To see Watchmen, or not to see Watchmen?

Pro: it sounds kind of cool, it’s part of the zeitgeist that I’m missing, P.Z. liked it, I’m never going to read the damn comic book because I’m incapable of reading comic books (the lurid drawings are too much of a distraction from the text), I’ll finally get all the references to shit.

Con: it’s gotten some terrible reviews, I’ll probably have to go see it by myself because all my friends who are the sort of people who would want to see it are also the sort of people who would go on the first night, it is, after all, a movie made from a comic book, and every hopeless or obnoxious or just completely irredeemable person I know loves said comic book, which cannot be a good sign, and I’d also like to snub the whole thing just to spite them.

(Unrelatedly, I know I’m behind in responding to some arguments in the comments. It’s been a long few days. I’m also terribly behind on various pieces of e-mail correspondence. Yikes.)


19 Responses to “To see Watchmen, or not to see Watchmen?”

  1. MattJ Says:

    No, don’t give in, resist! Reading the much-quoted Anthony Lane is more than enough.

  2. Paul Gowder Says:

    Oh, I hadn’t read the Lane review before. That’s harsh, and very effective. I feel the temptation to watch this thing slipping away, thank you Matt.

    These takedowns are particularly full of win:

    There is Dan (Patrick Wilson), better known as Nite Owl, who keeps his old superhero outfit, rubbery and sharp-eared, locked away in his basement, presumably for fear of being sued for plagiarism by Bruce Wayne.

    There is Laurie, who goes by the sobriquet of Silk Spectre, as if hoping to become a top-class shampoo; she is played by Malin Akerman, whose line readings suggest that she is slightly defeated by the pressure of pretending to be one person, let alone two.

    “Watchmen,” like “V for Vendetta,” harbors ambitions of political satire, and, to be fair, it should meet the needs of any leering nineteen-year-old who believes that America is ruled by the military-industrial complex, and whose deepest fear—deeper even than that of meeting a woman who requests intelligent conversation—is that the Warren Commission may have been right all along.

    I may have to start reading at least the Laneish bits of the New Yorker (even if none of the rest).

  3. Jason W. Says:

    Anthony Lane is consistently the best part of every issue he’s in. And he’s dead-on about Malin Akerman, who was awful.

    That said, his anti-comics stance is distasteful. His inability to recognize the power of books like Watchmen alongside Maus and Persepolis is unfortunate, and likely renders him the wrong person to review this movie. Much of his review strikes me as more of a review of the book than the movie, which is, I suppose, one way to approach the film if you insist on reviewing it in isolation, rather than in its context as an adaptation of a beloved work.

    His review is also undermined by little factual errors that call into question how much attention he was paying. (e.g. which term Nixon was in; whether the other “heroes” have powers or not)

    I don’t mean to say that it’s a great movie, by any means. It is, however, a better attempt to ask the sort of large political and human questions that “speculative fiction” aims to ask than anything of recent vintage this side of Battlestar Galactica.

  4. Jason W. Says:

    FWIW, James Grimmelmann just posted his review, and I think he’s almost exactly right.

  5. Paul Gowder Says:

    As I post this comment, I’m sitting in a barnes and noble with the comic book by my side. I made it through 19 pages before the urge to suicide became too strong, and that skimming. That page 1 starts with some murderously overwritten diarism from a sociopath blithering on about vermin, whores, politicians, communists, vegetarians, liberals, rock music fans, and Kids Today did not help. But even out of that character the writing is unbearable. Comic book writers, if they must do the whole damned thing in dialogue, should at least learn, you know, how to write dialogue. Blah blah blahbladadeblah. Lane strikes me as the only sensible person on all of this.

    I did like that one sandman where the cats dreamed their way to global domination though. How come there’s no movie of that?

  6. Ed Says:

    I’m with you Gowder. That comic book (it’s a comic book not a graphic novel) is way overrated. The whole thing is turgid, tired and cynical romp. The stuff that Moore did with Batman is better.

  7. Steve M. Says:

    “Metaphysical vulgarity” is an excellent phrase.

  8. Jason W. Says:

    Ed: please enlighten us on the distinction between graphic novels and comic books.

  9. Matt Says:

    Back when I used to regularly read comic books people would distinguish between regular comic books, graphic novels, and trade paperbacks. Regular comics came out serially, usually once a month, in issues of about 30 pages. Graphic novels were usually one-shot things, bigger (not just thinker, usually, but taller and wider, too), and were stand-alone volumes most of the time. Trade paperbacks collected certain runs of a comic and published them all in one book. On this formulation Watchmen was a limited series comic book that was collected into a trade paperback. My impression, though, is that this terminology has broken down pretty heavily and people use “graphic novel” where they would have used “trade paperback” in the past.

