Watchmen and the tyranny of fandom

Zack Snyder's big-screen version of the graphic novel comes with baggage: cultish fans who could make or break the movie.

With a running time of 163 minutes, watching Watchmen seems like hard work. Billed as the work of ‘visionary director Zack Snyder’, who made the jump from music video to film with an episodically likeable but unnecessary remake of Dawn of the Dead in 2004 (1), Watchmen has been set up as a movie of big ideas to match the lengthy duration.

It is adapted from the ‘graphic novel’ of the same name, first published as a series of 12 comics, starting in 1986. Various collected editions have remained in print ever since, while a hardcore of dedicated fans act as a priestly caste around the sacred object of ‘the original’. The comic also influenced mainstream entertainment, from its iconic revision of the Smiley Face design, which popped up across the rave scene in the ‘second summer of love’, to its indirect influence on TV shows such as NBC’s Heroes.

Comic and movie alike violate many of the norms of the superhero genre. There are barely any costumed villians, and only one character with clear-cut superpowers, Dr Manhattan (Billy Crudup). The masked avengers spend a lot of time despairing about the state of the world, while the action sequences – revealed here in brutal slow motion – break bones as an expression of underlying sexual desires.

In comic and film, such events form a narrative that kicks off in the 1930s and runs for some 50 years, creating an alternative US history in which the acceptance and rejection of costumed crimefighters, including the godlike Dr Manhattan, constitutes the major historical events. Manhattan keeps the Cold War cold, although the bulk of the story takes place against a backdrop of Soviet belligerence under Leonid Brezhnev, who seems less intimidated by the ultimate deterrent.

The 1985 part of the story is structured around a murder mystery, when the Comedian (Jeffrey Dean Morgan) – based initially on the mainstream comics character Peacemaker – is thrown from his penthouse window after a brutal beating. Masked vigilante Rorschach (Jackie Earle Haley) sets about warning his former Watchmen colleagues, a line-up that conforms to the familiar types found in comic books: the playboy millionaire, the reclusive inventor, a flying ‘Owlmobile’ (nicknamed Archie), and so on.

As the mystery unfolds, the surviving heroes join forces and uncover a big conspiracy which, needless to say, starts to look like an inside job. As the officially disbanded Watchmen start to regroup (and disintegrate almost as fast), Cold War tensions ratchet up and the world hovers on the brink of nuclear war; it was written in the real 1985, after all.

In terms of plot detail, there’s a lot more going on than my summary suggests. The sheer volume of Watchmen factoids fuels the issue of whether the film can overcome the tensions between commercial and critical success – or, at least, keep enough fans of the source material onside. The weekend box-office takings suggest the film is a good earner, while at the time of writing Internet Movie Database users have voted it the 178th greatest movie of all time, a ‘chart position’ that will no doubt rise over time. The Smiley Face design, which Watchmen borrowed from the 1970s and passed on to the rave scene, could be ubiquitous once more.

The story has been stuck for years in development hell with at least a decade of failed attempts at adapting it for the screen (2). Having finally got it to screen, it was pleasing to see that the filmmakers stuck by the original content, even if the inevitable 18 certificate meant kissing goodbye to lucrative merchandising and action figure opportunities.

What has been really strange is the way that much of the film’s history of pre-production and production has been public knowledge. It’s as if the Hollywood dream factory has acquired glass walls. Whereas a discussion of how to handle full-frontal superhero nudity – the well-endowed Dr Manhattan – is a guaranteed giggle, knowing the extent of co-creator Alan Moore’s rage at the film industry and the payments made between studios to settle rights issues is a bit excessive.

This obsession with detail is entirely consistent with the internet-driven tyranny of fandom over the sci-fi and superhero genres (3). Paradoxically, the same cultish dynamic that encourages producers to transfer such material to film can also strangle an adaptation at birth once the bad word-of-mouth starts to circulate online.

For instance, the sectional, socially marginal concern with whether a fictional character’s costume is being done properly can snowball into a rumour that the film is terrible in next to no time. Try an internet search for ‘bat-suit’ and ‘nipples’ and you’ll find 60,000 indications of this. As it happens, the rumours were correct on that one: Batman & Robin is a terrible film. With that kind of interest, there was a lot at stake for all concerned with Watchmen.

One factor in keeping the fanboys and the viewing public onside is innovation in CGI, reinforced by convincing green-screen techniques and falling costs. The older the superhero movie, more likely that is was reliant on visual effects, captured on camera while filming. Prosthetics, wires and back projection help to account for why so much looks unconvincing: Allen Coulter’s Hollywoodland (2006) shows how the childish Superman shorts of the 1950s were almost as dangerous to film as they were unconvincing to watch.

Present-day techniques allow even the most hackish directors to concoct plausible fictional realms, provided they delegate to competent production designers and art directors. And herein lies the great strength of Watchmen – it looks terrific. Modern techniques allow for the movie to be assembled as a like-for-like live-action version of the comic on which it’s based.

Almost inevitably, this means that the critical response to the film has been shaped by a discussion of its fidelity to the source material. With the exception of an opening montage that looks great, but lacks the storytelling punch of Snyder’s Dawn of the Dead intro, much of Watchmen treats Dave Gibbons’ comic art as its storyboard and Alan Moore’s (uncredited) dialogue as its script. At a stroke, any technical objections over departures from the original text seem resolved. (Snyder’s main break from the original storyline – dreamt up by screenwriters David Hayter and Alex Tse – is an improvement.)

