Rewind & Reboot: X-Men Origins: Wolverine

Much of what’s wrong with X-Men Origins: Wolverine can be traced right back to its confused conception, indeed beginning with its clumsy title. The ungainly prefix is clumsily bolted on solely for it to alphabetize adjacent to the three previous X-Men films on Walmart shelves, iTunes, Pay-Per-View, and torrent trackers. The two halves split by a colon try to have it both ways: “X-Men Origins” brands it as part of a proposed series of prequels to the lucrative original trilogy (none else of which have yet to materialize, apparently discarded in favor of the complete reboot X-Men: First Class), while “Wolverine” promises a fresh new franchise in and of itself.

With the original trilogy still warm in its grave, barely a decade after it began, why rewind and start over again so soon? There’s no reason why a prequel featuring honest-to-goodness movie star Hugh Jackman as the fan-favorite icon couldn’t have stood on its own. One gets the feeling X-Men and X2: X-Men United were prematurely discarded. All of this is quite the pity, as director Bryan Singer’s interpretation was far superior than this and Brett Ratner’s weak X-Men 3: The Last Stand.

I can understand the desire to create a jumping-on point for new viewers, one that does not require a detailed memory of the events of the previous installments. But if what 20th Century Fox and Marvel Comics sought was a fresh start, this isn’t exactly it. The narrative contorts itself to slot into some of the established chronology, while simultaneously ignoring or contradicting many other significant elements of the canon.

Liev Schreiber and Hugh Jackman in X-Men Origins: Wolverine
Sabretooth and Wolverine demonstrate the proper protocol in executing a man hug

Danny Houston portrays a younger version of William Stryker, a role originated by Brian Cox in X2: X-Men United. We learn a little more of his villainous motivations and ties to Wolverine’s secret origin, none of which really surprise or illuminate. Fans might be pleased by superfluous cameos by a younger Cyclops (Tim Pocock) and Professor X (a digitally rejuvenated Patrick Stewart). Then there’s the matter of Sabretooth, whom we already met as Magneto’s henchman (Tyler Mane) in the original X-Men (2000), but now entirely recast and reconceived as Logan’s brother Victor Creed (Liev Schreiber).

A prologue set in Canada’s Northwest Territories in the mid 1800s reveals Logan’s damaged psychology to be the product of fratricide. He and brother Victor were doted upon by a wealthy adoptive father, but their superstitious biological father wanted to kill them. The best sequence immediately follows: an impressive montage of the brothers fighting side-by-side through the Revolutionary War, Civil War, World Wars I and II, and Vietnam. The wordless sequence succinctly illustrates the immortal warriors growing apart, as Victor becomes increasingly unstable while Logan slowly develops a moral code and distaste for killing.

A Wolverine film seemed like a promising idea when I first heard of it; it could have provided a neat way to shake off the detritus that had accumulated by the end of the original trilogy. Each subsequent installment added too many additional characters drawn from decades of Marvel Comics history, and quickly snowballed to the point where the ensemble cast became comically unwieldy (pun intended). So, the notion of a fresh story focused around just one character sounded like a wise choice. But expecting a smart creative choice from 20th Century Fox was obviously too much. X-Men Origins: Wolverine is overstuffed with a tremendous number of X-Men b-listers, including The Blob (Kevin Durand), Deadpool (Ryan Reynolds), Gambit (Taylor Kitsch), The White Queen (Tahyna Tozzi), and Bolt (Dominic Monaghan). The latter, incidentally, features in one of the best scenes in the film, in a low-key confrontation with Victor that approaches real drama.

Taylor Kitsch, will.i.am, Liev Schreiber, Hugh Jackman, Tim Pocock, Ryan Reynolds, and Lynn Collins in X-Men Origins: Wolverine
The Amazing Adventures of the Uncanny C-List Characters, coming soon from Marvel Comics

Worse than the proliferation of supporting characters is its menagerie of villains. Like Spider-Man 3, the film features a muddled array of enemies when just one well-developed villain would have suited the story better. At least three mortal nemeses align themselves against our hero here: Stryker, Sabretooth, and Weapon XI. The best, most iconic comic book villains are flamboyant characters intricately tied in with the origins of the hero: Batman vs. The Joker (Jack Nicholson, Heath Ledger), Spider-Man vs. The Green Goblin (Willem Dafoe), and Superman vs. Lex Luthor (Gene Hackman, Kevin Spacey). But Wolverine’s most serious foe here is the literally mute and expressionless Weapon XI, devoid of character or charisma. Worse, his moniker looks much better in print than spoken aloud; “Weapon Eleven” doesn’t quite roll off the tongue.

X-Men Origins: Wolverine is directed by Gavin Hood, of the critically respected film Tsotsi, making it unusually finely pedigreed for an escapist piece of entertainment based on kids’ comic books. Marvel Comics seems not to have learned its lesson from handing Hulk to Ang Lee and Thor to Kenneth Branagh. A good case study for Fox and Marvel would have been Warner Bros.’ disastrous Invasion, from Oliver Hirschbiegel, director of Downfall. Both Invasion and X-Men Origins: Wolverine are somehow fatally broken, to the point where they fail to make rudimentary sense (which ought to be a base requirement for popcorn special-effects-driven blockbusters). Is it too much to ask that films like this at least be internally logical?

Stryker’s scheme simply doesn’t add up. What exactly does he intend to do? Stryker is evidently dissatisfied with his creation Weapon X (who escaped and became Wolverine). After what he perceives as a failed beta test, Stryker moves on to Weapon XI, an ostensibly perfect soldier with superpowers extracted from other mutants. So why does he go to extreme lengths to keep Wolverine under observation by a fake girlfriend (Lynn Collins) for several years, when all he has to do is kill him and extract his powers with his super-syringe? Even more puzzling, if Stryker wants Logan dead, why does he trick him into signing up to become Weapon X? Stryker succeeds only in making an already near-indestructible man even more so.

Tahyna Tozzi and Lynn Collins in X-Men Origins: Wolverine
The White Queen and Silverfox look worried as they dash through some corridor or something, whatever, who am I kidding — Tahyna Tozzi and Lynn Collins are just in this movie to titillate the fanboys

The problem with comic book superhero stories is that there’s a point at which your powerful protagonist becomes literally inhuman, and thus difficult to find sympathetic or relatable. The best example is Superman, literally an alien who can do almost anything. What kinds of problems would such a creature have, and how can any viewer relate to him? Here, Logan and his nemesis Victor are both effectively immortal, so there is little at stake in their conflict. The most interesting comic book superheroes must reconcile superhuman powers with their deep flaws and anxieties, like Spider-Man’s insecurities and Daredevil’s disability, or are normal human beings with extraordinary drive, like Batman and Iron Man.

A pirated version of X-Men Origins: Wolverine infamously leaked online before its official theatrical release. It was roundly panned, and Fox attempted damage control by claiming it was an unfinished workprint with placeholder CGI, sound effects, and titles. According to the Los Angeles Times, the version finally released in theaters was reportedly almost identical, an embarrassment to say the least.

The special effects are rather shoddy, especially compared to the state of the art as seen in its contemporaries Star Trek and Transformers 2: Revenge of the Fallen. Wolverine’s claws and Sabretooth’s bounding and pouncing suffer especially from unconvincing cheapness. The only two genuinely impressive exceptions were wasted, to showcase supporting character Cyclops’ laser eye-beams slicing large structures into geometric chunks.

Stray Observations:

  • Two easter egg codas follow the credits. One is totally unnecessary (Stryker’s fate is better left to the imagination), but the other is enjoyably campy, with a kind of sick humor that could have enlivened the rest of the film.
  • The DVD features an anti-smoking Public Service Announcement, no doubt penance for Logan’s signature cigar-chomping. But where are the warnings against drinking alcohol, riding motorcycles without helmets, killing people with blades, and performing unethical medical atrocities?
  • The script is a nonstop barrage of clichés: if I had subtracted one star for every time somebody utters “Let’s do this” or “Look what the cat dragged in,” my rating would be, well, a lot of negative stars.

Action Figures: G.I. Joe: The Rise of Cobra

It’s tempting to throw up one’s hands in despair that the brow level of source material for movies has dropped this precipitously low. To be fair, trash (escapist or just plain trashy trash) has existed since the very first days of the medium. But cinema’s early conception as a theatrical presentation made before a paid seated audience associated it with plays, and many early narrative silent filmmakers looked to plays and literature for source material.

Over 100 years later, no amount of original material, adaptation of great works, or repeated remaking of other movies could be enough to feed movies’ hunger for story. It took almost 80 years for Hollywood to draw upon comic books for anything beyond cheap serials. The success of Richard Donner’s Superman (1978) reverberated for years, leading directly into other seriously budgets prestige productions as Tim Burton’s Batman (1989) and Warren Beatty’s Dick Tracy (1990).

At the risk of sounding like a curmudgeon, something has changed. Drunk on the proceeds of a second wave of comics movies (particularly Bryan Singer’s X-Men and X2: X-Men United and Christopher Nolan’s Batman Begins and Batman: The Dark Knight), Hollywood burned hundreds of millions of dollars on failed projects based on comics properties that even many comics fans might not be terribly familiar with, including Tank Girl (1995), Elektra (2005), and Jonah Hex (2010). With popular comic books exhausted for now, Hollywood is quickly turning to toys and even from board games (Peter Berg’s Battleship and Ridley Scott’s Monopoly are coming soon to a theater near you).

Lee Byung-hun and Ray Park in G.I. Joe: The Rise of Cobra
Ninjas: The reason 10-somethings played with G.I. Joes and also the reason 30-somethings went to see this movie

G.I. Joe: The Rise of Cobra is based on the eponymous line of plastic action figures and accessories marketed to boys in the early 1980s by toy company Hasbro. No doubt it was rushed into production after the massively lucrative success of Michael Bay’s two Transformers films, which were based on a contemporaneous toy line. The Rise of Cobra’s critical reception was all but assured as soon as it was announced; it was of course widely and justly panned. But I happened to see it in quick succession with Transformers: Rise of the Fallen and X-Men Origins: Wolverine. In such company, it is a masterpiece, if for no other reason than its logic is internally consistent (if stupidly implausible).

