Monday, March 09, 2009


No Moore Is Less

SPOILER ALERT:  Rather than ruin the enjoyment of the first wave of folks who flocked to see Watchmen, I decided to hold off on my impressions on the film until after the opening weekend.  The following is written under the assumption that most of my readers have some familiarity with the original comic book/graphic novel.  If you do, you will have no problem understanding the points I raise in this semi-review.  If you don't, I apologize in advance, but you might be wary of some plot points that get referenced here. 

Alan Moore was right.

As good as Watchmen may be -- and it is quite good -- it suffers from what is *not* there.

The man most obviously "not" there is Moore, the graphic novel's true creative genius and the writer responsible for most of Rohrshach's memorable lines. No slight meant to Dave Gibbons, whose art rightly influences director Zack Snyder's visual dynamic.

Moore removed his name from the film for two reasons: First, he believes DC Comics, owned by Time Warner, misled him into sign a contract asserting that all rights to Watchmen would revert to Moore and Gibbons when the work went out of print.

Not a bad contract to sign in 1985 when trade paperback compilations of comic books were not as ubiquitous as they are now. Point being, Watchmen never went out of print. Indeed, the trade was the best selling comic book compilation -- of 2008!

Moore thinks DC/Warner Bros. ripped him off and thus doesn't want anything to do with Watchmen.

But there is a secondary reason why the film is credited as, "Based on the comic book co-created by artist Dave Gibbons." (A credit that screams out for who the other co-creator was.)

Moore believes the comic book medium is sui generis -- that the stories can't and shouldn't be adapted to other media. That's why he also took his name off of the adaptation of V For Vendetta. Moore notes that comics are made for easy referring back to earlier panels and pages. That's probably one reason why each issue of Watchmen was packed with additional Moore-written material designed to draw the reader into the alternative universe Moore had created.

The writer wouldn't admit it, but what he did was anticipate (by more than a decade) the sort of "extras" that are de rigeur for DVD releases today. Indeed, DVD or DVR players (more so than VCRs) do actually give viewers the "flip-back" capability that approximates the comic book experience.

That said, Zack Snyder ultimately fails because in remaining almost letter-perfect to Moore's literal vision, he loses a vital part of the spirit of the original work.

Watchmen wasn't merely a re-imagining of the superhero genre for modern, darker times, it was also a political work -- assessing how "superpowers" operate in the complex, muddled 1980s ("superpowers"? get it?). With a Cold War backdrop, Richard Nixon still president (because Dr. Manhattan helped America win the Vietnam War and Watergate never happened), the potency of the politics can't be ignored.

But these stakes are minor in Snyder's film, whereas they were important elements to the story in its original 1986 release. Rather than the alternate look at a then-contemporary time it was, in 2009, Watchmen becomes an historical look at an alternate universe.   That makes a world of difference.

Indeed, Snyder errs in the exact opposite direction of the last adaptation of a Moore's '80s work -- 2005's V For Vendetta. There, the Wachowski Brothers overdid it in trying to attach post-9/11 America into Moore's "V"mythology. It was an imperfect fit -- not the least because, as Moore said, "V" was influenced by Thatcher's England, not George W. Bush's post-9/11 Ameria. Moore became so incensed by producer Joel Silver's implication that he had "blessed" the "Vendetta" script that Moore quit working for DC's "Wildstorm" imprint. 

But at least the Wachowski brothers realized the importance of updating the socio-political context of a Moore work. Snyder doesn't and thus Watchmen just comes up a little short. While Snyder made the creative choice to change the ending, the truly bold option would have been to change the temporal setting.  Moving the story up by two decades, close to the present day, would have been risky but also raised the stakes for the reader -- exactly as was done originally.  

Again, it would have been a major risk -- and potentailly incurred the wrath of fanboys of all ages.  But making a radical departure from Moore's orignial concept, Snyder might actually succeeded in capturing the original vision.  

Which forces one to conclude that -- at least with respect to his work -- Alan Moore was right: Certain comic books really are works unto themselves. One might come close to capturing Moore's special craft and genius, but that's as far as it'l go

But on the very bright side, Watchmen is no League of Extraordinary Gentlemen.

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