Sunday, August 23, 2009

Watchmen and the Digital Apotheosis

OK, I finally watched Watchmen. When it came out I was super busy, and was admittedly a little put off by some of the bad buzz. And since I've been busy since the DVD came out, I haven't had time to watch a two and half hour movie, which translates into a four hour experience with all the pausing and snack-fetching around here.

But watch it we did, and I frickin' loved it. Hot diggity-damn. I may get eaten alive for this but I vastly prefer it to the comics, or graphic novel as it exists today. The thing is, you see, that I was buying Watchmen as it came out, and to say it's publishing schedule was erratic is an existential understatement. To make matters worse, the pacing of the story was pokey (to put it kindly), and by the time the giant squid shows up I and many other readers were going, "huh?" And Dave Gibbons' competent but extremely conservative art wasn't what I was looking at in the late 80s.

So, for years my reaction to Watchmen movie rumors was "meh." Until I saw the trailer for Zack Snyder's version, which had me drooling and panting. Then, as I said before, the buzz wasn't that great and I was putting in sick hours and decided to wait. Since I'm such a contrary bugger, hype can really color my enjoyment of a film so I waited out both the theater and DVD release hype ( I should have waited to see The Dark Knight as well- the hype sickened me). That way, I could try to figure out why Watchmen wasn't the smash hit it should have been. That was a no-brainer.

Ultimately, what did this movie in was the sex and violence. This is a very hard hard-R. Critics may not want to admit it, but they- and a lot of other people- don't want to see graphic rape scenes and compound fractures in a superhero movie. The violence in Watchmen is frickin' brutal, and Snyder lingers on the gore a bit too long for most people's liking.

I appreciated the ironic quality of it- for 70 years superhero comic books have sold a bloodless kind of ultraviolence and a distinctly variant sexuality without the bodily fluids. Snyder rips away the censor's bar and shows you what is really resonating in the subconscious, particularly with the Golden Age comics that Moore was taking the piss out of.

Another strike against Watchmen is the lack of A-list stars. People tend to harsh on genre movies if they don't do gangbusters, but stars still open a movie, especially with an extremely esoteric quantity like Watchmen. Jackie Earle Haley was a bit hammy, a bit scene-chewy, but overall I thought the acting was solid. I read some not-nice things about Malin Akerman which I was mystified about, especially since she's so insanely hot. Carla Gugino didn't really pull off the aging-drunk bit, but she didn't disgrace herself either.

Another criticism was that Snyder was over-faithul to the source material, but there's a damned if you do, damned if you don't proposition if ever there was one. IMO, he cut all of the right stuff out, and the denouement of Ozymandias' plot made a lot more narrative sense than it did in the comics. Snyder also did a great job recreating the visual magic that have made comics so compelling for so long. Particularly in the titles, which you can see for yourself up top. Strangely enough, it was when the Watchmen comics came out that I really began to see superheroes and comic books as destined to diverge, and it took 20-odd years of digital processing advancements to complete that process. Maybe the bean-counters ain't feeling it yet, but Watchmen proves that superheroes belong on the screen.

As to the Synchromysticism or whatever, this is an Alan Moore story. There's no difference between text and subtext (well, maybe a bit of difference, as this writer claims). On a more macro level, Watchmen is just another upping in the ante of this process of manifesting the Ubermenschen, for lack of a much better term. Two great geek obsessions- superheroes and digital technology- are converging into a new kind of apotheosis that will eventually transform movies into something even Welles would never have anticipated.

It was a truism that comics did a lot of things well, but did superheroes best. I don't think that's true anymore. Comics are much more suited to quieter and more intimate kinds of stories (Allison Bechdel's The Fun Home is a perfect example) while superheroes and related genres make digital storytelling truly come to life. It's become difficult for me to retreat back into that comic book reality after seeing films like Watchmen and Iron Man or cartoons like Justice League or the Doctor Strange DVD, apart from the old school comics I've already acclimated myself to.

There's a much more important issue at work here: The more compelling and immersive these scifi and superhero tableaus become onscreen, the less satisfied the younger generations are going to be with our present limitations- gravity, mortality, assorted laws of physics, you name it. Whether this will result in a transhumanist revolution or a revolution in which the boundaries between mundane reality and virtual reality are blurred- or even erased- remains to be seen.

The point is that this- right now- is the Golden Age of Mythology,
because we are nearing a point where we will have the tools to make those myths come true. Once we cross that line, the myths might not seem so important anymore.

UPDATE: Thoth Pavel links us to a great interview with Alan Moore.

A quick side note on that train of thought: Scientists now believe that alien abduction phenomena is the result of sleep paralysis, usually preceded by a feeling of being shocked or electrocuted. That's all well and good, but what if the resulting narrative isn't the result of cultural conditioning but in fact the reflection of a reality - a kind of alien virtual reality. As we evolve alongside our technology, will we bother to physically travel to distant stars, or stay safe at home and send digital recreations of ourselves via remote satellite or even truly esoteric technology like neutrino beams? If we can conceive it, how can we say someone else hasn't acheived it?