Although possessed of a certain degree of deliberate camp not seen since Burton and Beatty’s comics-based films, the movie seems bizarrely unaware of spoofs that came before it. Echoing the Mystery Science Theater 3000 theme song, a title card announces the story is set in the “Not too distant future” — which, as any MST3K fan knows, promises little but cinematic crimes against humanity. The futuristic settling weakly explains away the advanced weapons and transport technology readily available to G.I. Joe, an elite transnational military force with seemingly unlimited funding, and its nemesis Cobra, a terrorist organization enamored of teleconferencing. Traditional ballistics are deprecated in favor of cheesy laser blasters that provide for lots of death, all of it bloodless. To be fair, this is relatively more realistic than the comics and cartoons, where every shot simply missed and nobody was maimed, disfigured, or killed despite a constant state of war. The other major head-slapping moment of cultural deafness comes when a major action set piece is staged in Paris, as Cobra disintegrates the Eiffel Tower. Does no one involved remember Team America: World Police?

Its structure is a strange and confident gamble; rather than start the story in the middle, with its heroes and villains established and locked in perpetual battle as in the source material, we start before Cobra even rises. The movie makes plain its intentions to set up a franchise, not even giving birth to two of its most iconic characters until the final moments.

Saïd Taghmaoui and Rachel Nichols and Ray Park in G.I. Joe: The Rise of Cobra
Body armor works better if molded with faux breasts and six-packs

The entire movie is designed as one giant origin story hobbled with numerous flashbacks. First off, a prologue set in 1641 France features an ancestor to Scottish weapons dealer James McCullen (Christopher Eccleston), with little benefit beyond providing a framing device. Other flashbacks tell us more about the rivalry between dueling ninjas Snake Eyes (Ray Park) and Storm Shadow (Lee Byung-hun), and the relationship between Duke (Channing Tatum), The Baroness (Sienna Miller), and her brother The Doctor (Joseph Gordon-Levitt, hilariously full of himself in promotional interviews, citing the art of kabuki as his inspiration for acting much of the film behind a mask). The Baroness and The Doctor (not to be confused with Eccleston’s most famous role) are siblings, Duke dated The Baroness, and was once responsible for protecting the young Doctor. Got all that?

None of these tangled family ties figure into the original mythos established in the 1980s comic books and animated television series, which existed in service of promoting the toy line. The ancillary media provided characters and scenarios for play, all with the aim of inspiring kids to want to collect the whole set and stage epic battles in their parents’ basements. The stories provided by marketers arguably reduced the element of imagination in children’s play. But looked at another way, the entire G.I. Joe package could be seen as a large-scale multimedia act of world-building. Over time, the brand accumulated an epic story with a giant cast, and may have helped set the stage for later ambitious serialized popular fiction of the 21st century, like Lost.

The story ultimately centers around Duke and his pal Ripcord (Marlon Wayans), implying the filmmakers failed to poll fans to find out what exactly it was they found appealing about G.I. Joe as kids. Ask anyone who actually read the comics, watched the cartoons, or played with the toys, and they will tell you Snake Eyes was always the most popular character. His unrequited love for the Joes’ sole female operative Scarlett and complex relationship with “brother” Storm Shadow provided most of the longest-running storylines. Sommers’ movie minimizes the disfigured, mute ninja commando (despite the perfect casting of Park, famous as Darth Maul), and inexplicably costumed with a mask incorporating a mouth. Scarlett’s affections are here transferred to Ripcord, and Storm Shadow is more overtly evil, whereas I recall his loyalties being more interestingly ambiguous in the comics. His apparent death is an obvious homage to Star Wars: The Phantom Menace, as is an underwater submarine battle lifted from any number of other George Lucas space battles. In the exact inverse to Storm Shadow, the purely villainous Baroness is here transformed into a fixer-upper.

Sienna Miller as The Baroness in G.I. Joe: The Rise of Cobra
Modelling the latest in terrorist fetishwear is Sienna Miller as The Baroness

One flaw the movie retained from the comics and cartoons: while each “Joe” has a distinct codename and personality, most of Cobra’s forces are nameless and faceless drones. Indeed, their stormtrooper brains have been surgically modified to turn them into obedient zombies. Some meager drama is derived from The Baroness’ potential rehabilitation, but her villainy is defused by making her another victim of mind control. Leaders Destro and Cobra Commander are classic examples of the grotesque figure in literature — like Gollum and Richard III — where physical deformity is an outward expression of evil.

Following the overt racial caricatures in Transformers: Rise of the Fallen, I feared the worst for Marlon Wayans as Ripcord. Indeed, the trailer made a point of highlighting his clowning around. Surprisingly, one of the few areas in which the film managed to outperform expectations was its treatment of its non-white characters. Wayans was given the opportunity to be often genuinely funny and not nearly as annoying as I suspected he might have been. Ripcord gets real chances to prove himself, succeeds, and even gets the girl in the end. Further proving The Rise of Cobra’s bona fides as a surprising source of affirmative action is seen in Saïd Taghmaoui as the heroic Breaker, finally breaking out of his terminal stereotyping as a generic Middle Eastern terrorist / enemy combatant (q.v. Three Kings, Vantage Point, and Traitor). Now if we could just do something about Cobra being made up of evil Brits, Scots, Japanese, and Eastern Europeans.

The Mutant Menagerie: X2: X-Men United

In retrospect, the first X-Men movie did an incredible job of managing the introduction of a wide array of characters to mass audiences likely unfamiliar with the decades’ worth of continuity established in its comic book source material. But the sequel X2: X-Men United crowds the stage with too many new faces in addition to the returning original cast. In short order, audiences not only have to recollect the original characters but also learn how Stryker (Brian Cox), Iceman (Shawn Ashmore), Pyro (Aaron Stanford), and Lady Deathstryke (Kelly Hu) fit in to the mutant menagerie. X2 also expands the ranks of the Blue Man Mutant Group, with Nightcrawler (Alan Cumming) joining Mystique (Rebecca Romijn-Stamos) in head-to-toe body paint, later to be accompanied by Beast (Kelsey Grammar) in Brett Ratner’s risible X-Men 3: The Last Stand.

Alan Cumming in X2: X-Men United
Nightcrawler auditions for a spot in the Blue Men Mutant Group

Holocaust survivor Magneto (Ian McKellen) is still just as genocidal as his former Nazi oppressors, an irony he fails to perceive despite it being pointed out to him repeatedly. His aims and obsessions make for a very good villain, but also for a virtual repeat of the previous movie’s plot. In the original, Magneto built a device to forcibly mutate homo sapiens into homo superior, the arising species known as “mutants” to which both The X-Men and his Brotherhood of Evil Mutants belong. The weapon turned out to be faulty and instead simply killed every human within range. To a man like Magneto, said glitch was not a bug but a feature. Nothing if not persistent, he employs basically the same scheme in X2. New baddie Stryker has reverse-engineered Professor X’s mutant-detection device Cerebro into a weapon capable of killing all mutants en masse. Magneto plots to repurpose it to kill all humans instead.

Also recycled from the previous movie is the fact that Magneto is again not the movie’s true villain, despite long holding the rank of the X-Men’s official nemesis. The real antagonist last time around was intolerant politician Senator Robert Kelly (Bruce Davison). Now the foe is another powerless human, Colonel Stryker, a warmonger with a private army. Like Kelly, he’s a fervent speciesist, so enflamed with passionate hatred of mutants that he transforms his own mutant son Jason (Michael Reid McKay) into a component in his genocidal weapon.

Hugh Jackman in X2: X-Men United
Wolverine babysits The New Mutants

One notable tweak to the original recipe is a healthier dose of violence and killing perpetrated by the fan-favorite Wolverine (Hugh Jackman). As a character, Wolverine is capable of both berserker rage and human empathy, but his movie incarnation seems to be able to turn it on and off at will. Coupled with a PG-13 rating dictating that his slaughter remain bloodless, this negates one of the tragic flaws of the character I recall from reading the comics as a kid. The Wolverine I remember constantly struggled to keep his animalistic side in check in order to live among his friends, lovers, and allies. The movie Wolverine is a little bit of a softy, actually, spending much of film babysitting mopey teen trio Iceman, Pyro, and Rogue, the latter still harboring an unrequited crush on a dude way too old, hairy, and Canadian for her.

X2’s biggest problem is that it has no sense of humor, allowing the grimness of the scenario to drain most of the fun out of the experience. The original had only a single credited screenwriter, David Hayter, but the sequel teams him with Michael Dougherty and Dan Harris — hinting that the crowded stage of actors was paralleled by a few too many cooks in the kitchen backstage. One good scene, at least, provides a reminder of what the first film got right: when the teen Iceman reveals his superpowers to his parents for the first time, his mother asks “Have you ever tried to… (awkward pause) not be a mutant?” It’s an excellent scene that uses humor to employ the sci-fi conceit of the mutant experience as a metaphor for a minority’s troubled coming of age.

Mutant Mayhem: Bryan Singer’s X-Men

On a whim, this blogger decided to rewatch X-Men and found it surprisingly good, even better than I remembered from my first viewing almost 10 years ago. I used to be a comics fan, and read most of Chris Claremont and John Romita Jr.’s lengthy run on The Uncanny X-Men series in the mid-80s. Even though I had long since stopped reading comics regularly by the time the movie was announced in 2000, I recall being convinced there was no way a live-action X-Men movie could not be a ridiculous folly. But I went to see it partly out of morbid curiosity and partly out of a sense of duty as an ex-fan (see what I did there?). As it turned out, writer David Hayter and director Bryan Singer’s expert adaptation of the Marvel Comics source material turned out more fun, clever, and exciting than it had any right to be. Most welcome of all, it is frequently laugh-out-loud funny (in a good way), a key ingredient unfortunately lacking in the mostly humorless (but still pretty good) sequel X2: X-Men United (2003).

