After all the stuff I’ve written about the Watchmen film over the last few months, I guess it would only be sporting to report my eventual thoughts after seeing the nearly three hour bum-numb-er last week. But, as always, my thoughts can’t simply be confined to a straight-forward review. The Watchmen movie, and recent comments from its writer, screams for a more detailed dissection of the cultural ideology of the superhero genre and can throw up some uncomfortable conclusions.
My main fear in seeing the film, and one that was supported by a few early reviews, was that the film could not capture the scope and depth of the book.
Thankfully, the film did a far greater job of creating this alternative world of superheroes influencing politics and culture than I imagined was possible. This is largely down to the two screenwriters, David Hayter and Alex Tse. As they reveal in a brilliant podcast from Creative Screenwriting Magazine, Watchmen was a constant battle with the studios to keep key elements intact. Script notes received from the studios apparently included removing the entire Mars sequence, cutting all the flashbacks, reducing the characters down to one or two heroes, giving more of them super powers and many others that betray a gross ignorance of the significance of each of these within the narrative. The fact that so much made it to the screen demonstrates the power of Larry Gordon to tell studio after studio that the project would and could walk away if the execs didn’t trust the writer’s creative vision.
I always knew the big test for the final film would be whether it would truly engage Shelley, my wife. As a non-fan, never having read the book and an outsider to the superhero genre on the whole, her reactions to the film could be very telling as to whether it would be successful in reaching the wider audience it needs to.
Shelley loved it. Surprised by its complexity and in awe of the characterisations, she left the cinema asking all the right questions about moral authority, ethical dilemmas and the right of ‘power’ to exert influence over society. Therefore, it is pretty accurate to say Shelley ‘got it’ in the way Moore’s vision intended.
America’s Power Fantasy
Much has been made of Alan Moore’s refusal to be involved in any of the movie adaptations of his works, to the point that even his name was removed entirely from credits for Watchmen and he received no fees. What may be of more interest are comments Moore made in an interview discussing his non-involvement, where he went on to explain his changing view of superhero ideology.
Back when I wrote Watchmen … I had a different feeling about American superhero comics and what they meant. I’ve recently come to the point where I think that basically most American superhero comics, and this is probably a sweeping generalisation, they’re a lot like America’s foreign policy. America has an inordinate fondness for the unfair fight. That’s why I believe guns are so popular in America – because you can ambush people, you can shoot them in the back, you can behave in a very cowardly fashion. Friendly fire, or as we call it everywhere else in the world, American fire.
He goes on…
I believe that the whole thing about superheroes is they … would prefer not to get involved in a fight if they don’t have superior firepower, or they’re invulnerable because they came from the planet Krypton when they were a baby.
I genuinely think it’s this squeamishness that’s behind the American superhero myth. It’s the only country where it’s really taken hold. As Brits, we’ll go to see American superhero films, just like the rest of the world, but we never really created superheroes of our own.”
I’ve edited the above comments to focus on the topic at hand and to remove the more strident statements that provoked more than a few angry responses from American readers.
Might is Right?
I find it interesting that Moore claims his correlation between superheroes and US foreign policy was a recent revelation, as it is at the very core of Watchmen. Doctor Manhattan is the power behind the US throne, holding America’s enemies at bay – or so the American pollies think until the Russians potentially call their bluff.
He is, I feel, correct that the superhero genre represents a power fantasy of might-is-right and I think it is no coincidence that the most famous superheroes of all were born during a time of immense world upheaval. Superman, Batman and Wonder Woman – along with hundreds more – became popular during the late 1930s, as the Great Depression gave way to a descent into World War. what better escapist character could there be than an impervious, super-powered being capable of winning any fight while wrapped in the American flag? Batman may have symbolised a community concern about ‘good folk’ taking back the crime-ridden streets, but Superman and Wonder Woman were certainly born of a wider mythology – star-spangled and God-like, casting influence over the petty squabbles of mortal men.
Superheroes were uniquely American. British superheroes didn’t appear until the 1950s, with characters such as Marvelman. but even these were mere ciphers of the then popular American creations. British comics preferred to present non-superpowered heroic figures such as Dan Dare, PC49, The Spider, Judge Dredd, Roy of the Rovers and more. Detectives, police officers, pilots, sports stars, even a master ciminal – these were the heroes British comics would create. Even when the villains were more powerful or bizarre, such as the alien superbrain The Mekon, the hero would still be heroic for his wits and derring-do, not superior fire-power.
There is no doubt the superhero genre became popular around the world. Marvel and DC comics were reprinted and sold in most international territories and built loyal followings. Yet indigenous superheroes were – and are – rare and usually cloned from the US format. We might enjoy reading the US power fantasies but we wouldn’t necessarily entertain them ourselves in local culture in much the same way as a liking for Westerns didn’t indicate a cultural history of gun-fighting and cow-poking.
David Hayter raised a very interesting point in the Watchmen podcast. An earlier attempt to produce the film was shelved after the events of 9/11. At the time, Hollywood ran scared from certain topics and the themes of Watchmen could have been too confrontational. 9/11 was followed by a huge outpouring of international solidarity, with the French president famously announcing that “…we are all Americans today”. Essentially, this is the end of Watchmen. Alan Moore had predicted the unifying effects of a major terrorist attack way back in 1985 and this survives, altered but intact, in the new film. Where Watchmen differs is that this unity lasted. The real world has seen some of the strongest examples of the might-is-right foreign policy fracture these alliances. As such, Watchmen represents far more than a mere deconstruction of superhero ideology. It encompasses some of the biggest themes of today, asking dark and confronting questions of the viewer that can leave audiences more than a little uncomfortable.
Strong literature should always prompt the reader to look inward and question themselves and their world view. That the Watchmen film achieves this same dark introspection in a mainstream Hollywood blockbuster can only be seen as a success against almost insurmoutnable odds.