March 26, 2009

How About Those Watchmen?

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Now that the box office receipts are in, it’s hard to believe that “Watchmen” once had a lot of buzz behind it.

A week ago, the LA Times wrote that the film had a substantial drop in revenue, garnering $17.8 million in its second week from its opening weekend revenue of $55.2 million. This week, the film also had steep decrease in profits, making only $6.8 million in its third week. With its $60.6 million from overseas ticket sales, this brings the movie’s totals up to about $160 million.

Perhaps this was inevitable. As The New York Times stated in a piece about the film, the graphic novel on which the film was based was “an arcane, intricate comic in which philosophy is exchanged more often than punches.” It’s more complicated than a simple action movie.

Film critics, however, have not been kind to the film. According to, 64 percent of critics gave “Watchmen” a “fresh” rating to indicate the film was good. When you look at the “top” critics, however, the percentage drops to 45.

Of the critics I read, Roger Ebert is one of the few to give it a positive review. He awarded it the full 4 stars, saying the film is “another bold exercise in the liberation of the superhero movie. It’s a compelling visceral film — sound, images and characters combined into a decidedly odd visual experience that evokes the feel of a graphic novel.”

Almost all of the rest of the ones I read have been less kind. Ebert’s colleague, Richard Roeper, said, “Watchmen” is neither masterpiece nor disaster. It’s a splashy mediocrity.”

Joe Morgenstern of the Wall Street Journal writes, “…watching “Watchmen” is the spiritual equivalent of being whacked on the skull for 163 minutes. The reverence is inert, the violence noxious, the mythology murky, the tone grandiose, the texture glutinous. It’s an alternate version of “The Incredibles” minus the delight.”

For me, the most surprising of these reviews is A.O. Scott’s of the New York Times. His review begins as tepid, saying “the film is more curiosity than provocation”. Then his review becomes edgier at the end, in which he criticizes a key decision made by the superheroes at the end. He says, “this idea is sickening but also, finally, unpersuasive, because it is rooted in a view of human behavior that is fundamentally immature, self-pitying and sentimental. Perhaps there is some pleasure to be found in regressing into this belligerent, adolescent state of mind. But maybe it’s better to grow up.”

We will return to Scott’s comments momentarily. But what did I think, as an amateur film critic? I side with Ebert. I had not read the graphic novel before going into the film, as I prefer to review film adaptations to see if they work on their own. But I found it to be a great film. I was intrigued, and I hope to return again to see the film on IMAX.

So how could we get this divergence in opinion? There is a school of thought that says art is subjective, and that there’s no reason to argue as to whether something is “good” or not because there is no objective quality in it. I disagree. I think art has objective value, and that it’s our ability to perceive it that differs.

I say this because at the end of “Watchmen”, I felt a certain rush of emotions. I knew that to me, those emotions indicated a great film, but that others might feel they indicated something else. The point is that I believe we all, including every film critic who saw “Watchmen”, felt the same feelings and sensations when the film was over. In some ways, it hurts to classify a film in terms of a few words such as “great”, “good” or “bad”, as if film could only evoke one or two basic feelings.

Let’s go back to the negative reviews. Some of them have focused on the acting. I admit it’s difficult to review this objectively. Roeper criticizes Malin Akerman as “one of the worst actresses in the world”, and Michael Phillips of the Chicago Tribune states she is “possibly the worst actress in Hollywood at the moment.” Yet Scott says she “gamely” gives a “solid performance”, and I also felt she was strong. She seemed to me to be a superhero not so much out of choice but out of legacy. Able to be one, sure, but conflicted about whether she liked the career she had taken on. And like the other superheroes in the film, she was not a strong idealist, but an ordinary, flawed and emotional woman.

Some of the reviewers indicated they were turned off by the gore and sex in the film. I take their point. Even I looked away in the scene when the guy got his hands caught in the jail cell bars. However, I did feel the sex scene was filmed in such a way to show that it was erotic and exciting for the characters involved, while at the same time conveying the characters’ sense of sadness and desperation.

Could there have been a different way to film those moments? Probably. Would it have worked? I don’t know. All I can say is that at the end of the film, I felt a certain rush of emotion and exhilaration that was a result of the sum total of everything I had experienced. If you change those moments, would it have led to the same effect?

Another complaint I’ve come across is that some of the songs have been used to death in other movies. For instance, Scott comments on the use of Leonard Cohen’s “Hallelujah”, saying, “…can we please have a moratorium on the use of this song in movies? Yes, I too have heard there was a secret chord that David played, and blah blah blah, but I don’t want to hear it again. Do you?”

As for me, I try not to comment on songs in films. For one, I don’t criticize the use of a song just because it’s been used in another film. If it works in the scene, it works. Besides, in when future movie watchers look back on this film, they may not feel the song is “overused”, but poignant.

Now to return to Scott’s comments about the ending. It seems to me there is a difference between a film showing what characters do and a film agreeing with a character’s actions. If “Watchmen” had done the latter, I would have felt as Mr. Scott did and been morally horrified. But the film doesn’t do that.

“Watchmen” is not a film we’re supposed to identify with one demigod-like hero and view whatever he or she does as heroic. That’s in part why the film doesn’t show very many heroic acts. I liked Dr. Manhattan, to be sure, but I never agreed with his decision to remain detached from humanity and stop acting like a hero. And even though I was intrigued by Rorschach, I was always shocked by the brutal things he did.

You also see now why “Watchmen” spends so much time in flashbacks and back stories, instead of spending all its time to resolve the mystery set up at the beginning of the movie. It’s a film that spends its time observing, not preaching. As I watched the superheroes, I saw human characters struggling with their own conflicts and demons, trying to make the decisions they felt were best and often making wrong ones.

That’s why I was not infuriated by the ending. What happened was not something I was supposed to approve. It was merely a choice the characters made, good or bad. I believe it was bad. Yes, it had beneficial effects for the world, but if the ambiguous ending in the newsroom is any indicator, the decision they made might backfire in big ways.

By this point, you might ask what the point of this piece is. It is merely food for thought. Perhaps you’ve seen the film, in which case this piece provides another perspective for dialogue on the film. Perhaps you haven’t, but might go later or rent on DVD later, in which case this may intrigue you. But even if you have no interest in “Watchmen”, perhaps you will now understand how complicated and fun film criticism can be.