    Paul- I won’t say whether you should like it or not, but I think you’ve pretty clearly missed the point, probably via some fairly uncharitable reading.

    The Lane review was awful. I haven’t seen them movie, and I’m more than willing to think it will be bad. I probably won’t see it. (I don’t see many movies in the theater.) But many points where he thinks he’s being clever he’s just showing that he really has no idea what he’s talking about, because he knows nothing about the subject matter. Now, maybe the subject matter isn’t worth knowing about, but that’s a different point. The passage you quote is a good example. He thinks he’s being clever but the joke is on him- the point he thinks he’s smart for pointing out is obvious to anyone modestly familiar with the subject matter, and has a much more subtle and interesting point that he completely misses. His review of full of things like that. That doesn’t mean it’s a good movie or you should see it (again, I probably won’t) but it really was a moronic review. See the discussion here for more:

  10. Jason W. Says:

    Matt basically makes the point I was pondering how to make this morning re: Paul’s reading of the comic. Moore was working within an historical context and genre that drove a lot of his choices, the style of dialogue included. The point is to take those tropes and twist them to his own end. (e.g. that sociopath? He’s one of the good guys. (Well, to the extent there are good guys when there aren’t really any bad guys involved.))

    Again echoing Matt, this doesn’t make you wrong for not enjoying the book, but I think you ought to at least recognize that the things you’re criticizing were done intentionally.

  11. Paul Gowder Says:

    Wait, SEK’s thing is supposed to be a defense of Watchmen? Because it & comments read like pure and unadulterated snobbery and the celebration of literary narrowcasting for its own sake. For example, SEK quotes the passage from Lane’s review about “Nite Owl,” casually tossing it off as proof of Lane’s “missing the point” without bothering to say what, precisely, the point was. Are his readers, the enlightened comic-intelligensia, supposed to divine the point that Lane missed directly from Lane’s own words?

    SEK’s crime against the readers (deliberate obscurity) parallels many of Moore’s own, if SEK’s account is to be believed: on that account, all the artistic virtue of Watchmen is in playing with the conventions of comics. Which is great, fine and dandy, but why is this being pitched as something for a universal audience? Why is it being turned into a movie if it has no general narrative virtues (and I’m sorry, but the writing, at least in the 19 pages I read plus the bit at the end I skimmed looking for the squid, is just objectively bad, qua writing), just clever things with panel changes? In what sense does that material have “power?”

    That sort of snobbery just drips out of SEK’s post. My favorite line:

    The average reader cannot follow the narrative complexity of a William Gaddis novel because it depends too heavily on a Jamesian ear for vocal peculiarities. But the value of a Gaddis novel is not solely located in the virtuoso performances of its author: the complexity created by the overlapping narratives produces a more Talmudic world. No statement exists in isolation. Every comment is a commentary on every other comment past and future.

    Yes, that’s right, unless you’re a “Jamesian” you’re doomed to literary ignorance, and, by the way, Gaddis has produced the literary impossibility, a completely cross-referential novel. I’m coining a new term for that kind of remark: “tape measure line.” The idea being that remarks like that serve as a substitute for tape measures in the end of demonstrating the length of the remarker’s penis.

    Then the comments try to clarify. Here’s URK:

    Nite Owl is (like all of the Watchmen heroes) based on a Charleston character that was the rip-off of Batman that Lane thinks he’s so cleverly spotted, and then was re-made slightly differently after DC became uncomfortable with Moore’s revisions.

    What the hell is this guy talking about? Apparently, whatever it is qualifies as comic-book style “heavy-handed exposition,” probably because it is completely incomprehensible.

    The assertion “you can’t understand X work of literature unless you know the recent history of the publishing industry that produced it in the sort of fine detail typically only possessed by industry employees and internet obsessives” is, except under very special circumstances, a critique of that work of literature. Not praise for it. Imagine if a particularly vapid episode of, say, Buffy the Vampire Slayer came out, and when people called it vapid, its obsessed fanboys defended it on the grounds that three weeks before, NBC and CBS had done a stock swap, to which a trade of baseball cards between Buffy and Willow was clearly a sly reference…

    There is a reason comic book store guy from the Simpsons is full of delicious verisimilitude.

    I mean, he thinks he’s critiquing Moore when he’s actually walked right into a trap door critique hidden in Moore’s book, one that only activates when it gets moved to a medium where it’s likely to be experienced and critiqued by people who don’t know anything about comics.

