a few more thoughts on watchmen

(Warning: Here thar be spoilers!)

With an overall freshness rating of 65%, Watchmen hasn’t quite blown away critics the way The Dark Knight did last year. Those critics who didn’t care for the film brought up a number of issues that I just didn’t have the space to deal with in an already long review. For example, the tone-deaf ending that glosses over the deaths of tens of millions of people worldwide, or Snyder’s gratuitous use of gore that exceeds even the violence in the comic book.

A number of commentators have taken issue with dissenters for criticizing the movie on the basis of how it functions as an adaptation instead of considering the movie on its own terms, as a movie. It’s a fair point. However, that critics familiar with Moore’s book can’t, or won’t, distinguish the film as film from the film as adaptation is, I think, telling in and of itself. It reveals that the film doesn’t stand on its own, but is almost parasitic on the source material. Certainly that is the case for me; in thinking about the film, I inevitably think about the book, which is why my view is that if you’ve read and enjoyed the book, there’s no point in seeing the film. Interestingly, I don’t feel that way about the Harry Potter films, which create a universe separate from that of the books and work magically well on their own. The moral of the story: the success of an adaptation rests on its capacity to resist comparisons with the source material.

But part of my ambivalence towards Watchmen, the movie, stems from my ambivalence towards Moore’s book. Dave Gibbons’ art, while precise, is too utilitarian and garishly coloured to be beautiful to look and appreciate on its own. But however much depth and layering the text has, it’s Moore’s philosophical agenda that ultimately fails to persuade. Dr. Manhattan’s objective embodiment of determinism undermines character psychology, free will, and moral choice, leaving us to witness the robotic machinations of automatons in a universe scripted by clockwork physical laws. Granted, this serves an agenda to undermine not only the concept of heroes as saviours and guardians, but also the very notion of heroism. The joke is that good and evil are meaningless in a predestined universe; that characters like Rorschach and Dr. Manhattan appreciate the Comedian’s grasp of this joke, without necessarily condoning his amoral embodiment of it, reinforces this meaninglessness.

I don’t think, however, that Dr. Manhattan is a credible character. When he tells Laurie that living and dead bodies have the same composition, he reveals himself to be the world’s lousiest scientist. To equivocate the metabolic processes of life with the decaying processes of death suggests a being with a highly compromised perception, a lack of understanding as to how science doesn’t just lie in the small building blocks, but in how everything fits together. It’s like looking at trees but failing to see the forest. Or looking at the dots in a pointillist picture and failing to see the picture. Considering that Dr. Manhattan is capable of emotion (e.g. he leaves the older Jenney Slater for the younger, more attractive Laurie Jupiter), and is able to function in the world, it doesn’t really make sense that things like bras would suddenly become mysterious things, or that his ability to reason would suddenly be rendered impotent. Certainly, his refusal to condone or condemn Veidt’s actions is not justified, just as his decision to form himself as a blue man instead of retaining a normal human form seems more capricious than the product of reasonable thinking.

In the end, Dr. Manhattan illustrates how Watchmen isn’t so much a story but an illustrated essay that doesn’t deconstruct but simply dismantles previously accepted conceptions of the “superhero.” That’s why neither book nor movie is narratively satisfying, however much it offers more food for thought than your average funny book and is enjoyable in many respects; the story is actually secondary to The Point – Moore’s philosophical musings and his ironic overturning of superhero mythology. Don’t get me wrong, Watchmen is a fascinating and complex work, even a masterpiece for all its flaws, but the philosophy it espouses is rather simplistic as well as needlessly, unreasonably cynical and bleak. And all because, as Moore wrote him, Dr. Manhattan is a lousy scientist and even lousier sentient being.

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