If you liked the ‘graphic novel’, what’s not to like about the film? One thing is that adaptation lays bare some of the differences between the two media. For instance, in the 12 ad-free comics that constituted the original, some of the frames in Gibbons’ (typical) nine-panel grid layout were captioned by Rorschach’s misanthropic diary entries. In the film, this translates into Jackie Earle Haley’s grating, sub-Mickey Spillane voiceover. Likewise, the gobbets of philosophical speculation that gave Watchmen the comic some of its reputation clunk when spoken aloud.

Most egregious is the screen version of Richard Nixon (Robert Wisden), who wears a preposterous prosthetic proboscis in order to look like Nixon as drawn by Gibbons (the artist, not the apes). We’ve had one good Nixon impersonation on screen this year, and this ain’t it. It’s ironic that the cartoon president of the comic is more realistic than the hideous-looking one on film.

Observers with no knowledge of the graphic novel might wonder why Nixon is still in the White House. Well, nod the cogniscenti, it’s set in an alternative 1985, where Nixon is still in office having won the Vietnam War and slipped in a constitutional amendment allowing him to run for a third term. All of this is enabled by the aforementioned Dr Manhattan, the only ‘Watchman’ with clear-cut superpowers, a godlike weapon that made victory possible and kept Soviet tanks out of Afghanistan.

A (relatively) smart and coherent alternative reality allowed Alan Moore to comment on the Reagan era without having to go there. But the story is itself a product of a real-world financial problem. DC Comics had bought up the rights to various Charlton Comics superheroes and commissioned Moore to write a mini-series based on these characters. Geek legend has it that the ensuing story proposal would ultimately devastate these new acquisitions (comics insiders quip that DC proved quite capable of this without Moore’s help). Appalled at the prospect, Watchmen was re-cast with original characters creating a weighty reputation of its own and stimulating a reinvention of the comics industry.

Back in the heady days of (the real) 1986, when the first issue of Watchmen appeared, I was a Saturday boy at the Final Frontier shop in Leicester. It quickly became clear that times were changing. ‘Comics aren’t just for kids any more’, countless newspaper articles said at the time – news to the thousands of adults in who routinely read manga (Japan) and bande dessinee (France and Belgium). Dividing their coverage between Watchmen and Frank Miller’s Batman: The Dark Knight Returns, which appeared in the spring of 1986, commentators claimed that the superhero comic – or, more significantly, its deconstruction for mature readers – was making waves within the media industries.

Structural explanations for this include: the growth of the direct sales market, where direct sales shops superseded newsagents operating a sale-or-return system; technical innovations in colour separation, printing and binding that all made for a more attractive product, capable of doing justice to the closely detailed artwork; and the erosion of the ‘Comics Code’, a remnant of post-war censorship and campaigns against ‘harmful’ juvenile reading.

Indeed, Moore’s updating of Swamp Thing at DC dropped ‘Comics Code approved’ and bore the strapline ‘sophisticated suspense’ instead. (Not for the last time, Moore stopped collaborating with his employer when this vague label was replaced with ‘Suggested for Mature Readers’, adding to the mystique around him and amplifying fanboy respect.) Although few would admit it at the time, Chris Claremont’s run on the mainstream X-Men comic probably helped, by giving the characters an emotional inner life that seemed rich by comic book standards.

In the case of Watchmen there was a cultural dimension too. For a British teenager at the time, the overlap between fanzines, skatepunk, Viz comic, New Musical Express, and the shoegazing indie C86 and ‘grebo’ music scenes was sufficient to embed Moore’s creations in our sensibility. The way some of us knew that ‘Nixon’ was an indirect way of having a pop at Reagan added to the thrill. Older, more serious (and mainly bearded) fanboys said Watchmen wasn’t the real deal, preferring Stephen Murphy and Michael Zulli’s Puma Blues or Howard Chaykin’s American Flagg!, but we didn’t care. No doubt our US counterparts grew up in their own equivalent mish-mash of politics and entertainment, albeit under Reagan (and not Nixon). In both countries, these teenage consumption and leisure activities made us feel that bit special in a world we never made.

In the intervening two-and-a-bit decades, some of us have had more reason to think about fandom and Watchmen than others. Certainly more people have read the graphic novel, due to the various trade paperbacks of the series now widely available. The argument that ‘comics aren’t just for kids any more’ hardly needs making, since Western society seems stuck in an age of perpetual adultesence; fanboy nerds are now more concerned that the successful film means everyone will be reading Watchmen, holy grail of comic books, on public transport, robbing it of any exclusivity.

Anyone who came of age in the dog days of the Thatcher and Reagan years has at least an atom of Watchmen tucked away in their unconscious. As that generation turns into the fortysomethings who commission cultural production or have their teenage offspring wandering into Watchmen, one thing becomes clear: this film’s main legacy to viewers will be its historical snapshot of a whole 1980s generation, which includes Zack Snyder, coming to prominence in 2008. After all, why else would the latest technologies be used to screen a nostalgic fear that our best years are behind us?

Graham Barnfield blogs at the Loneliest Jukebox.

Watch the trailer for Watchmen:

Read on:

spiked-issue: Film

(1) Dawn of the Dead review, Culture Wars, January 2004

(2) See, for example, Mourning Paul Greengrass’ Watchmen, New York, 27 July 2007

(3) The geek shall inherit the earth, by Sandy Starr

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