Hayter and Singer managed to dig up every ounce of subtext baked into the X-Men mythos by original writer Stan Lee and artist Jack Kirby. At its heart, the X-Men series was essentially a neverending sci-fi soap opera with a noble moral of progressive social awareness. The weirdo superheroes that make up The X-Men are “mutants,” born of human parents but with superhuman powers typically manifesting during adolescence. Prior to Lee and Kirby’s innovation, comics’ superhero templates were either extraterrestrials like Superman or ordinary humans with artificially gained superpowers like Spider-Man (mere mortals Batman and Iron Man don’t count, no matter how inordinately driven to fight injustice). Unlike the physical ideal Superman, most of Lee and Kirby’s mutants did not view their powers as gifts, and some were outright monsters.

Patrick Stewart and Ian McKellen in X-Men
The Royal Shakespeare Company mutants face off

The X-Men formula also incorporates deeper themes of racism, xenophobia, and even evolution. Indeed, the entire premise is built upon the theory of evolution: as multiple species of humans walked the earth simultaneously hundreds of thousands of years ago, so too do humans now find themselves sharing the earth with arguably the next branch of homo sapiens’ evolution: known in the comics as “homo superior.” Carried through to the next logical conclusion, this mutant minority is feared and demonized as freaks by the humans that vastly outnumber them.

The X-Men’s sympathetic antagonist Erik Lehnsherr (Ian McKellen) is a survivor of a German concentration camp. The horrors he experienced at the hands of those that hated his race (but didn’t yet realize he was actually a different species) in 1944 Poland inform his actions as the supervillain Magneto. As he listens to contemporary American politicians argue over how to contain and suppress the increasing mutant population, he disgustedly states “I’ve heard these arguments before.” His former friend (and fellow mutant) Charles Xavier (Patrick Stewart) hopes to find a way to live in peace, and counters “That was a long time ago. Mankind has evolved since then.” But Magneto is unyielding. “Yes. Into us.”

Hugh Jackman in X-Men
Talk to the claws

The crucial factor that had me simply assume the movie would be terrible was casting. It’s not hard to imagine a young actor able embody Spider-Man’s secret identity Peter Parker as a put-upon geek harboring tremendous reserves of guilt and righteousness. But how do you cast Wolverine, a diminutive, half-animal Canadian supersoldier with ridiculous hair? Easy! You hire the tall, absurdly handsome Australian studly song-and-dance man Hugh Jackman. Against all odds, he totally nailed the fan-favorite character. The moment in the film when this former X-Men comics fan decided that Jackman succeeded is a sequence in which he steals an X-motorcycle and discovers a handy turboboost button. The entire audience at the New York Ziegfeld theater laughed heartily along with his undisguised glee at its total awesomeness. This doubter was completely sold.

Another casting coup was the double-dose of Royal Shakespeare Company gravitas provided by McKellen and Stewart (both with extensive experience in fantasy and sci-fi genre material, as Gandalf in Lord of the Rings and Captain Picard in Star Trek: The Next Generation, respectively). Bruce Davison (as the xenophobic Senator Robert Kelly) also has a long history in science fiction, having starred in Willard and the influential classic The Lathe of Heaven.

Famke Janssen in X-Men
Just don’t call her Marvel Girl

James Marsden later proved himself to be entertainingly charismatic in Enchanted, but here he’s a victim to the humorless character of Cyclops. As Wolverine correctly psychoanalyzes him, he’s a dick. Similarly, Famke Janssen isn’t given a whole lot to work with as the no-fun-please Dr. Jean Grey (known in the comics as Marvel GIrl, later to die and rise again as Phoenix in Brett Ratner’s crap sequel X-Men 3: The Last Stand). But together with Jackman, the trio brings alive the Wolverine/Cyclops/Phoenix love triangle drawn from the comics, helping to make the movie accessible.

The one real weak spot in the cast is Halle Berry. Like Jennifer Lopez in Steven Soderbergh’s Out of Sight, she seems to have only one real acting performance under her belt (Monster’s Ball, of course). Here she turns in one of her most bland and toneless performances yet. For extra amusement, be sure to catch the deleted scenes on the DVD edition in which she can be heard affecting a weak pseudo-African accent. It’s a shame, because Storm was a very strong character in the comics around the time I read them. Writer Chris Claremont obviously had an affection for her, even promoting her to leader of the X-Men.

Hugh Jackman and Anna Paquin in X-Men
Ferocious mutant super-soldier Wolverine can really relate to Rogue’s teenage angst

Aside from casting, I imagine the second-biggest obstacle facing the filmmakers was how to introduce the complex X-Men universe to mainstream audiences while preserving its integrity to appease longtime fans. Hayter and Singer came up with the excellent solution of having us meet Professor X and his X-Men through the eyes of newbies Wolverine and Rogue (Anna “That’s my mother’s piano!” Paquin). Both are very different characters that share key common experiences that allow them to bond in a big brother / little sister relationship: Wolverine is a loner amnesiac unaware there are others like him, and Rogue is a young runaway isolated by particularly extreme powers that prevent her from experiencing normal human interaction. Almost anyone can identify with the painful coming of age that comes with her exaggerated adolescence. A startling moment of pathos occurs between them when she sees him wield the fearsome metal claws sheathed in his forearms: “When they come out, does it hurt?” “Every time.”

On an even more practical level, the filmmakers came up with an ingenious solution to the comics characters’ silly costumes by having the movie X-Men wear more photogenic uniforms. Cyclops’ joke about yellow and orange spandex is an easter egg for fans: Wolverine sports such an ensemble in the comics. Best of all, the requisite action set pieces are justified by the characters, not just the plot. For example, a big blow-out staged at a train station is the result of a heartbreaking misunderstanding that causes Rogue to flee the longed-for safe haven she had only just discovered.

The franchise is now set to continue with a trilogy of prequels including this summer’s X-Men Origins: Wolverine, and rumored projects X-Men Origins: First Class and X-Men Origins: Magneto. But with the first of these wracking up some notably awful reviews, it’s clear the first in the series will still stand as the best for some time.

What’s Wrong With Watchmen

I was right to worry. Zack Snyder’s Watchmen movie is indeed a sexed-up and dumbed-down shadow of the richly multi-layered graphic novel by Alan Moore and Dave Gibbons.

I’ve already unleashed my pent-up anxieties about the then-forthcoming movie in The Dork Report’s 10 Reasons the Watchmen Movie Will Suck). Now that the notably long-gestating and troubled production is finally out in the wild, I’m puzzled why so many comics fans utterly adore it (q.v. Wil Weaton and AintItCoolNews), while mainstream film critics compete to deliver the most vicious bitchslap (q.v. The New Yorker and The Hollywood Reporter). The exception to the rule is the always-unpredictable (bless him) Roger Ebert, who gave the “powerful experience” four out of four stars. As a lifelong comics fan, I ought to naturally fall into the first camp, but I cannot relate to geeks like Kevin Smith, for whom, after spending decades anxiously pining to see Watchmen playacted on the big screen, found the result “fucking astounding” and “joygasmic.” Endlessly fascinated by the original, I personally never even wanted a Watchmen movie in the first place. But as a lover of both comics and movies, I felt obligated to suffer through it.

If Watchmen were a Saturday Morning Cartoon (via Daring Fireball):

My aforementioned rant also repeated the old saw that Watchmen is the Citizen Kane of comics, and attempting to adapt it into another medium is folly. What is important about the example of Citizen Kane in particular isn’t so much its characters or incident, but rather how the story is told. As Welles did to movies in 1941, Moore revolutionized how comics could be told, stretching and bending every rule. Like Welles, Moore didn’t invent the many storytelling devices he used: including scrambled chronology (flashbacks nestled within flashbacks – not just as a storytelling device but a key insight into how one character experiences life), mixing of media (prose pieces expand the story), and stories-within-stories (the embedded Tales of the Black Freighter comic book that foreshadows a cataclysmic ending). Watchmen is in essence a book, not a movie.

Robert Rodriguez and Frank Miller’s Sin City inaugurated the recent trend of treating comic books not just as raw story material but as actual storyboards. But whereas Snyder had room to expand the story of Frank Miller’s relatively short graphic novel 300 into his previous film, Watchmen is a massive beast of a book that only realistically had to be brutally cut and/or significantly altered to squeeze into a roughly two-hour motion picture narrative. Maybe, just maybe, that’s exactly what Snyder should have done: radically reinvent the story to fit another medium. Instead, he created a slavishly accurate translation that comics fanboys like Wheaton, Smith, and Aintitcoolnews apparently thought they somehow deserved.

In the end, Snyder and screenwriters David Hayter and Alex Tse did make numerous cuts, many out of simple necessity. Some of them hurt (especially the murder of Hollis Mason, a scene which I consider essential to the story). Whereas I suggest above that the movie fails to reinvent the book as a film, Snyder’s mostly faithful adaptation does in fact make many significant alterations, but they are arguably the wrong ones. My three primary objections are the out-of-character violence, the flawed characterization of key character Adrian Veidt, and the altered ending.

Patrick Wilson in Watchmen
Nite Owl might have some trouble doing up the snaps on his super suit

I. HERE’S WHAT’S WRONG WITH: The Violence

First let me pre-empt the immediate objections: I am not a prude that decries any portrayal of violence in fiction (be it movies, video games, whatever). I have never subscribed to the reductive theory that censoring movies is the way to reduce real-world ills; if an individual is so damaged as to be inspired to violence by a movie (or even to take up smoking), there’s something more wrong with that individual than can be repaired by censoring movies for everyone else. So I don’t object to Watchmen’s notably extreme violence and gore per se, but rather to its injudicious use by all its characters, irregardless of whether it is motivated by their individual natures.

