Fans of graphic novels have been trying for years to convince me of the medium’s merits. Try as I might, though, I’m afraid I can’t shake off my prejudice that a comic book in the hands of a grown-up is a sign of arrested emotional and intellectual development.
But Alan Moore is different, the fans insist. He has elevated the form to a different plane.
Having sat through The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen, From Hell and V for Vendetta in the cinema, all adapted from Moore’s oeuvre, I remain unconvinced, and even less likely to want to pick up any of his books.
But the fanboys still demur: those films were botch jobs; Moore disowned them. Watchmen, the “Citizen Kane of graphic novels”, is his masterpiece.
Could the Watchmen cheerleaders be guilty of overselling? When one of Moore’s fans asserts that Watchmen is “one of the greatest pieces of literature ever produced”, the only sane reaction is to write this off as the verdict of someone unaccustomed to reading books that don’t come with pictures.
(Yes, I do know that Time magazine included Moore’s opus in their 100 best English-language novels of the past 80-odd years.)
And when it comes to a film version, well, for those who’ve been looking forward to a Watchmen movie almost from the day it was originally published (by DC Comics in 12 issues from 1986 to 87), the omens haven’t looked good.
First there’s the string of esteemed filmmakers – including Terry Gilliam, Darren Aronofsky and Paul Greengrass – who have tried and failed over the years to get their own cherished Watchmen projects off the ground. And then there are all those who’ve been saying all the time that the whole enterprise is fundamentally misguided: Watchmen is unfilmable.
Moore, it goes without saying, has disowned the project, his name as eerily absent from the movie’s publicity as a victim of Stalin’s purges who’s been airbrushed from photographs. When it comes to the film’s credits, only illustrator Dave Gibbons’s name appears, oddly alone, as Watchmen’s “co-creator”.
So the chances of my getting a fair appraisal of Moore’s genius from the new film would appear to be pretty slim.
Yet the fanboys who have seen the movie are already raving about how faithful it is to Moore’s vision – in fact, some have even suggested that what will annoy the notoriously testy writer the most is that the film actually improves on his ending…
But to get to the beginning: Snyder’s Watchmen, like its source, is set in an alternative 1985 America in which costumed superheroes have been part of the landscape for decades but have more recently been shunned by society and outlawed. Worse is in store for the superhero fraternity, and when retired vigilante Edward Blake, aka The Comedian (Jeffrey Dean Morgan), gets thrown through a window to his death, his onetime colleague Walter Kovacs, aka Rorschach (Jackie Earle Haley), reckons a conspiracy is afoot and sets about warning his former comrades of the danger they face.
Meanwhile, the Cold War between the US and the Soviet Union is getting hotter and the world teeters on the brink of nuclear Armageddon…
In Snyder’s hands, all this is spectacular – and spectacularly silly. Things kick off well, though. Snyder pulls off Moore’s bleakly cynical counterfactual history with panache: the extended montage sequence that opens the movie runs through the Watchmen’s post WWII origins and chronology, dropping in the news that Nixon is still in power and the US won the Vietnam War, thanks to the help of the glowing blue Superman-like Dr Manhattan (the only one of the Watchmen to possess real super powers, courtesy of a laboratory accident). Oh, and The Comedian was the gunman on the grassy knoll in the Kennedy assassination.
This is clever and darkly amusing, for a while, but as the story goes through its endless convolutions, backtracking and sidestepping along the way, you need to have a fair bit of emotional investment in the characters to stay the course over a bum-numbing 162 minutes.
Moore’s great innovation, according to his devotees, was to portray superheroes as flawed and troubled, and even more dangerous to society than the bad guys, but two decades later this now seems old hat. Arriving in the cinemas in the wake of The Dark Knight, Watchmen can’t help looking belated.
Where the movie does raise the bar, though, is in the depiction of comic-book violence, which is sickeningly vicious.
For all Moore’s efforts to subvert the superhero genre, and show up its latent vigilantism, his work still appeals to the adolescent mindset that fantasises about having kick-ass powers and taking revenge on all bullies.
At the packed screening I attended, the biggest cheer came when the weedy-looking, former abused child Kovacs/Rorschach, banged up in prison, tells the hulking convicts who surround him: “I’m not locked in here with you. You’re locked in here with me!” Sure enough, it’s not long before he’s proving himself the biggest badass around.
The paranoid Rorschach, his face hidden by an inkblot mask that constantly changes form, is the film’s most interesting character, a bitter gumshoe for an even more tarnished world than the one Bogie inhabited. And Haley’s is by far the best performance. But Malin Akerman and Patrick Wilson are disappointingly bland as second-generation heroes Silk Spectre II and Nite Owl II. As for Matthew Goode, last seen on screen in the rarefied world of Brideshead Revisited, he looks distinctly ill at ease in superhero Spandex and seems far too spindly and ineffectual to pull off the character of Adrian Veidt, aka Ozymandias, the “smartest man on the planet”.
After nearly three hours in their company, I was no nearer to being won over to the world of graphic novels. Despite Snyder’s best efforts, Watchmen had, for me, singularly failed to live up to its billing as the Citizen Kane or Moby Dick of comic books. Moore may have attempted to give greater depth and complexity to comic-book characters, but up on screen they still look pretty two-dimensional to me.
To activate the sound in the trailer: hold your cursor over screen to reveal the control panel and click on the volume control in the bottom right-hand corner.