Superheroes have been such a dominant cinematic theme in the last decade that it’s cathartic to think how little we really know about what it might be like to be one exercise the choices that come with being a superhero, or be a citizen who has to live with one those choices.
We’ve seen a lot about how hard it is to be a super hero. But frankly, Peter Parker’s angst about getting a job and keeping a girlfriend are poor fare, not least because the “hero-with-problems” vein has been tapped continuously and iterated mercilessly since Stan Lee dreamed it up in the early 1960s.
Edgier updates like Iron Man tried to impose some geopolitical framework on its events before quickly reverting to predictable, stereotyped corporate greedsters as its foe-to-be-conquered.
No-one has contemplated what might happen if superheroes went beyond facing down the villain of the month and instead became tough on evil and tough on the causes of evil, instead of just battling its most recent manifestations.
The Watchmen film is set in an America in which society, from the President of the USA down, has had to confront what superheroes really mean, a theme plucked from the comic and amplified mightily, one of several re-emphases in the film script.
In the comic, the question “Who Watches the Watchmen” is used to demonstrate society’s questioning of vigilantes’ self-proclaimed duty and disgruntlement at lack of oversight of their activities. In the film, we are shown – forcibly – why the question needs to be asked, as the various heroes in the film choose to exercise expert and extreme violence to (as perceived by heroes) save society and (as perceived by the rest of us) feed their peculiar compulsions. Willing for themselves a role as source of justice in extreme times, the heroes peopling the film simply dare to hurt anyone inconvenient to their aims, be they extra-judicial, ego-maniacal or carnal.
Like most bullies, they get a lot of punches in before anyone has time to take umbrage and the response – when it comes – is hand-wringing about their uncivil behaviour.
By showing us how heroes serve whatever version of Law suits them at any moment, Watchmen asks viewers to think beyond how hard it would be to maintain a secret identity and instead ask themselves what they would do if they were Superman.
It doesn’t take long to realise that altruistically defending earth from crime would not interest someone with such a wide range of abilities. Nor would Superman, one imagines, permit himself to be happily adopted as an arm of the military.
Indeed, Alan Moore, writer of the Watchmen graphic novel, had fun early in his foray into American comics by portraying the Man of Steel as somewhat remote and detached, fascinated by the possibilities of counting the number of atoms in a room. That fascination with observing phenomena imperceptible to humans persisted into the Watchmen character of Dr Manhattan. It bleeds subtly into the film’s other heroic characters too, as they use their self-declared superness and martial prowess to claim that their perceptions of justice are derived from a privileged perceptual position unavailable to those unwilling to don a mask.
The culmination of this logic is that the mere act of claiming hero status somehow creates a mission to “save humanity.” This thinking’s impact on the plot delivers, at the film’s climax, a powerful insight into the laxness with which we have all afforded affection to superheroes. The insight is not expressed subtly. Indeed it is spelled out with a crassness not far short of “with great power comes great responsibility.” But it is an insight more powerful and rattling than those on offer in other films featuring costumed heroes and for that alone Watchmen deserves attention.
The excellent job of film-making does not hurt, either. Sets are lush and detailed. Action is energetic and ineluctably exciting. Acting is no worse than that in similar films. And some innovative montages and use of period music effectively advances the plot while also fixing the action in one of the many periods the film covers.
Fanboys have little to complain about, as much dialog is lifted from the graphic novel, while the film goes out of its way to replicate the book’s look and succeeds admirably. There are also nods-a-plenty to minor characters and moments from the book that fans have long-realised would require an intolerably lengthy production. Their inclusion shows how faithful an adaptation the film tries to be, within the limitations of the need to satisfy those for whom Watchmen is not a pre-sold concept.
As it is, the film clocks in at a challenging 163 minutes and asks a lot of the viewer. One hopes that newcomers to Watchmen are not told to expect either a superhero movie or an entirely conventional narrative. Viewers expecting either will struggle to be constantly amused.
Those willing to be asked searching questions about just why they filed into cinemas for so many other superhero films, the tipping point between heroism and villainy, or what it means to have and wield power, will be richly (and perhaps unsettlingly) rewarded.