This Is Not The Superhero Film You Were Looking For

In retrospect, the sturm und drang over whether the Watchmen was any good or not (as a film based on the graphic novel) made us lose sight of what it actually was—a story that’s at least meant to satirize the spectacle that is the costumed hero and the superhuman, using superheroes to comment on the human condition. I liked it well enough visually, and thought many things were rendered well, but watching it, I felt sure that Zack Snyder hadn’t… understood what the book was about, even if he did like it.

A truly slavish adaptation would have been better, if 4 or 5 hours long—and would have included the Black Freighter story, released as a kind of special feature the week the film went out, and which had no intrinsic value on its own. “Am I supposed to bring it into the film and watch it on my hand-held at the appropriate moments,” I remember complaining to a friend who understood, and shook his head at the idea also. The film that came out was anything but a slavish adaptation—it was a hammy, unironic imitation of what the book meant to critique. The Watchmen wasn’t supposed to be a spectacle on the scale of last year’s Iron Man, and so I knew there was a problem when it was billed to us as if it would be. The original comic pulls the very idea of Iron Man apart critically, even as it reaches towards a very earnest ending.

To be clear, the Black Freighter storyline, in the comic, functioned as a narrative intervention that also enlivened the narrative at the same time. In the comments section of various reviews, people arguing about this have complained that The Black Freighter takes them out of the story but…it’s supposed to, as a way to make the story about something larger. The Watchmen as a comic is a fragmented narrative, and the purpose of fragmenting a narrative is to break the it into pieces so it can fit around something much larger than what a facile whole narrative can contain. It implies more than it describes as a result, and the reader, when this is successful, feels the touch of something greater than the story can provide otherwise.

With this fragmentation removed from the story, the satirical aspects collapse and fall away, and the faux-naive story it became comes forward. And thus, all was quite literally lost.

Also, in all the noise from critics about how being so slavish to the book the film was destroyed–a conversation that tried to pin what was bad about the film on fanboys instead of on the people who actually made the film–what went missing was that the film was actually another case where Zack Snyder evacuated the book’s content and inserted a narrative that is about his love of the male figure and his anxiety about openly gay men.

Coming up next, Scott Pilgrim Vs. The World promises to be one of the best comic-to-film adaptations yet. Directed by Edgar Wright, the director of Hot Fuzz and Shaun of the Dead, two of my favorite films ever, the story is in basically the most perfect hands it could have found. The Scott Pilgrim comics are a meatloaf of everything you could think of in pop culture: indie music, kung fu films, video games and D&D. Scott runs into “save points” at various times throughout the book, has to fight and defeat his love interest’s 8 evil exes in order to date her, and when he wins these battles receives mysterious piles of spare change, much like how in a video game you receive points you can spend as money after vanquishing a foe. At one point, a bonus is a Mithril Skateboard, which vanishes when Scott lacks the skills to use it. The Scott Pilgrim story is also drawn like a Manga comic, and yet features such real-life crises as room-mate drama, and what to do when you don’t have enough money for the bus. Or how to handle it when  your evil ex-girlfriend becomes a huge star.

Scott Pilgrim also does what The Watchmen did–uses superheroes to comment on the human condition–but it does so with humor, not moralizing, and the result is that amid what seem like colossally vapid stories, some hilarious and yet breathtaking truths about life emerge. When I teach The Watchmen, I teach it to my students as a forerunner, something that at the time was a pioneer, and that in retrospect seems a little leaden. And part of the problem with how posterity treats such things is that you can’t imagine what life was like before this or that book altered our consciousness forever. The terrible irony of the Watchmen film now is that something made during the Iran-Contra era and meant to comment on it–especially the idea that millions of human lives could be the “cost of doing business”, or that national security programs often leave us less safe rather than more so–comes out at a time when it is both most needed and least wanted as a vision of how we live now. And so the glossy toothless apparition is dismissed, and the message of it, lost to the audiences who only ever will see the film. But it is also true, I think, that the Scott Pilgrim comics are the wacky great-grandchildren of The Watchmen.

Next up for Wright is… Ant-Man.


  1. Everyone I’ve spoken to who loves the original graphic novel has said something to this effect. I enjoyed a moment of elucidating frisson upon reading “the film was actually another case where Zack Snyder evacuated the book’s content and inserted a narrative that is about his love of the male figure and his anxiety about openly gay men.” Oh yes, yes, yes, it IS. The fight scenes were shot with such a voyeuristic eye, which may reveal Snyder’s obsessions/anxieties but totally corrupted the meaning of the original text.

  2. Having started reading comics in the ’90’s, I could get that bludgeoning from Marvel/DC. (not being a diehard fan of the original comic, I still winced inside when they tossed off a ‘cameo’ of the newspaper vendor and the kid reading the Black Freighter comic at the end-like we were supposed to satisfied with that nub of a bone.) Recently reading bits of the Age of Apocalypse storyline (Watchmen’s neutered cousin?) again proved nostalgic and ghastly-I thought this was the apex of comics why? Though I’ve always been a sucker for What If?/Elseworld stories.
    Checkout Alan Moore’s Top Ten comics (the first two graphic novels and prequel by him and Gene Ha)-a wonderfully entertaining romp of superhero cops policing a megatropolis where everyone has super powers. It’s densely eye popping just to look at, the characters are intricately drawn in gray areas, and I still wonder if the end to the first two tradepaperbacks was a nod to two rather well known gay artists.

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