At just under 3 hours the Watchmen movie is a thinking person’s film. Much of the story is taken up introducing the not so pristine characters and their psychological motivations. We learn why most became heroes and why many left the job. We are also asked to think about the world of vigilantism in more complex ways than is offered by people like Captain America or Superman. The heroes of the Watchmen world are rapists, murderers, ambivalent omniscients, drunks, and liars. And when they make decisions to intervene in the lives and affairs of the world, history changes and genocides are excused away. And yet, most of them are deeply committed to saving the world and the people who inhabit it.
Without giving too much away for those who have not read the graphic novels, the plot is basically that someone in their ranks is killing heroes and bringing the world to the brink of war in the process. In order to figure out who it is, the Watchmen must reunite and care about a world that has seldom cared about them.
The story unfolds in an alternate timeline in which Nixon has successfully changed the constitution and managed to remain the sitting president for 4 terms. The cold war is still raging between Russia and the U.S. and the fear of communism has resulted in a repressed and repressive society riddled with violence. And all of it is to blame on the intervention of Dr. Manhattan in the Vietnam war at Nixon’s request. Dr. Manhattan’s intervention prevented the pendulum swing in the U.S. that led to massive innovation and creativity and the development of a liberal consciousness. And while the movie does not mention this, such a move would also have prevented the militarization and consciousness raising of communities of color that ultimate led to movements like the Panthers, AIM, and the Brown Berets, and that means no second wave feminism and radical woc feminism either. Without those movements, or similar pushes for civil rights that appear to be put down by the Watchmen in the name of stability, another act of heroism gone array, there are no major civil rights changes in the U.S. Instead, the world is stuck in a 1950s like shrinking capsule whose release was permanently forestalled by an act of “heroism.”
Given the number of comic books that unfold during wars and posit the heroism of all American superheroes against the regular evils of fascist regimes, the centrality of the destructive nature of Dr. Manhattan’s nationalist intervention into war is a powerful one. And the destructive nature that comes with acts of superhuman heroism, whether unforeseen or excused away, is at the base of the plot. (It is also one of the critiques I levied at Iron Man‘s irresponsible use of violence against warlords in the villages in an unthinking act of vigilantism that gave no thought to what would happen to the villagers after he flew away. Guess what die hard fans of Iron Man, if I am stupid for questioning what happens when heroes don’t think about the consequences of their actions, then so are the writers of the Watchmen, one of the most well read graphic novels of its time.)
The moral questions the movie raise are ultimately resolved as unsatisfyingly, as they would be in real life. The one loyal and completely honest hero in the movie is killed because he alone thinks truth and freedom trump a manipulated peace. The wishy-washy “superhero,” who is part of the team because his dad left him money to build their equipment, and who spends most of his time afraid, in denial, or pining after Silk Spectre II, gets the girl; the man she really loves and who loves her leaves the planet in an unspoken punishment for what he has both wittingly and unwittingly done. And the gay window dressing mastermind of the team, Ozymandias, suffers no consequences for the genocides he has engineered to keep the world at peace or for the lives he has taken. Oft-overlooked, Silk Spectre I, is overlooked again when culpability comes down the wire even tho an interview at a bar near the end of the film proves she is pivotal.
Gender and Sexuality
As the story unfolds, we are given an insider’s look at what makes each character tick, except for Oz whose interior is left behind to give us a glaring picture of his present. And what is great about Oz’s present is the way it questions the commercialization of heroism and how that skews the perception of vigilante justice all the more.
Silk Spectre II is also less well fleshed out beyond her present relationship drama in which she desperately loves Dr. Manhattan but ultimately ends up in the arms of the imminently less heroic or interesting Night Owl II. It seems her entire moral dilemma and motivation boils down to “mother issues.” I’m not even sure what her particular powers are except to land on her feet when jumping out of an owl shaped plane and kick butt as good as the boys do. And honestly, I am a little sick of sexually exploitative images of women excused away because they can walk freely at night and kick ass without breaking a nail. I can do that too, but it doesn’t mean I have to do it in a Spandex swimsuit and platform thigh highs w/needlepoint heels; and if you’ve ever actually worn those shoes, you know how impossible that would be AND you recognize the irony in the rape scene in which the Comedian so skillfully manipulates those heels to try and get his way. (The Watchmen graphic novels clearly have a sense of humor about this that the film does not, since the first book in the series has Silk Spectre II meeting Night Owl II for dinner and immediately taking off her shoes to massage her feet. There is a moment in the movie when the same character laments her latex outfit by saying “I didn’t want to disappoint mom” but let’s be clear, mom isn’t the one dreaming of pinup girls nor changing Silk Spectre II’s drapy yellow dress in the comic book into a Fredrick’s of Hollywood knock off for the film.)