All of the so-called superheroes in the Watchmen movie are shown to be brutal killers. It does makes sense in the cases of Ozymandias (a megalomaniac presuming to kill a few to save many), Dr. Manhattan (an unemotional non-human that finds nothing extraordinary in life), The Comedian (a misanthropic, nihilistic mercenary), and, most especially, Rorschach. One of the most difficult-to-watch sequences of the entire film is a flashback relating Rorschach’s (Jackie Earle Haley) origin story. His voiceover narration states that, early in his career as a costumed vigilante, he was originally “too soft on crime,” meaning to him, that he used to let criminals live. He goes on to recall the specific case in which he cracked. He tracks down the hideout of a creep that has kidnapped and killed a little girl, and fed her to his dogs. This case is beyond the pale for a street-level vigilante more accustomed to busting up organized crime and purse snatchers. Rorschach sees no point in apprehending him on the police’s behalf, and summarily executes him in a rage. This sequence is unbelievably violent, but it speaks volumes about Rorschach, why he is the way he is, and what differentiates him from his peers, the vigilante fraternity.

But all this is undercut when we also see Nite Owl (Patrick Wilson) and Silk Spectre (Malin Akerman) execute an entire gang of would-be muggers. Muggers, not demonic child molesters! What’s their excuse for splintering bones and severing spines? At what point in their careers did they adjust their moral compasses and decide it’s justified for them to kill? To kill is totally out of character for both of them, and undercuts the entire point of the Rorschach sequence. Their actions make them no different than Rorschach. If the point is that they think they are different than Rorschach but are not, the movie doesn’t seem to be aware of this contradiction. Silk Spectre’s fighting style, incidentally, seems inspired by Madonna’s “Vogue” dance and maximized to strike sexy poses (not that I’m complaining).

The movie also alters the already-horrific rape scene in the book in two very strange ways: it makes it considerably more violent, but also explicitly clear that the actual act of rape was interrupted before… there is no word for the crime… completion, I’ll say. In later scenes, it is explicitly spelled out that Sally (Carla Gugino) and The Comedian (Jeffrey Dean Morgan) have consensual sex some years later, conceiving Laurie (who assumes his mother’s mantle of Silk Spectre). My interpretation of the rape scene as it appears in the book has always been that Laurie was conceived during the rape, and that there is no evidence in the text that Sally and The Comedian had any kind of relationship afterwards. In both the book and the movie, the aged Sally cries and kisses a picture of the original hero group The Minutemen, which included a young Comedian. The scene is totally ambiguous in the book; I always assumed that Sally’s feelings were very complex – certainly not that she forgave or loved her rapist, but more that she was sad and nostalgic for a world long-lost. Laurie’s biological father (for better or for worse) and most of the population of New York were all murdered. Her happiness and glory days are long gone. Wouldn’t you cry too? But in the movie, it’s made utterly clear that she voluntarily slept with The Comedian some time after his attempted rape. If we are expected to believe that a fictional woman could do that, the movie ought to spend some time examining her psychology and motivations, which it does not.

In fact, this scene was so squeamish that the crowd in the theater became unruly (an opening-night screening on Manhattan’s Upper West Side), and at least one person (a man, as it happens), got up and walked out, loudly complaining all the way. I also note without judgement that a few other people also walked out during the absurdly long sex scene between Nite Owl and Silk Spectre. Personally, the most offensive aspect of that scene for me was its ironic soundtrack of Leonard Cohen’s lovely Hallelujah. The Onion’s A.V. Club reports on even more significant walkouts.

still from Watchmen
Sally’s complex feelings for the past

II. HERE’S WHAT’S WRONG WITH: Adrian Veidt

To pull off a workable movie version of Watchmen, I would argue that the one character it would be most important to get right is Adrian Veidt. Strangely for such a visual director as Snyder, Veidt’s origin story is told not as a flashback (as with all other characters) but as a dull lecture given to a bunch of industrialists. He takes pleasure in explaining that he has patterned his hero persona after no less grandiose historical models than Alexander the Great and Pharaoh Ramesses II, also known as Ozymandias. Everyone should have known that this one would be nothing but trouble. A statue in Veidt’s arctic hideaway (his version of Superman’s Fortress of Solitude) is inscribed with the Percy Bysshe Shelley verse:

My name is Ozymandias, king of kings:
Look on my works, ye Mighty, and despair.

One of the key details that makes the superhero characters in the book so interesting is that only one of them is actually “super.” Dr. Manhattan (Billy Crudup) is a nonhuman being that exists on a quantum level of reality, but every other “hero” character is mortal. Exemplary and/or damaged in certain ways, but all human. We know from the book that Veidt has honed his body to near-perfect physical fitness, but the movie clearly shows him to possess superhuman strength and speed. It’s a pity to make Veidt more than human, because, like all of history’s greatest heroes and villains, he is just a man.

Most curiously of all, the movie implies Veidt is gay. If you think my gaydar is on the fritz, bear with me here for a moment. First, we see a brief flashback of Veidt hanging out in front of the legendary Manhattan nightclub Studio 54 with gay and/or androgynous pop icons The Village People, David Bowie, and Mick Jagger. Additionally, actor Matthew Goode made the bizarre choice to give his character a speech defect, perhaps meant to be the sort of lisp that codes movie characters as “gay.” It’s so dominant that some lines of dialogue were actually difficult to understand. Goode seems to speak clearly in Match Point and Brideshead Revisited (in the sexually ambiguous role of Charles Ryder), so we can rule out it being natural for him. The original graphic novel does not make any suggestions as to Veidt’s sexuality at all, which makes a kind of sense, as he is a megalomaniac that probably doesn’t want or need anybody, male or female.

Matthew Goode in Watchmen
Ozymandias speaks the only instance of the word “Watchmen” in the book

III. HERE’S WHAT’S WRONG WITH: The New Ending

Veidt’s final solution to save the world is utterly insane, but one aspect in particular is brilliantly manipulative. He distracts his former comrades from his machinations with a conspiracy theory perfectly tailored to their own little psychodrama: an invented serial killer targeting former superheroes. While the world slides towards armageddon, they are preoccupied running around the globe fretting about a “mask killer.”

Meanwhile, Veidt plots to save the world from immanent nuclear war, a threat the other heroes are aware of but never consider to be something they can affect. In the graphic novel, he fabricates a nonexistent extraterrestrial threat, and stages a massive alien attack on Manhattan that kills thousands (millions?). Humanity is effectively united in a new but fragile world order, looking outward for foes, rather than at each other. Veidt’s plot in the movie is significantly different, framing Dr. Manhattan for the destruction of New York. Both endings imagine a kind of 9/11 in 1985, but the movie version is more self-contained and less absurd, perhaps meant to be easier for audiences to digest. The comic version is admittedly utterly batshit insane, which is part of the point: the faux attack is so shockingly unprecedented that it shocks the entire world into submission. It also underscores Veidt’s true diabolical evil genius: he’s the only one of his kind that sees outside of the superhero psychodrama, and he knows that to truly unite the world behind a fiction, it has to be something new, not something humanity has already rejected: the superhero. Also, as contributing Dork Reporter Snarkbait notes, why would the Soviets necessarily react peaceably to the threat of Dr. Manhattan? He was already a threat to them for decades, but had long since stopped becoming a deterrent (as the story begins, they were encroaching on Afghanistan anyway). It shouldn’t have surprised any citizens of this fictional world that Dr. Manhattan might blow something up. But it would shock the entire world if a gigantic alien squid were to decimate a city.

a still from Watchmen
New York suffers again: the movie shows only the attack, the book shows only the aftermath

Another issue entirely is the pathetic cop-out of depicting only the decimated buildings of Manhattan, and not the accompanying piles of bodies (something the book does not shy away from). Co-screenwriter David Hayter chalks it up to a fact of the movie being a big-budget product of a major studio:

The ending of the book shows just piles of corpses, bloody corpses in the middle of Times Square, people hanging out of windows just slaughtered on a massive scale. To do that in a comic book, and release it in 1985, is different from doing it real life, in a movie, and seeing all of these people brutally massacred in the middle of Times Square post 2001. That’s a legitimate concern, and one that I shared.

If you’re doing the movie for $40 million, fine – bloody bodies everywhere. And that’s fine, and it’s a niche film, and only the hardcore fans would go see it. But if you’re doing it on this big of a scale, I just don’t think that’s… I understood their [Warner Bros.’] reticence to putting those images on screen.

Malin Akerman in Watchmen
I’m hard pressed to decide which Silk Spectre costume is more impractical

IV. HERE’S WHAT’S RIGHT WITH WATCHMEN

Quite a rant this is turning into. Who needs this much negativity in their lives (and blogs)? The movie was not a crime against humanity, and certainly could have been a lot worse. As io9.com reports, for all its flaws, Snyder’s flawed alterations look like genius compared to the rude bastardization the studio Warner Bros. wanted: to set it in the present day, cut all flashbacks, cut the sequences on Mars, cut Rorschach’s psychoanalysis, and worst of all, end with the villain Veidt dying, apparently based on the conventional wisdom that audiences are conditioned to expect villains to die.

The movie kept one of my favorite little character moments of the book: when the old crimefighting duo of Nite Owl and Rorschach are reunited, Nite Owl finally snaps and tells him people only put up with him because he’s a lunatic and they’re afraid of him. Rorschach shows a final glimmer of the last bit of humanity left in him, and puts out his hand: “you’re a good friend, Dan.” But he doesn’t let go. Rorschach has long since lost his ability to interact normally.

Patrick Wilson and Jackie Earle Haley in Watchmen
Nite Owl and Rorschach get the old band back together

Watchmen is, remarkably, a period piece. Snyder keeps the original setting of the book in the 1980s, complete with nostalgic easter eggs: including a vintage Apple Macintosh desktop, Pat Buchanan, Annie Leibovitz, John McLaughlin (of The McLaughlin Group, not the jazz fusion guitarist), Andy Warhol, Henry Kissinger, Ted Koppel, Lee Iacocca, Truman Capote (seen in Warhol’s Factory), Fidel Castro, Mick Jagger, and David Bowie. But one background detail in the book (a repeatedly reelected Nixon) is expanded to an absurd degree.

