Nearly a year ago I was asked to write a comics piece as part of this magazine that was launching. Writing about the recently released Watchmen trailer seemed ideal. But then the magazine launch got pushed back and pushed back until this thing I wrote was no longer relevant (there was a minute where maybe I was going to revise it into something that would be relevant but at some point it just got too old). Here I am with a free Thursday slot and no requirement to be relevant -- I already talked about the ending of the Sopranos years after it happened here, and posted videos long after they made rotations on the internet. So here is this thing I wrote about Watchmen, in all of its 2008 the-trailer-just-came-out glory.
Watchmen is a comics masterpiece certainly, a literary masterpiece probably. It cannot be adapted for the screen because, as a masterpiece, it fully uses its medium and any adaptation is necessarily going to pervert that. It certainly cannot be adapted for film because it would require a huge budget AND a protagonist like the Night Owl who is overweight and more than a little sad. Blockbusters can do many things, but they cannot have unattractive people – or even reasonable looking people -- in leading roles. And yet it will be out in theatres March 9th.
Director Zack Synder’s earlier work on 300 does not provide much hope: as an adaptation it is claustrophobically faithful, a faith that ironically turns the unleashed stylistic evolution of Frank Miller’s original comic book into frozen, uninspiring videogame CGI. Watchmen artist Dave Gibbons has said he is pleased adaptation, but one look at the color palate of the film – dark and rich where the comic book is intentionally washed out – tells you immediately that this is not Watchmen.
And yet. The Watchmen trailer, released in front of Dark Knight, is absolutely hypnotic. Watchmen cannot be adapted, but the Watchmen film might succeed in its own right.
Watchmen is a densely allusive comic book. The first Night Owl began fighting crime in 1939. It is no coincidence that this is the year of the first Batman comic. Comic book audiences are very knowledgeable, and can be expected to pick up on that. Film-goers cannot. The audience for the film to make money must be so large that they cannot even be expected to have read a single comic book. And yet the trailer confirms that the allusive quality of the comic book will not be lost.
Ozymandius’s outfit is clearly inspired by the S and M gear of Shumacher’s Batman – to the point of replicating the famous “bat nipples” that have become emblematic of that movie’s critical failure. The comic book cannot give Rorshach a voice, but the trailer has given him a smart one: Christian Bale’s annoying Batman growl, that we will hear in just a moment, when the Dark Knight begins.
The Smashing Pumpkins song “The End is the Beginning is the End” was released on the Batman and Robin soundtrack and was commissioned with the film in mind: Corgan said, “I wasn't talking about myself or trying to represent the Smashing Pumpkins. I was trying to represent Batman.” When the song was released on a compilation, three other versions were included, including one called “The Beginning is the End is the Beginning,” which was sadder and had different lyrics. It is this song that appears on the Watchmen trailer.
The trailer alone draws on comic book movies the way Alan Moore’s original draws on comic books. And the fact that the Smashing Pumpkins song – whose listener traffic is up 2636% on Last.fm – is a remix is exactly right: Moore’s original comic book is not just a grab-bag of references, it is a revisionary work that takes comic book history – often alluding to a chain of elements that have changed across time -- and twists it into a new whole, remixes it. “And now the kingdom comes” is an obvious enough lyric, but it also cannot help but remind those in the know of one of Watchmen’s primary inheritors. And like Moore’s Watchmen the trailer draws often on those aspects of superhero film history that have failed, hopefully because like Watchmen, its aim is to correct, to guide, to revise. The trailer’s assertion that Snyder is a “visionary” director is absurd, but if he can be re-visionary he will succeed beyond measure.
And the effect of the trailer for movie audiences is analogous to the effect of the comic book. There is something immensely disturbing about the way that UFO looking thing – as Night Owl’s ship must appear to someone that does not know what it is – rising out of the water at night in front of the Twin Towers to the opening lyrics of the song: “Send a heartbeat to the void that cries through you.” That “void” is an angst-y dramatic – blockbuster-y – way of capturing what Moore’s comic book is all about: the fullness of the superhero genre emptied out into something far more human. In the trailer this appears as a superhero funeral, involvement in the Vietnam war, an electric blue man appearing in cafeteria, someone with super-strength punching a mantelpiece, and protesters. As the song continues we do “relive the pictures that have come to pass” but just as Moore’s comic book does, the building blocks of a superhero universe appear as something “strange” (the repeated word on which the song ends). “The world is lost and blown and we are flesh and blood” has to appear as something different in a blockbuster than in a comic book (where being merely flesh and blood often means being quite pathetic and small), but the elements are there. The horror of “the world will look up and shout ‘save us.’ And I’ll whisper ‘no’” appears freshly, surrounded by a theater of people trying to reconcile the line – the trailer’s only alongside “God help us” -- with the superhero imagery, warped though it may be.
The Watchmen trailer inspires cautious optimism because it indicates that someone over there understands how the comic works, and is actually thinking that through for the screen.
(Thanks to Mich Montgomery for bringing the bat-nipples to my attention, David Fiore for the statistic on the song, and Brad Winderbaum for letting me know where the song originally appeared).