With the somewhat recent release of The Watchmen, a film based on the mid-eighties comic book series created by Alan Moore, I got to thinking about the evolution of films adapted from comic books and graphic novels. This film, the latest installment in a long and distinguished line, undoubtedly ranks among the best of its kind (in my opinion, the best so far – no question). Considering the content and the themes of the film, however, Superman would be spinning in his grave if only someone could figure out a way to kill him and make it stick; maybe make the grave out of kryptonite and just to let him spin around a bit - that’s how far this film pushes the envelope. It’s closest predecessor, Sin City, contains more violence and about the same amount of sex, maybe a little more, but, it comes no where near broaching the themes fundamental to Watchmen. The most recent in the extensive collection of Batman movies, The Dark Knight, also raises disturbing questions but, both it and Sin City consist essentially of a morbid look at the dark underbelly of fictionalized urban settings resulting in graphic, violent and, sexual scenarios which inevitably lead to a bleak reflection upon human nature and the state of humanity. Although crime-ridden city streets start out as the problem in Watchmen, things become infinitely more complicated.
With the creator, Moore, and his original illustrator signed on, the screenplay remains as true as possible to the original comics and graphic novels. The plot surrounds several retired superheroes following the unlikely murder of an old crewmember. Although super heroes have fought crime since the 40s, the Cold War and nuclear proliferation pose bigger problems (especially for heroes with limited capacities - the powers of incredible strength and masterful fighting abilities; basically Bruce Lee in a spandex jumpsuit). That is except for Dr. Manhattan, who may be a god. With almighty weapons and entities in the mix, themes of relativistic atheism and post-postmodern dread almost inevitably rise to the surface. What’s more, the all-too-human nature of several heroes shrouds the moral standards of the protagonists in an uneasy, unresolved ambiguity (it goes substantially further than the callous but noble stereotype exemplified by Batman or Hell Boy). Needless to say, it gets complicated.
Director Zack Snyder (300 and the remake of Dawn of the Dead), an apt director in light of the content noted above, continues his legacy of pristine, slow-motion-savvy filmmaking (i.e. 300) with incredibly dynamic shots - most notably, a montage of nearly still frame shots in which the contents move very slightly in slow motion. The effect of these shots is best described as the wet-dream of the Ken Burns effect (slowly zooming into photographs and documents in an attempt to animate an otherwise still frame); like the moving photos in Harry Potter but, much slower, more subtle, and aesthetically pleasing from a cinematic viewpoint. Unsurprisingly, Snyder makes further use of slow motion and airtight effects to impressively heighten important action sequences.
Everyone enjoys a good, solid super hero movie but, Superman, Spiderman, Ironman, Batman, the Punisher, and Daredevil (among many others) represent only the cheesy, goody-goody protagonists of the comic book world (that isn’t to say the Punisher is exactly nice). Even the Hulk, Ghost Rider, Spawn, and Hell Boy, who get into some difficult moral territory due to the nature of their superpowers (technically Spawn and Ghost Rider work for the devil and, to a certain extent, Hell Boy is the devil), still remain innately good characters. The X-Men series makes everything extremely complicated in that mutants change sides, political and military action causes riffs, new mutants foster new agendas, etc. but, for the most part, one side, headed by Professor Xavier, has generally good intentions, and the other side has intentions hinging upon the notion that the ends justify the means (bad intentions). The world in which the Watchmen live has good guys, the super heroes, and bad guys, the villains, but, after a decade of retirement, the lines begin to blur, their relatively sturdy moral foundation falters, and, all the while, the world sits on the brink of nuclear holocaust. The prospect of dynamic characters and compelling themes has only recently broached this sub-genre of films. The Watchmen makes a great deal of progress at raising the bar that much further, which is probably why it’s three hours long.