Jackie Earle Haley was extraordinary, far and away the best asset of the movie. More than any other cast member, Haley seemed to really understand the complex character. Rorschach is undoubtedly an unhinged, right-wing, sexually stunted nutjob, but in a strange kind of way, he becomes the moral center of the very liberal graphic novel. The same utterly uncompromising nature of his character that causes him to appoint himself an executioner of criminals also makes him unable to live with the grand lie that Veidt architects. For all his sins, Rorschach is right about one thing: the world deserves the truth. Haley’s final scene was perfectly performed, and the one moment in the entire movie imbued with real emotion.


Some of the best bits of Watchmen commentary, clips, humor, and esoterica that bubbled up on teh interwebs during the buildup to this geek apocalypse:

Official movie site: watchmenmovie.warnerbros.com

Official iPhone game: watchmenjusticeiscoming.com

Official DC Comics Watchmen site: ReadWatchmen.com – download a free PDF of the first chapter of the original graphic novel.

Official expanded, interactive trailer: 6minutestomidnight.com

Three vintage pieces on Watchmen by budding journalist Neil Gaiman: The Comics Explosion from Time Out, Moore About Comics from Knave, and Every Picture Tells a Story from Today.

Todd Klein’s Watching Watchmen, the best-written review of the film I’ve yet read. Klein is the comics letterer extraordinaire, and friend to both Moore and Gibbons.

Reading the Watchmen: 10+ Entrance Points Into the Esteemed Graphic Novel by Tom Spurgeon. A sober look at the phenomenon from the point of view of one who’s fallen in and out and in love with the book, and has no interest in the movie. Via The Comics Journal Journalista

Levitz on Watchmen, in which DC Comics CEO Paul Levitz reveals the heartening statistic that DC hurriedly ran hundreds of thousands of additional copies of the book to meet demand. (also via The Comics Journal Journalista)

5 Reasons a Watchmen Movie was Unnecessary by Christopher Campbell. Prejudges the movie “redundant, rehashed, irrelevant, ridiculous and inescapably disappointing superhero cinema.” I’m jealous they received more comments than my own 10 Reasons the Watchmen Movie Will Suck, despite having precisely twice the number of bullet points! Via Snarkbait

This is Not a Watchmen Review by Sean Axmaker, asking not only why the world needs a Watchmen movie, but why it would need another Watchmen review. Guilty.

Why Alan Moore Hates Comic Book Movies by San Shurst. Total Film’s brief exclusive interview with Moore in which he pithily nails the problem with movies: “everybody who is ultimately in control of the film industry is an accountant.” On Watchmen’s 100 million dollar budget: “Do we need any more shitty films in this world? We have quite enough already. Whereas the 100 million dollars could sort out the civil unrest in Haiti. And the books are always superior, anyway.”

Will You Watch the Watchmen? by Jason A. Tselentis. A consideration of the then-forthcoming movie from the point of view of a designer. I posted what I thought was a decent comment but was rejected. Ouch!

Ideaspace Boils to Steam in DeZ Vylenz’s The Mindscape of Alan Moore

DeZ Vylenz’s feature-length documentary about the life and work of writer Alan Moore was made in 2003 but not released until 2008. The delay might be easily explained as that of an independent production’s typical struggle for funding, but it’s hard not to guess the timing of this particular film’s lavish release as a deluxe double-disc DVD may have something to do with Moore’s currently elevated profile. The long-awaited theatrical adaptation of Moore and Dave Gibbons’ seminal graphic novel Watchmen finally hits theaters on March 6 2009, after almost 2 decades of fits and starts in Hollywood limbo.

The Mindscape of Alan Moore is essentially an extended sit-down interview with Moore, intercut with evocative imagery evoking Godfrey Reggio’s Koyaanisqatsi: Life Out of Balance. It moves too quickly to focus on any one aspect of Moore’s long career, and it’s possible to glean more insight into the man just by reading one or two interviews. But it’s apparent that Vylenz’s true interest lies less in Moore’s comics work than in his practice of magic. More on that later.

Alan Moore in The Mindscape of Alan Moore
The charmer from Northhampton

Let’s be frank; Alan Moore is a weird cat. As more than one person has described him, he’s a truly great writer that has chosen to work in “The Gutter” (as it amuses Neil Gaiman to call it): comics. Which is to oversimplify; some of his other work includes several performance art pieces and the stunning prose novel Voice of the Fire. All this has left Moore a cult figure, underestimated even by many fans. He is probably one of comics’ best-known names, but while his friend Gaiman frequently tours the globe like a rock star, he’s happy to stay at home in Northhampton. Like Stanley Kubrick, he has an unfair reputation as a kind of eccentric recluse, but reportedly the actual truth is that he is a warm and friendly person who simply wishes to enjoy life in his home town and practice his art.

Moore began writing comics in the 1980s Reagan/Thatcher Cold War era, which informed the paranoid and apocalyptic air of V for Vendetta and Watchmen. One particular fictional nightmare of Moore’s that he perversely enjoys to point out is V For Vendetta’s accurate prediction that CCTV surveillance would blanket England by the late 1990s. But further on the topic of political oppression, Moore affirms that while conspiracy theories are everywhere you look (the act of looking creates them, one might say), in fact there are no conspiracies. If the world is rudderless and chaotic, conspiracy theories are mere comforts.

The Mindscape of Alan Moore
V approves of this post

Against his intentions, his dark take on the superhero and science fiction genres was radically influential in the wrong way. Fans and creators who didn’t grasp the deeper themes behind Watchmen forever steered comics into grim and gritty stupidity, mimicking the superfluous sex and violence without the subtext and literary merit that Moore snuck in the back door. On its simplest level, Watchmen could be described as what the world would be like if there actually were such a thing as superheroes. The answer being: totally different and yet exactly the same. But looking deeper, Watchmen is actually about the danger of those that presume to the power to change the world. It’s impossible to read Watchmen now, two decades after its creation, and not to compare the book’s true villain (whom it would be a cruel spoiler for me to name here) with George W. Bush’s misadventures in the Middle East. Bush and Watchmen’s villain both manufactured wars with the presumptive belief that they were destined to save the world.

Moore believes that while a knowledge and appreciation of how cinema works can inform comics, there are things that only comics can do. If comics creators only work with movies in mind, their comics will be like “movies that don’t move.” So, as a result, most of his work was essentially “designed to be unfilmable.” This Dork Reporter worries that the forthcoming adaptation of Watchmen will carry on the tradition of missing Moore’s point, and will simply be a dark, nasty, and depressing story of violence, sex, and depravity starring superheroes in sexy tights.

Rorschach in The Mindscape of Alan Moore
Rorschach’s cameo appearance

Moore declared to friends and family on his 40th birthday that he was a magician. That’s not “magic” as in the pulling of rabbits out of proverbial hats, but as in the exploration of areas outside the realm of science. Magic is the exploration of what science does not cover, but sometimes science describes the world in ways that might sound like magic. Collaborator Dave Gibbons points out the Heisenberg Uncertainty Principle, in which the more we learn what makes up matter and the material world, the less substantial it all seems. We can’t observe or measure it; there’s nothing there.

Moore defines magic as “The Art,” and if art is the manipulation of words and images to alter consciousness, then art is magic, and a writer is a magician. As Moore says in an interview with Daniel Whiston, his best grimoire (or book of spells) is actually a dictionary. Moore believes writing is a “transformative force than can change society” but by the 21st Century, writing is seen as a mere entertainment. Whereas once, in less rational or scientifically enlightened times, writers were feared. A witch could curse your crops or your health, but a writer could afflict you with a satire that could cause an entire community to laugh at you, and worse, for posterity to continue to laugh at you generations after you die! Now, the power of magic is not only underestimated, but abused. Advertisers work magic every day by manipulating and anesthetizing people en masse.

The Mindscape of Alan Moore
Doctor Manhattan as Da Vinci’s Vitruvian Man

Moore posits the existence of what he calls “Ideaspace,” the landscape of the mind and spirit. The various systems of magic, like the Tarot and the Kabbalah, are maps to Ideaspace. He describes how writers and musicians sometimes feel like they are tapping in to something beyond them, as if merely taking dictation. I myself once felt a faint, pathetic little echo of I think what Moore is talking about. A high school friend and I used to compose and record instrumental music for guitar and keyboard. Our compositions were of varying degrees of seriousness, many just silly fun, but some fairly ambitious. While jamming around one of our silliest tunes, I still swear I heard a melody in the music that neither of us had played yet. My friend couldn’t hear it even when I figured it out on the guitar and played it over the backing tracks we had already recorded. Perhaps I was just hearing musical overtones that were literally present in the sound waves, but I remain convinced that, as silly as that particular song was, I very briefly connected into some kind of world of music. I don’t feel like it was a piece of music that I wrote, more like something that was already there, waiting, and I just had to hear it and play it back onto tape.

But if Ideaspace is real place full of “information” (nonmaterial ideas and inventions), humans are accumulating information at an exponentially increasing rate, and Moore predicts an apocalypse of sorts. If it continues at this rate, the accumulation of information will accelerate to a point where it will effectively approach infinity around 2015. He doesn’t know what will happen, but poetically describes the event as society reaching a boiling point and “becoming steam.” Moore’s ideas here are similar to Ray Kurzweil’s notion of the coming Singularity, the point at which computers become so advanced that they can act of their own accord, and improve themselves, and in effect become conscious. What Moore has to say here is both fascinating and frightening, but the film falls down by literally illustrating his big ideas with overly literal special effects sequences showing Northhampton burning.

