book pencilling, and also includes panels of haunting beauty that transcend those four-color limitations--but Alan Moore's story is what made/makes the Watchmen graphic novel so amazing. It is at equal turns, a whodunnit; a barrier-breaking deconstruction of the superhero mythos; an epic surrogate-familial saga stretching four decades; a damning indictment of Reagan/Thatcher-era social hierarchy (the graphic novel saw original publication in the mid-1980's); a thought-provoking examination of the mentality behind acts of heroism; and a whole lot more.

Moore intersperses the already-ambitious narrative with representations of police reports, psychiatric evaluations, excerpts from one superhero's autobiography (replete with pages laid out and illustrated exactly like a typical tell-all autobio), and a ghoulish comic-within-a-comic that lays out some profound and downbeat symbolism for a pretty profound and downbeat work. Watchmen, in fact, bulges so thickly with layers that it welcomes (hell, commands) repeated readings.

I'll avert being that arch-villain Spoilerman and just say that the final denouement of the comic will give fans of the old Outer Limits TV series some ripples of deja vu, and Moore sorta sells his female characters short (then again, a lot of graphic novel creative forces could be accused of the same shortcoming). But warts and all, the original Watchmen earns its rep as a groundbreaking and resonant achievement...And as damn near unfilmable source material.

The great thing about Moore's and Gibbons' work is that it works sublimely within its own medium. The rapid-fire flashbacks and flash-forwards; the marriage of static images with crackling dialogue and haunting narrative; Gibbons' subversion of traditional iconic superhero imagery in his artwork (let's hear it for the pot-bellied but no less heroic Nite Owl!); all could well lose something in translation to the big screen. Two big concerns etch themselves across my skull as I peruse Fandango for a theater near me that's screening the movie.

First, there's the technically-polished but green-ish director. I haven't seen Zack Snyder's 2004 remake of Dawn of the Dead (though at least one person whose opinion I respect highly was decidedly underwhelmed), but I did see Snyder's adaptation of Frank Miller's graphic novel, 300. The latter surely did all that a boy flick worth its salt should do (namely, ladle striking visuals straight outta the comic atop copious blood, viscera, nudity, and ripped abs), in a duck's-ass slick package. But in the end, it felt a little hollow to me. And way too literal a filmic interpretation.

Which brings me to Big Concern Number Two; namely, that Snyder's trying to slavishly carbon-copy/reproduce onscreen what Moore and Gibbons did, in graphic format, just to please the fanboys. This assertion's come straight from the mouths of several pundits, and the lower-than-anticipated returns at the box office seem to bear this out. Dogged devotion to upbeat popular source material is one thing; being too faithful to a dark and dense novel whose ostensible heroes include psychopaths, an impotency sufferer, and a borderline rapist is another entirely. You'd better be bringing some major artistic vision to the pot when stirring together such a bitter brew.

The Dark Knight and Iron Man proved that you can capture the spirit of a great comic book or graphic novel without treating it like Biblical text. I sincerely wish this kind of quality experience from the Watchmen film, but I proceed into the local multiplex uttering one cautionary Aesthetic Commandment: Be not thuddingly literal, Zack Snyder, lest mine expectations fall short.