In an ironic turn that speaks to the handling of female characters in this new superhero-cinema world, not only are most of Silk Spectre II’s companions more complex than she is, but Rorschach is among them. His motivation: “mother issues.” Rorschach’s mother issues lead him down a dark road of vengeance on criminals who target women and girls. They have left him with no love for human beings but a profound sense of honesty and moral commitment to freedom. His mix of extreme violence and moral superiority soon spills over to acts of violence against anyone who threatens him regardless of the reason; while he still only beats up on criminals, sparing the doctor who helps incarcerate him for instance, his actions beg the question about why we condone violence against suspected or one time criminals from masked figures when we know our justice system does not always allow for justice.
Violence against women dots the entire film, as it does the comic book. Some of it is necessary in order to establish pivotal plot points, others are gratiuitous. Thus the Comedian shoots a pregnant Vietnamese woman through the belly, killing her and his unborn child, because she dares to hold him accountable. And while some will argue that this scene is to establish how depraved he is, the film includes an attempted rape scene, the shooting of innocent civilians in the back, and the assassination of JFK all by the Comedian’s hand. If that does not establish him as an unhinged megalomaniac in tights, then the fact everyone refers to him as one throughout the film should. There is no need for the violent murder of the pregnant woman; and while the long slow shot of her bleeding out on the floor while Dr. Manhattan contemplates the fragility of life above her, may accurately reflect the graphic novel neither is exempt from racialized misogyny b/c of it. While the attempted rape scene is essential to the plot, it also seems to run long just so the director can highlight another violent, superpower laden, beat down. Silk Spectre I’s complete inability to fight back is ridiculously reminiscent of the longheld belief in the comic world that female superheroes can only hold their own against female villains. If they are Superhuman than shouldn’t they be able to defend against regular humans? And if they have superpowers, shouldn’t they also be able to at least fight back with some success against others with superpowers? Shouldn’t Silk Spectre I be able to get in more than one good punch? These moments typify the genre more than they reflect a particular guilt of the Watchmen movie; while the director’s decisions are culpable in this film, the issue of misogyny in the genre is a much larger than this film.
A shorter, throw away scene involves dogs chewing on a little girl’s leg bone still socked and attached to little pink shoe and the tossing around of her soiled underpants. The discovery of her underwear in the fireplace and the bloody fat and meat infused cutting board that is clearly her remains were plenty to establish the depravity of the child abductor, just as the dogs fighting in the yard over a long thin bone was more than enough to tell us what they were eating. While the graphic novel may have illustrated these scenes in a similarly graphic fashion, it seems unnecessary in both film and novel format. The tossing around of her underwear in particular seemed callous and disrespectful.
The film also gets in some unnecessary digs at homosexuality. The theater of mostly men gasped when the opening montage included Silhouette grabbing a jubilant passerby and kissing her. Moments later when Silhouette was filleted on her bed with her lover, the word “whore” dripping down the wall behind them, written in her own blood, no one but me gasped. In a montage of violence against masked heroes by the human population, which highlighted both the violence of the human race and the uneasy tension between heroes and the population, the voice over blamed Silhouette for her own gay bashing. As the camera lingers over her bloody bed, Rorschach says, it was her own “disturbed lifestyle” that had done her in.
Prefacing The Comedian’s death with this array of misogyny makes it hard to stomach the mournful funeral scenes and the fact that he is the catalyst for the entire plot. At the same time, many of those scenes are necessary for the main tenants of the series to be played out, ie the issue of vigilantism as something that should be questioned even if it is done in an outfit and the toll of heroism on both heroes and the people they “save.” They are also critiqued by the female characters at various points in the film. There is no similar justification for the voice over on Silhouettes death. She could just as easily have been shown with a voice over about how the conservative backlash against heroes extended all the more to people on the margins. Such a statement would have raised the issue of civil rights movements that were stalled or non-existent in the parallel world because of the intervention of superheroes in human affairs. In so doing, it would have tied her more concretely to the plot at hand.