Other filmed sequences reenact scenes from Watchmen, V for Vendetta, and John Constantine: Hellblazer (a series initially written by Jamie Delano, but starring the character Moore created for Swamp Thing). It probably seemed extremely unlikely in 2003 that any of these properties would become big-budget Hollywood films, and yet they now all have. In particular, the two sequences from Watchmen and V for Vendetta almost surely didn’t make Warner Bros. (who owns the rights to the works) happy, but they seem to have allowed Vylenz’ film to be released nevertheless.

A bonus DVD includes lengthy interviews with many of Moore’s collaborators, discussing their own work as well as their collaborations with Moore. Moore’s wife Melinda Gebbie, an American expat and illustrator of the pornographic novel Lost Girls, is more… well, normal than I would have expected. She’s extremely intelligent, with progressive politics, making her an obvious partner for Moore, but to be honest, I expected more of a freak. Also, Dave Gibbons does a wicked impression of Moore.


Maybe read: Fractalmatter review

Maybe read: CHUD review

Must read: The Craft, by Daniel Whiston. An extended interview with Moore on the craft of writing.

10 Reasons the Watchmen Movie Will Suck

Sorry for the melodramatic title, but be honest, would you have clicked through to this article had I used a more measured headline like “10 Well-Reasoned Arguments to be Mildly Apprehensive the Watchmen Movie May Not Meet Expectations”?

Consider yourself a true admirer of Alan Moore and Dave Gibbon’s graphic novel Watchmen (1986)? Read on for 10 reasons to be very, very afraid. Please note that I haven’t yet seen the movie, and the below rant is all coming from the perspective of someone that cares about the book. Also be forewarned that I can’t be bothered to avoid spoilers.

1. The project has been cursed for years.

Numerous directors have come before Zack Snyder, and all have tried and failed. The rogues’ gallery includes no less than Terry Gilliam, Darren Aronofsky, and Paul Greengrass, and those are just the ones we know about. It’s too soon in Snyder’s career to issue a verdict on him, but it’s fair to say that these three directors are all a fair sight more seasoned and acclaimed than he. It’s likely that all three (not to mention their producers and screenwriters) gave up on Watchmen for very good reasons. Gilliam, in particular, famously had the good sense to agree with Moore that his book may actually be truly unfilmable. And all this is not even to mention Warner Bros.’ dramatic feud with 20th Century Fox over the rights to the project itself, eventually ending in January 2009 with the two rivals begrudgingly agreeing to share the profits (while not mentioning that, I also won’t mention its fruitless fling with Paramount). Read on for still more animosity and bad blood swirling about the long-gestating project…

Jackie Earle Haley as Rorschach in the movie Watchmen
Have no fear! Right-wing, sexually damaged, sociopathic nutjob Rorschach is on the case

2. It doesn’t have Alan Moore’s blessings.

Worse, it doesn’t have his apathy either. Moore didn’t seem too perturbed by the From Hell (The Holmes Brothers, 2001) and League of Extraordinary Gentlemen (Stephen Norrington, 2003) movies. He didn’t collaborate on them, nor did he care to even see them. Basically, he shrugged, and trusted his books would live on in their own rights. But the results in every case so far have been disastrous: terrible films that retained little of what made the books matter. In retrospect, it seems Moore showed extraordinary patience with the first two films that mangled his books, and that he now have no mercy for those messing with V for Vendetta and Watchmen makes perfect sense. Additional legal and ethical skirmishes with DC Comics and Warner Bros. over The Wachowski Brothers’ and James McTeigue’s V for Vendetta (2006) led to Moore taking his name off any comics work to which he does not control the copyright (essentially everything he did for DC). In the cases of the V for Vendatta and Watchmen films, he has put his money where his mouth is and officially deferred all of his royalties to his collaborators David Lloyd and Dave Gibbons. You have to admire the integrity of anyone willing to leave that much money on the table. One ray of hope for those that appreciate the book, however, is that Gibbons has been actively collaborating on the Watchmen production. Hopefully his contributions have helped to keep the filmmakers on target.

3. At least one character has been miscast.

One of the curses of having read a book enough times to internalize every detail is to also have very clear mental images of the characters. The Watchmen producers were probably right to avoid casting any especially well-known faces. Based on what I’ve seen so far, several of their choices do feel right to me, especially Patrick Wilson as Daniel Dreiberg (Nite Owl) Jackie Earle Haley as Walter Kovacs (Rorschach), and Matt Frewer as Moloch. The 30-year-old Malin Akerman is certainly a very attractive sight onscreen, but her character Laurie Juspeczyk (Silk Spectre) is supposed to be almost 40 in the novel’s present. I’m giving her the benefit of the doubt for now, but the real problem is Matthew Goode as Adrian Veidt (Ozymandias). Goode is, simply, totally wrong. Veidt should be ridiculously handsome, like George Clooney, but utterly dispassionate and ice-cold, like Keanu Reeves. He should radiate intelligence and self-confidence, like Kevin Spacey, and be incredibly fit, like Michael Phelps. But Goode here seems shrimpy, ugly, and weaselly. His mushmouth dialogue in promotional clips has him affecting some kind of botched accent or speech defect. If I were the Watchmen casting agent, I’d Aaron Eckhart’s agent a call.

4. Snyder has reportedly tarted up the action.

Early reports are that Snyder has amped up the sex, violence, and action. Readers of the book will recall that Silk Spectre and Nite Owl come out of retirement by effecting an aerial rescue from a burning tenement building. As io9.com rightly notes, Snyder’s version of the scene sets entirely the wrong tone. The book shows Dan and Laurie as old pros that can basically sleepwalk through such a mission, and yet the movie has them outrunning fireballs in slow motion (Snyder’s directoral calling card). Other early reports are that a rape scene, already horrific and shocking in the book, has actually been made more titillating and explicit for the film. Jeffrey Dean Morgan (The Comedian) told MTV News that the scene is “really violent” and the movie is “rated ‘R’ for a reason.”

5. Snyder’s adaptation may be too worshipful.

In DeZ Vylenz’ documentary The Mindscape of Alan Moore, Moore notes the superficial resemblance between comics and movie storyboards. He believes that an understanding of the mechanics of cinema can inform comics writing (and vice versa), but if comics writers worship movies too much, their comics will be reduced to “movies that don’t move.” It also works the other way: Snyder has already proven his skill to literally recreate comics panels into cinema with his lurid adaptation of Frank Miller’s bonkers graphic novel 300 in 2007. Worse, Warner Bros. has produced an atrocious “motion comics” version of the original Watchmen graphic novel (available now on iTunes and soon on DVD), comprised of motion-graphics animated versions of Dave Gibbons’ artwork, read aloud by a single voice actor. As Scott McCloud spent an entire book demonstrating (Understanding Comics, 1993), the way that comics “work” is much more than that: the interplay of sequential images and (optionally) words. If Snyder’s movie is similar to 300 or the Watchmen Motion Comics, then it might as well just be called Watchmen for Illiterates. We don’t need a moving, talking version of the book; we can always read the book.

6. Paradoxically to the above point, the changes that Snyder does make may be the wrong ones.

Anyone who’s so much as flipped through the book will realize that its complexity is irreducible. I personally can’t imagine what must be sacrificed to squeeze the essential narrative down to a 2 1/2 hour movie, so thankfully Entertainment Weekly has compiled this list. Snyder has recently admitted to cutting what I feel to be one of the most heartbreaking and seminal sequences in the entire story: the senseless murder of Hollis Mason (the Golden Age Nite Owl). Snyder also hints he has changed the book’s cataclysmic climax. I don’t mind losing the specific details if screenwriters David Hayter and Alex Tse have devised something suitable to replace it.

7. One word: “Watchmen”

Several trailers and TV spots released to date include both Rorschach and The Comedian speaking the word “Watchmen.” To anyone that’s read the book, this is an egregious sin (almost as bad as saying “The Watchmen”). As such, the trailers make it seem as if “Watchmen” is the name of some kind of supergroup like the Fantastic Four or The X-Men. True, in the book’s backstory, there was a group of heroes called The Minutemen in the 1940s (Moore’s equivalent to comic’s so-called Golden Age). A second generation of heroes gather in the 1970s (including many of the main characters of the book) to discuss forging a new group called The Crimebusters, but they immediately break up. At no point in the book is the word “Watchmen” ever spoken, by anyone. Its only appearance in the book is the occasional graffiti “Who Watches the Watchmen?” in the background of some New York City street scenes. According to the all-knowing Wikipedia, the Latin phrase “Quis custodiet ipsos custodes?” comes from the Roman poet Juvenal, asked by Plato in the socratic dialog Republic (380BC-ish). In the context of Watchmen, the meaning is obvious: the public is asking of their self-appointed protectors, who’s protecting us from you? But who’s protecting moviegoers from filmmakers that are dumbing down this story?

8. These characters are definitely not “cool.”

Nearly every character in the book is psychologically scarred, some deeply so (with the possible exception of Hollis Mason – the original Nite Owl – who comes across as the only one who turned to vigilanteism out of a genuine need to help people). Rorschach is a right-wing sociopath (Watchmen having been written in the mid 1980s, think of a costumed Bernard Getz or Charles Bronson). The Comedian is a fascist and a rapist. Ozymandias is an egomaniac of the most dangerous sort (think George W. Bush, except infinitely worse). Dr. Manhattan is not even human, and unlike the somewhat analogous Superman, is devoid of emotion, empathy, or compassion. New York City was recently host to a Comic-Con convention at which more than a few borderline psychos left the sanctity of their mothers’ basements to walk around the city dressed up as the sexually damaged, violent nutjob Rorschach. The imagery and clips released from the movie so far only seem to reinforce the perception of these characters as cool and badass.

9. The merchandise makes me cringe.

What creep would buy and display a statuette of the rapist and fascist The Comedian? Or if you want to rob a bank, you could do worse than don a Rorschach ski mask, about which io9.com has already remarked. Only an Ozymandias action figure [http://www.dccomics.com/dcdirect/?dcd=10047] makes sense in an ironic kind of way, for the character heavily marketed his superhero persona for personal profit. As for why these tie-in items make me feel queasy, please refer to No. 8 above.