    A trap door critique!!! And you wonder why Lane describes this as a cult? When one thinks that one’s favorite writer has anticipated all possible critiques and left trap doors for the unwary…

    Also, SEK needs to stop using “world-” as a universal intensifier. It’s bad enough when he describes negotiations between the USA and the USSR as “world-historical” (oh, there goes Hegel’s grave again, getting all gyroscopic), but then he describes one scene as a “world-horrible vomitorium.” If there were any justice in the world, SEK would be magically teleported (perhaps by Dr. Manhattan) to everyone who reads that line, just as they read it, and then sent home covered in bite marks.

  12. Jacob T. Levy Says:

    Clearly Paul shouldn’t see the movie. And you’ll find no argument from me that the movie should have been made; this:

    “on that account, all the artistic virtue of Watchmen is in playing with the conventions of comics. Which is great, fine and dandy, but why is this being pitched as something for a universal audience?”

    is actually basically right as a complaint, and contributed to lots of us saying all these years that Watchmen was unfilmable. A formal experiment in and autocritique of superhero comics *doesn’t* make for a movie with appeal to a universal audience.

    I haven’t seen the movie yet but still suspect that it’s a category mistake. (
    If it’s not a category mistake, then I think it’s probably a kind of a con– insiders convincing enough outsiders that this made simply a good superhero movie that they’d invest enough money/ buy enough tickets to let fanboys have the experience of seeing one of our favorite works onscreen.

    That said, Anthony Lane is an almost completely unhelpful guide to genre movies. He’s not as terrible as Janet Maslin was (see Maslin’s reviews of Batman and Robin or of Star Wars Episode 1 for spectacular examples) but Maslin was almost terrible enough to be useful as an anti-guide. Lane’s opinions about genre movies just seem to be distributed randomly.

  13. Paul Gowder Says:

    Wow, I’d not read Maslin’s reviews before. Her problem, I think, is more just lack of generalized taste. I mean, nobody should be able to see virtue in a movie’s being banal “sweetly, unfashionably benign.”

  14. Ed Says:

    Hey Jason -

    I was just being sarcastic. It probably is a graphic novel, but I spent 20 minutes a lunch last week hearing someone emphasize how great Watchmen is.

    As a huge fan, sadly but surely, of the old X-men comics (go Weapon X!), I am probably in no position to give a principled distinction between graphic novels and comic books…

  15. Jason W. Says:

    Ed: as you can probably guess, my issue with the terms is that I don’t think there is much of a difference. I mean, we could draw lines, principled ones even, but the way I see it often used (and what I thought I caught a whiff of in your post) is as derision for the trash — graphic novels are the stuff that’s good in collected form or as a standalone novel (Persepolis, Maus, Watchmen, From Hell, The Dark Knight) and comics are the stuff that’s not (X-Men, Spider Man, etc.).

    It’s that use of the terminology that I strongly object to because of these high-low dichotomies that I don’t think I’m alone in finding distasteful.

  16. Jacob T. Levy Says:

    I’ve got no problem with the high-low distinction but think it’s silly to pretend that it tracks the format distinction between graphic novels and monthly floppies aka comic books.

    Sandman: comic book, collected into trade paperbacks.

    Watchmen: comic book, collected into a trade paperback.

    Dazzler The Movie: graphic novel.

    When someone uses “graphic novel” as a synonym for “comic book that I think is too artistic to be saddled with the name of the thing you geeky fanboys read,” I always think of “Dazzler The Movie” and smirk.

  17. Mike Says:

    A muffin is a cupcake, and a graphic novel is a comic book.

    Yes, the pages of Arkham Asylum (the last graphic novel I read) are glossier and it’s thicker. It’s still a Batman comic book.

    And what was Weapon X? That was a story line continued through several Wolverine comics.

    Put it into one issue, give it thicker paper with some gloss, and it’s suddenly something materially different?

    I don’t know why people can’t just admit they like reading comic books. It’s no longer my thing, but I have my own vulgar habits.

    No, wait, I read Playboy for the articles.

  18. Ed Says:

    I don’t care much either way about what we call it and I don’t know enough about comic books or graphic novels (or whatever else you want to call them) to say if there is a difference. I also think that it’s OK if things are trashy and to recognize them as such.

    I love the Conan comics. I think that they are trash. I own a bunch of Kylie Minogue CDs. I think that they are trashy too. I guess I just don’t think that something being “low” makes it bad.

    I don’t think our views are far apart.

    On the other hand, I have to say that Mike is in the wrong! A muffin is most definitely not a cupcake. As a cupcake fanatic I strongly protest this conflation! : )

  19. Uncommon Priors » Is Scott Eric Kaufman* always this insufferable? Are all lit-bloggers? Says:

    [...] n., remark evidently made solely in order to display the length of the remarker’s penis. As previously noted, this is not SEK’s first watchmen-related tape measure [...]

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