The graphic novel clearly included a lesbian character as heroic, so why include her in the film just to justify her brutal gay bashing? And no, the total window dressing that is Ozymandias does not make it any better, even if it is the ever lovely Matthew Goode under all that froo-froo. (update: According to someone who read the graphic novel – see the comment section- her lifestyle was not the motivation for her murder so this rings all the more homophobic and unnecessary. end update)
Mainstream movie critics have also noted the director’s ongoing tendency to fail to represent women as fully fledged characters in general in his movies. The evidence is not only in the decisions about how the women are portrayed or how long or how often misogyny is highlighted, but also in the basic marketing of the film. In this case not only do many of the television promos feature long shots of Silk Spectre II’s inner thighs or tight shot of her spandex and thigh highs where you can see the most skin or the accentuate curve of her bottom, but also posters like the one pictured to the left are designed to make her seem vacuous. Rather than being a “stupid girl” when she says this line in the film, Silk Spectre II is actually agreeing to go out on patrol, a plan she actually suggested; the result, is that she and Night Owl II save an entire apartment complex of children trapped in a burning building. In the poster at the start of this section she is pictured as self-absorbed. Yet, Silk Spectre II is much better off than the advertising for Silk Spectre I, which has Carla Gugino in fishnets holding a prisoner by a belt leash with the caption in an image reminiscent of Abu Ghraib photos except this time the sexualized body is the woman holding the leash. The image is both sexist and racist, and offensive given what we know about how leashes were wielded in the war in Iraq. (Subtle racism also dots this film by the way, including posters that remind us that there is still a famine in Africa and Vietnamese people worship Dr. M as a God – I guess superheroes cannot save backward brown people from their backwardness . . .)
Neither woman’s posters are as a sexist as the Comic-Con poster for Night Owl II. Patrick Wilson stands in full costume in front of the owl ship, adjusting his glove. Above him the caption reads
It’s all crap. Who needs all this hardware to catch hookers and purse snatchers?
The quote is lifted directly from the graphic novel, written in 1986. Thus the misogyny is partially the part of the film and partially embedded into the series itself. And I for one am concerned about the way the genre continues to cultivate a disdain for women amongst pre-teen boys and worse how it teaches them that being a man means treating women like objects and prizes. Shoot them when they mouth off.
On the brighter side, Silk Spectre II is also the one who says they need to save Rorschach, while his male companions are all willing to leave him in jail to rot or die. Her humanitarian act of loyalty is juxtaposed with a decision by Ozymandias, revealed at the end of the film, in which her decision is ultimately less humane. These two moments and their results once again reveal the complexity of what heroism actually means in the world of the Watchmen. Silk Spectre II’s decision also highlights once again her import to the plot despite the misogyny here.
Honestly, many of these complaints amount to fleeting moments in the film and advertising most consumers will never see. Both Silk Spectres are integral to the plot and Silk Spectre II has more positive screen time than most of the other characters. Despite the fact she and her mother spend time in skimpy outfits, both also spend a considerable amount of time clothed. And both have moments in the film where they express their sexual agency clearly and counter to dominant definition or the desires of the men in their lives. These positive aspects should not be overlooked simply because of both racialized and normative sexism in this film nor do these positives negate the offenses.
I’m sure the die hard fans are going to come a runnin’ with their name calling and their “its true to the graphic novel” comments like always. And like always, I say to you, cinema is a new media with the license to edit or depict material as it sees fit. There are ways to stay true to the basic tenets and plot of the genre without prolonging misogyny or promoting homophobia.
As the caliber of storytelling and cinematography gets better with each passing comic book film, I continue to hold out hope that the isms will slowly fade away. I write these reviews as a fan of the genre who knows where many of these stories come from and as a media professor who also knows how to tell them without bigotry unrelated to the plot. I believe that when pre-teen male comic book readers turned 30 something male comic directors confront their own investment in a certain kind of racialized masculinity this genre will kick on all of its cylinders. It is not a matter of PC politics or ignoring the era in which these heroes were first inked, especially since graphic novels like Wanted, Watchmen, 300, etc. are all contemporary and most of the genres icons, Batman, Superman, Spiderman, are still running in comic or graphic novel form today. Whether the misogyny originates on page or storyboard doesn’t make it any less problematic or necessary to confront and change. Given that the genre targets pree-teen boys, it is also important to their unlearning bigotry. One needs only look at the Bryan Singer X Men films or even Superman Returns to see how easy it is to produce a fan-driven, brilliant, entertaining and true to the original film in this genre that does not demean women, GLBTQ people, or people of color.