Adrian Veidt Ozymandias action figure from the movie Watchmen
One of the most ironic aspects of the whole Watchmen movie hoopla is now that you can actually own a real Ozymandias action figure

10. And finally, Hollywood is taking away one of the last remaining comic book masterworks.

Warner Bros. Picture Group president Jeff Robinov proclaimed to Entertainment Weekly his loyalty to the source material: “The movie is impactful, tough, and true to the book that we all loved, and I’m very proud of it.” I’ll try to set aside my immediate gag reflex at the use of “impact” as an adjective, and hope that he’s right. Hollywood has already brutalized Moore’s From Hell, V for Vendetta, and League of Extraordinary Gentlemen. The books were read by relatively small number of people, but the movies were seen by millions who who may never even know the source material exists, let alone read it. Watchmen, like all of Moore’s comics work, was created for comics. None of the previous adaptations of his work have survived the adaptation process, and were misinterpreted and puréed into milquetoast.

Final Thoughts

Moore and Gibbon’s Watchmen is perhaps the seminal graphic novel to date. I’m not the first to say it, but Watchmen is the Citizen Kane of comic books. It’s a towering, complex, and multi-faceted masterpiece. It has the kind of scope, ambition, and narrative experimentation that makes it one of the few graphic novels that deserves to be called a novel. Time Magazine recognized as much by naming it one of its All-Time 100 Novels in 2005. Just as it’s inconceivable that Citizen Kane be adapted into another medium (theater? poetry? interpretive dance? or for that matter, comics?), so too do I shudder to imagine Watchmen translated into any other form. My biggest fear is that millions of moviegoers will experience Watchmen in this incarnation as a big-budget escapist spectacle, and never be aware of its special source material.

Most of Moore’s graphic novels are exactly that: novels. Watchmen, V for Vendetta, Lost Girls, and From Hell are all finite and self-contained. There are no sequels, prequels, or spinoffs. Watchmen is being heavily marketed as another in a long line of superhero movies, following the massive success of Iron Man, Batman (read The Dork Report review of The Dark Knight), and Spider-Man franchises. All of these are open-ended, ongoing episodic series that have lasted for decades. How many moviegoers will not understand that Watchmen is based on an actual novel? Will they anticipate a sequel? Let’s pray that Warner Bros. isn’t plotting one, lest Moore really lose his temper.

Jeffrey Dean Morgan as The Comedian in the movie Watchmen
The Comedian is no Captain America

Only Art Spiegelman’s Pulitzer Prize-winning Maus is more well-regarded, if perhaps less widely read. Watchmen too might have earned such top-shelf garlands had it not been set firmly within the historically juvenile genre that utterly dominates Western comics to this day: men and women that dress up in tights and fight crime. Superheroes. They’re for kids, right?

To anyone familiar with Moore’s oeuvre, it’s clear he does genuinely love superheroes despite his repeated attempts to rip them apart. With Watchmen and the even more pitiless Miracleman (now tragically out of print, maybe forever), Moore tried to inject a degree of psychological and political realism into comics. But generally speaking, audiences (and publishers) mostly latched onto the superficial elements of violence and sex, ushering in a few decades of superhero comics that were grim and gritty but lacked depth and imagination. As the comics chased the aging generation that grew up reading Watchmen and its progeny, it left kids behind. In 1999, Moore did try to atone for his inadvertent revolution with a line of comics that attempted to re-inject whimsy, clever storytelling, and innocence back into comics (especially in the Tom Strong and Tomorrow Stories series). But even so, today most acclaimed comics lie outside the superhero genre, including Neil Gaiman’s The Sandman (fantasy, mostly) and Brian K. Vaughn’s Y: The Last Man (science fiction, mostly).

Jeffrey Dean Morgan as The Comedian in the movie Watchmen
The Comedian is dead. Ground floor coming up. The jokes just keep coming.

Watchmen is one of my favorite books, and I’ve probably read it at least 10 times over the years. So obviously, my love for it feeds into my apprehension that it may be mishandled. But there have been other much-loved books that I haven’t been especially worried about. Stuart Gordon’s film based on William Wharton’s novel A Midnight Clear is an excellent (and rare) example of an exceedingly faithful adaptation that works. Also, as much as I loved Cormac McCarthy’s novel The Road, I’m quite looking forward to director John Hillcoat’s film, as opposed to dreading how he might screw it up. Although it should be noted Hillcoat has the excellent The Proposition (2005) on his résumé to commend him, while Snyder only has Dawn of the Dead and 300.

Some prose works have arguably been improved as movies, or at least translated into great works in their own rights. To name a few examples mostly in Watchmen’s arena of science-fiction: Alfonso Cuarón’s Children of Men (read The Dork Report review) is more gripping and visceral than P.D. James’ novel. Ridley Scott’s Blade Runner is something else entirely than Philip K. Dick’s novella Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep. And at the risk of incurring the wrath of sword-and-sorcery geeks everywhere, I’m prepared to argue that Peter Jackson’s The Lord of the Rings films improve enormously upon J.R.R. Tolkien’s insufferably tedious books. Oh yeah, I said it. Bring it on.

So why am I so apprehensive about Watchmen in particular? Because it has been historically misunderstood and misinterpreted for 20 years and I see no sign that Snyder is seeing any deeper than its surface. If Moore’s Watchmen tried but failed to permanently revitalize the superhero genre by laying bare its internal lunacies, what is Snyder’s movie trying to accomplish, and will it too fail?


Official movie site: watchmenmovie.warnerbros.com

Must read: BoingBoing’s Xeni Jardin interviews Snyder and special effects creator John Des Jardins about their efforts to make an exactingly faithful adaptation of the source material.

Must read: Why I will not be seeing Watchmen by Kevin Church

Must read: Spoiler Alert: WATCHMEN is Fucking Awesome by über-geek (that’s a compliment) Wil Wheaton

Must read: What Happens if Watchmen Flops? by Graeme McMillan

Batman wants to be taken seriously in Christopher Nolan’s The Dark Knight

I wanted to love Batman: The Dark Knight. Director Christopher Nolan (also cowriter with brother Jonathan) and star Christian Bale have long proved themselves thoughtful, serious filmmakers, but if they have one common flaw it might be a terminal deficiency of levity. The Dark Knight inarguably has all the hallmarks of quality, intelligence, and craft, but it makes a miscalculation in tone. Aspiring to the cinematic heights of epic crime melodramas like Heat and The Godfather Part II, The Dark Knight overshoots the limits of its source material and becomes oppressively grim and depressing. One of the film’s marketing taglines was The Joker’s catchphrase “Why so serious?”, a question it should have taken to heart itself. Batman is, after all, a dude who dresses up in a rubber bat suit with pointy ears.

The Dark Knight takes its name from the seminal 1980s graphic novel The Dark Knight Returns by comics auteur Frank Miller, but is not an adaptation. At this point, an adaptation would be redundant anyway, as Miller’s general tone and interpretation of the character as an obsessed, psychotic loner has informed every Batman film so far. Spider-Man 2 remains, for me, the only film adaptation of a comic book superhero property to strike the right balance between comics’ heightened reality and cinema’s more grounded literalness.

Batman: The Dark Knight
Pick a card… joker’s wild

This blogger grew up with Tim Burton’s two original Batman films, which took the character “seriously” insofar as giving him a reasonably plausible psychological motivation. But they also plopped the character down in an obviously fantastical parallel universe in which such things as rocket-powered penguins and death by laughter (literally) were plausible. In contrast, the two Nolan / Bale films drain all the wit and whimsy from the core Batman mythos, and place him in a decaying, corrupt, crime-ridden city straight out of 1940s pulp noir novels. Living in modern-day New York City, it’s almost impossible for me to imagine Russian and Italian organized crime families being so powerful as to commandeer five big city banks for money laundering purposes, and yet that is a key plot point in the supposedly serious and realistic The Dark Knight. Indeed, any viewer of The Wire and The Sopranos will know that what contemporary organized crime families are capable of is far more mundane. Comic book fans will realize this is the same mistake often made in post-80s comic books: mistaking bloody murder and mayhem for “realism.” If The Dark Knight wanted to be taken so seriously, it could have begun by tweaking its depiction of the contemporary real world.

Batman: The Dark Knight
Internet rumor has it that Christian Bale is the star of this picture

Every emotion, motivation, and plot point is pushed to such an absurd degree of pretentious gravity and self-seriousness that it almost becomes comic. The precise moment where the film irrevocably lost me is the scene in which the grievously disfigured Harvey Dent (Aaron Eckhart) bellows at Detective Gordon (Gary Oldman) from his hospital bed, commanding him to speak his old derogatory nickname gleaned from years of working internal affairs cases: Two-Face. The performances were so exaggeratedly despairing and melodramatic that I frankly started to laugh.

What little deliberate humor there is is misplaced and awkward. As before, there is some levity to be mined from Bruce Wayne’s deliberate pretense to aimless trust-fund wastrel. Most of Alfred’s reliably dry dialogue amuses, mostly thanks to Michael Caine’s superlative ability to command the audience’s attentions and sympathies. But other stabs at humor misfire; during The Joker’s extended siege on Harvey Dent’s motorcade, one of the security guards provides a running commentary on the proceedings, as if the audience needed any verbal cue that an about-to-be collision with a tumbling helicopter is a bad thing indeed. The action, while spectacular, is nevertheless mostly plausible, save for Batman and Rachel (Maggie Gyllenhaal)’s fall of some 20 stories from Wayne’s penthouse apartment onto the roof of a car. How is it even remotely believable that they could survive without a scratch? I doubt such a plot device would pass muster in a vintage Batman comic book.

