Saturday, May 2, 2009

Watchmen Rewound

I watched Zack Snyder's Watchmen[1] in a theater, alone, on the third weekend of its release along with a single stranger sitting rows and seats away. Given the box-office fallout[2] after the second weekend, it was appropriate that the venue was a five-screen "arts"[3] instead of a fifteen-screen "plex" theater.

What I knew going in about the movie was that it took place in a parallel-1980s world where: the US won the Vietnam war; Watergate didn't happen; the Twenty-Second Amendment had been repealed (allowing Richard Nixon a third and fourth terms); and there was some sort of big blue muscle-bound superhero saving America by speaking softly and swinging a big stick.

I had glanced through the "graphic novel" based on the quarter-century old comic strips of the same name in a bookstore before seeing the movie, but had no real interest in reading it. Turns out, there was no point in doing so. The movie stands perfectly on its own, and its adherence to or deviance from the book is irrelevant in judging the merits of the film.

The first realization is that it isn't a superhero-genre movie — like Spider-Man, Batman, or even X-Men — at all. It's a deft deconstruction of the entire genre of Superheroism (i.e., proxy Gods) and its entanglement with American-wayism. (What else do you make of the soft spoken Dr. Manhattan — the aforementioned muscle-bound blue man — winning the hearts of the American people by blowing up as many Vietnamese as he can?) It makes all of those other movies look ridiculous now. Not like a comedy spoof, as I suppose Superhero Movie[4] was supposed to be (though Watchmen is severely, darkly comedic), but as a philosophical bulldozer razing American-hero iconography and morality. And, as pure cinematic art, it triumphs. "It is the superhero movies to end all superhero movies" is perhaps a good way to put it.

Perhaps that's why its could-be audiences have fled in droves — away from this movie. It's not just the "moral dilemma" posed by the killing a "few" tens of millions to save hundreds of millions - the movie uses that "ridiculous" plot diversion merely to reinforce its "superhero" and "making war is peace" deconstruction. The American audience wants its superhero the American-way, and when this myth is undermined — there were really no superheroes in the first place, and there never will be in the future — they are baffled and confused. (And it's perhaps, being a "student" of Derrida[5] and Rorty[6], why I look forward to watching Watchmen again. And, given the box-office numbers, it should soon be out on DVD.)

Nietzsche's "Madman" said "God is dead. And we have killed him." Snyder's "Dr. Manhattan" says "Superheroes are dead. And we have killed them."

Like Rorschach's constantly morphing inkblot mask, Watchmen invites multiple "readings."