Friday, March 06, 2009

Who watched the Watchmen?

Me! Wow.

Yes, "Watchmen" the movie is based on a superhero graphic novel. Yes, there are odd-looking people in eyebrow-raising costumes walking among ordinary people in everyday dress. Yes, improbable gadgets are part of an arsenal of other impractical designs. They are there to remind us that this is a story about superheroes who live and struggle to co-exist in our imperfect world -- a world even their vaunted superpowers cannot help.

One feature that stands out in a movie of this genre is that there is no super-villain to fight. No arch-nemesis who plots world-domination that would give a team of superheroes a raison d'etre for their existence. The closest thing to one is a frail old man who has long given up his evil-suit and his evil ways, suffering from cancer and living off a meagre pension awaiting death.

The fact is, superheroes do not need a supervillain to trouble humankind. Superheroes themselves ARE sufficent trouble for us. They are us, flawed, psychologcally warped and twisted as we already are, but enhanced with superpowers. And really, the Watchmen individually don't have much by way of their powers to distinguish one hero from another. They are generally super strong, super fast, super tough, regardless of what name or costume they wear. When superpowers meet normal human strength, it is not a pretty sight. Bones break -- badly, blood spatters on contact. It's just a matter of degree.

In that sense, the Watchmen are a parallel of the Olympian gods and goddesses in Greek mythology, with their infighting and the spillover of that into the lives of mortal men. Some are amoral, like the Comedian who behaves much like the Joker would if he was on the side of law-enforcement, and whose murder begins the story. There are those who see the world in completely black-and-white terms, like the disturbed Rorschach, for whom good is good and evil must die a horrible death. And there are those whose powers far exceed those of human ken, like Dr Manhattan, confused about humanity's doings from his cosmic perspective. With heroes like these, who needs villains any more?

Nevertheless, they all feel responsible for the well-being of people, yet are hampered by their own human weaknesses and a sense of hopelessness that they can do nothing to stop human depravity from annihilating us all.

The world is on the brink of nuclear war, only hours away from The Button being pushed. With a supervillain, the solution is simple: beat up the bad guy, destroy his toys, save the world. But with superheroes vs (national) superpowers, the problem has become infinitely more complex; the solution perhaps more drastic than can be conscionable.

"Watchmen" does not promise brainless entertainment. The plot's throughline gets interrupted often with flashbacks adding little bits of exposition at a time. It's also disconcerting to watch the Watchmen not behave in the way we've come to expect from our heroes -- the mask only hides the face, but can't hide human nature lurking beneath the skin. And at the end, we, the audience are left to judge if in the use of power, even for the greater good, the end justifies the means.

Heavy stuff. Lots of dialogue; short, intense bursts of action; moral shocks and dilemmas to ponder over; nobility mixed in with a lot of nastiness; a movie that requires concentration and active reflection. Did I like it? Yes! But I felt quite drained after.

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