Batman: The Dark Knight
An outtake from Michael Mann’s Miami Vice

The performances are good all around, but The Dark Knight could very well be subtitled the Heath Ledger and Aaron Eckhart Show. Christian Bale, the ostensible star of the proceedings, is given little to do. I assume his hoarse Batman voice is meant, in story terms, to prevent him from being recognized as Bruce Wayne while also making him sound more scary. Instead, he seems asthmatic and out of breath. Morgan Freeman summons his reliable gravitas to plays Batman’s supremely capable beard, Lucius Fox, the nominal head of Wayne Industries. Maggie Gyllenhaal is a huge improvement over Katie Holmes. Although just as young and stylish, it is slightly easier to suspect disbelief that she could be a top District Attorney. Gary Oldman provides another example of his ability to subsume his physical appearance behind makeup and props (as in Hannibal and Dracula), but here he is all cuddly fatherly warmth and righteous but fair vengeance (basically a retread of his characterization of Sirius Black in the Harry Potter films).

Batman: The Dark Knight
Hey, there’s a female presence in this movie?

Setting aside the nostalgia and goodwill surrounding his premature death, Heath Ledger is indeed amazing. Even if he hadn’t died shortly after completing the role, his performance as The Joker would likely be remembered alongside other classic cinema nightmares: Anthony Hopkins as Hannibal Lecter in The Silence of the Lambs, Robert Mitchum as Harry Powell in The Night of the Hunter, and Kevin Spacey as John Doe in Se7en. One of the best aspects of the character is the clear emphasis that he’s not in the least bit interested in the traditional pasttimes of Batman’s colorful rogues’ gallery. Rather, his aim is to foment anarchy, even self-aware enough to ask “Do I look like a man with a plan?” He does occasionally let rip with a maniacal laugh on a par with the great Jokers of the past (no less all-time great scenery chewers than Jack Nicholson and Cesar Romero, but most of the time he’s creepiest when not even smiling. One nice idea that isn’t fully developed is that this Joker doesn’t have the standard comic book “secret origin.” This Joker tells two very different stories explaining how he became both physically and mentally scarred. It’s possible he may not even remember how he became the way he is, but even if he does, does it matter? Which is all the more scary.


Must Read: The New Yorker review by David Denby

You won’t like Edward Norton when he’s angry in The Incredible Hulk

The Incredible Hulk is Hollywood’s latest incidence of what has become known as a “reboot.” The term, I believe was originally coined in the comic book world, with further derivations in computer terminology. When a franchise begins to show its age with stalled creative energy and declining sales, its owners may opt to check it into surgery to be refreshed with a new cast, creative team, and updated plot particulars. Warner Bros. and DC Comics kick-started their valuable but stagnant Batman and Superman feature film properties, making them relevant to 21st century audiences, and now it’s Marvel Comics’ turn. Emboldened by recent successes with Spider-Man and The Fantastic Four (and conveniently ignoring the failures Daredevil and Elektra), Marvel has obtained funding to independently produce its own films with greater creative control and, presumably, a larger chunk of the financial return. The massive success of 2008’s Iron Man seemed to prove their instincts correct.

Remarkably, The Incredible Hulk comes only five years after Ang Lee and James Schamus’ Hulk, itself a reboot of the comic book, cartoon, and television series. Even before Marvel announced it was to start over from scratch, the original Hulk film had already been seen as a critical and commercial failure, even though the reviews were not actually terrible (54 on MetaCritic and 61 on Rotten Tomatoes, both about the same as what The Incredible Hulk scored) and it earned $245 million worldwide.

The Incredible Hulk
NORTON SMASH!!!

This Dork Reporter fully realizes his is the minority opinion, but the Lee/Schamus version is a far, far better film, not only in comparison with its successor but also on its own terms. To paraphrase a review I recall reading at the time, “only the director of Eat Drink Man Woman and Sense & Sensibility would look at ‘The Hulk’ and see ‘sprawling family melodrama.'” Lee and Schamus saw the core story as more than a simple Strange Case of Dr. Jeckyll & Mr. Hyde retread, and instead chose to tell a deeper tale of fathers and sons. The Hulk himself was created using motion-capture technology using Ang Lee’s own body language, and realized on screen as a giant green petulant baby (which is both absurdly funny and oddly moving, like the original King Kong). I still maintain it is one of the most brilliantly edited films I’ve ever seen, the closest in flow and visual style to a comic book a film has ever come. It’s also just really fucking weird, in a good way.

With Marvel in total charge of its own intellectual property at last, The Incredible Hulk had low artistic ambitions and was unsurprisingly crafted with comic book geeks in mind. In harsh contrast with arthouse mainstays Lee and Schamus, it was directed by action film specialist Louis Leterrier (of Transporter 2 and Danny the Dog) and written by Zak Penn, who has apparently cornered the market on super-hero scripts (including X-Men 2 & 3, Elektra, and the upcoming Avengers and Captain America). The backwards-facing film gives the fanboys a nod with admittedly fun cameos from Lou Ferrigno (who also voiced The Hulk’s few lines, and who also seems not to have aged one bit) and original Hulk co-creator (with Jack Kirby) Stan Lee. But the CG is surprisingly unconvincing for a film that should have been state-of-the-art; the Hulk looks like he’s made of string cheese and quivering gelatin.

The Incredible Hulk
It’s showtime at The Apollo

Truth be told, I was actually rather enjoying the film, until one niggling fault grew to an unignorable degree that ruined the entire experience for me. Key character Emil Blonsky (Tim Roth) remains tragically underdeveloped. Any screenwriting student (hell, any film fan) should know the storytelling mantra “show don’t tell,” and yet Blonsky’s motivations are only hinted at in one or two lines of dialogue: he’s a career soldier grumpy about turning forty. Blonsky eventually evolves into the Hulk’s nemesis The Abomination, a hideous beast that lives to destroy. As the two creatures smash Harlem to bits in the final reel, there was no sense that the Abomination was once a man. What drove him to this? Interestingly, Roth plays a not entirely dissimilar character in Francis Ford Coppola’s Youth Without Youth: a man who uses up his youth in pursuit of an unattainable goal. In each case, the opportunity for a second chance is a mixed blessing.

Rumor has it an alternate, significantly longer cut of the film will eventually be released on DVD, preserving more of Edward Norton’s reported script doctoring, so this Dork Reporter hopes he will be able to revise his opinion at a later date.


Must read: Peter Bradshaw’s review of The Incredible Hulk as told to him by… The Hulk (spotted on Kottke.org)

Robert Downey Jr.’s got a bum ticker in Jon Favreau’s Iron Man

Jon Favreau’s Iron Man finds just the right tone for a superhero movie, pitched somewhere in the sweet spot between Spider-Man’s emotional melodrama and Batman’s grim vengeance. This Dork Reporter, a former lover of comic books (that stopped keeping up with them partly out of frugality, and partly lack of brain bandwidth), sees two high water marks in the recent surge of superhero-themed Hollywood feature films:

Sam Raimi’s first two Spider-Man movies captured the key themes that made Spider-Man such a popular and lasting character in the first place (seriously, find me a kid in the English-speaking world who does not know all about Spider-Man). The comic book on its simplest level was a parable of the sometimes unwelcome changes that come with adolescence. Also key to Peter Parker’s teen psyche was his constant negotiation between his own happiness and responsibilities towards friends, family, and society. Please, let’s not discuss the painfully awful Spider-Man 3; the bitter wounds of disappointment are still raw, oozing, and infected.

The other comic book superhero franchise to translate well to the screen in recent years is, of course, Batman. Helmed by such mature, serious artists as director Christopher Nolan and actor Christian Bale, Batman Begins perhaps could not help but to turn out as well as it did. The comic book character was originally conceived as a lone vigilante avenger in the 1930s, descended into camp self-parody in the 60s, then reverted back to grim form in the 70s. The character followed a parallel arc in his movie incarnations: Tim Burton’s Batman films are dark and weirdly wonderful, Joel Schumacher’s are tacky and cheesy, and now Christopher Nolan has restored the franchise back to its gothic roots. Note that Heath Ledger as the Joker in the upcoming sequel Batman The Dark Knight doesn’t actually smile!

Robert Downey Jr. in Iron Man
Talk to the… nah, that’s too easy

Iron Man was heavily marketed as Robert Downey Jr.’s redemption after decades of louche behavior led to him becoming unhirable (or more accurately, uninsurable). Was Downey perfectly cast, or was the role tailored to suit him? If anything, from what little I know of the comics, the filmmakers may have actually toned Iron Man’s alter-ego Tony Stark down. Physical disability is a long-established theme in Marvel Comics’ stable of characters, take for example the blind Daredevil. Stark’s distinguishing characteristic was his bum ticker, but he was also famously an alcoholic prick. Do you think, perhaps, there’s a metaphor to be found in the character of a soulless arms dealer who loses his literal heart but finds his conscience? Hmmm…

Terrance Howard, Gwyneth Paltrow, Robert Downey Jr., and Jeff Bridges in Iron Man
Djay da Pimp, Viola De Lesseps, Charlie Chaplin, and The Dude star in Iron Man

Jeff Bridges totally rocks a bald pate, and blessedly underplays his role as chief baddie Obadiah Stane. He’s the mellow voice of reason, sounding for all the world like The Dude with an M.B.A. That is, until he raises his voice for the first time, and the good times are over, man. Unfortunately, Gwyneth Paltrow (as the alliterative Pepper Potts) and Terrence Howard (Jim Rhodes) don’t fare as well. Paltrow, with little experience in the sci-fi effects blockbuster genre, is hysterically unconvincing at running away from fireballs in high heels (you can imagine her pouting “But Harvey said I don’t have to run from fireballs!”). Howard is just plain boring, with little to say or do.

Iron Man is quite enjoyable, provided you try to ignore the rather conservative gung-ho attitude toward the war on terror. It only disappoints at the very end, when it devolves into a CGI rock ’em sock ’em robot battle. It was inevitable according to the genre, and the natural trajectory of the plot, but still…