Characters and Conclusions
Ultimately, despite a little bit of a drag in the middle, and far too many endings, the film is interesting for both intellectual and special effects viewers. There are plenty of fights and cool costumes and sexual encounters that appeal to both male and female audiences. Most of the special effects are spot on, except I do wish someone would have introduced Snyder to a pair of black Calvin active boxer briefs, which actually do mirror those worn by Dr. Manhattan in the graphic novels, b/c those bikini briefs were only slightly more visually upsetting than when he is hanging free and running down hallways. Nobody needs to see the twig and berries or the black “thong diaper” as we dubbed it.
The characters are all compelling. From the minor to major roles every single actor in this film turns in a stellar performance. Special nods go to Crudup, Goode, and Haley who overcome facial feature skewing makeup and/or morally ambivalent characteristics in order to offer up characters the audience will remain invested in until the last shot. All three captivate on screen, and not just because of special effects. In lesser hands, Rorschach could never be the character who leads us into this world, but Haley infuses him with pathos and passion that cannot be ignored. Goode is hardly recognizable as Ozymandias and his turn in the film, punctuated by the appearance of that odd feline, is utterly unexpected for those who haven’t read it first. Goode is truly underrated as an actor who consistently chooses new characters to play, most of whom require a new body type, hair color, accent, etc. each time. Carla Gugino turns in one of the most subtle performances of her career; while her Silk Spectre I is still the boozy bombshell that has typified Gugino’s career (that and cops), this performance is just subtle enough that it is wrought with the necessary guilt and anguish to make it come alive. I also give her points for subtlety b/c no one sees her coming in the pivotal role she plays, which is sadly overlooked by the wrap up at the end. Worse, most critics seem to have forgotten her all together in order to focus on what they did not like about Malin Akerman’s performance or the Silk Spectre II character. I liked both, though I do think Silk Spectre II was largely reduced to “love interest.” While the love affair between Silk Spectre II and the Night Owl II is trite, the love affair between her and Dr. Manhattan is interesting. So even though a better director would have given us more well-rounded characters, both women are essential to the plot, and both do a fine job.
The storyline raises compelling questions about humanity, freedom, and heroism that no other film really has yet. It is closer in feel to the latest incarnation of Batman with acting as powerful and introspective as multiple characters in the Dark Night and Norton’s in Incredible Hulk. Yet Watchmen is surprisingly less gritty and more fantastical than both of those films. As someone who prefers the fantastical, this one gave me just the right amount of “comic book” feel.
While some critics have complained that the Director does not have a handle on the story, I tend to think the story was compelling and unfolded mostly at the right pace. If all you want is action, then you will think this movies runs long but in such a complex world, Snyder’s decision to focus on character development and slow reveal draws us into all of the aching souls that populate the Watchmen world. If I had any complaints about the plot/story, it is that we are not given more background on Ozymandias and that the non-stereotypical aspects of the female characters were not more prevalent.
Overall Watchmen signals a critical shift in the comic book/ graphic novel to film genre that can only mean better acting, plots, and yes, special effects.
- all images are movie stills from the Watchman film located at the website sited above unless indicated below; all images from that site are co. Warner Brothers Studios
- “Nixon” Watchmen movie still. Clay Enos/Warner Bros Pictures
- “The Comedian, Ozymandias, & the newspaper” Watchmen movie still. Clay Enos/Warner Bros Pictures
- “Night Owl II” Watchmen movie still. Clay Enos/Warner Bros Pictures
- Silk Spectre II: Comic-Con Poster. Watchmen Movie. Dir Zach Snyder. WB, 2009.
- Drawing of Silk Spectre I for the Watchmen movie. Artist James Jean. Watchmen Movie. Dir Zach Snyder. WB, 2009
- Apallonia Vanova as Silhouette. “Art of the Watchmen.” ugocomics.com
- Silk Spectre II: Watchmen Promotion Poster. Watchmen Movie. Dir Zach Snyder. WB, 2009
- Silk Spectre I: Comic-Con Poster. Watchmen Movie. Dir Zach Snyder. WB, 2009.
- X-Men movie still. X-Men Movie. Dir Bryan Singer. 2oth Century Fox, 2000
- Storyboard for Watchmen Movie. Dir Zach Snyder. WB, 2009