During my sabbatical I enjoyed many momentous events, concluding with a visit to my family in South Carolina. Seeing as the price of a movie night at the theater for four runs around the same as the United States’ current account deficit, we decided to stay in and rent a movie. I confess that my taste in films is neither as darkly interesting as Schmitz’s, or as artistic as Schaengold’s: I enjoy mindless blockbusters almost as much as any art house flick. So we chose to see The Watchmen, the 2009 film based on Alan Moore’s 1986-87 adult comic book (a.k.a. graphic novel) of the same name.
I love superhero films. Wolverine made me want to inject my skeleton with adamantium, and I was looking for a radioactive spider long after a live-action version of Peter Parker’s exploits graced the silver screen. Similarly, I can appreciate some level of artistically gratuitous violence, as in Kill Bill, vol. 1 or any of the Blade trilogy. Yet The Watchmen shocked almost all of the veteran moviegoers at our home that night. Sure, I had read reviews that prefigured its violent subject matter, but for some reason they didn’t sink in. Dana Stevens of Slate wrote, “Like the money shots in porn movies, Snyder’s action scenes are an end in themselves—gratifying if you like that sort of thing, gross if you don’t.” That doesn’t seem to convey the actual level of violence appearing in The Watchmen, but simply its gratuity.
No, not even the ever-snarky A.O. Scott of The New York Times captured how this movie made my family feel. He noted the way in which Zack Snyder, the film’s director and the erstwhile director of The 300, captured the spirit of violence in The Watchmen:
The sex may be laughable, but the violence is another matter. The infliction of pain is rendered in intimate and precise aural and visual detail, from the noise of cracking bones and the gushers of blood and saliva to the splattery deconstruction of entire bodies. But brutality is not merely part of Mr. Snyder’s repertory of effects; it is more like a cause, a principle, an ideology. And his commitment to violence brings into relief the shallow nihilism that has always lurked beneath the intellectual pretensions of “Watchmen.”
I wish I had read this before the film, because I may have been more prepared for Snyder’s gore. What surprised me about the movie, however, was the fact that no one I spoke with at the time of its release remarked about the level of violence as anything extraordinary. Even more disturbing was the films long, disturbing scenes of violence against women. Truly horrific (attempted) rapes, assaults, and the murder of a pregnant woman are all fodder for Snyder’s lens. Anyone with even the slightest empathy for women would be hard-pressed to sit through that filth, and there is no payoff other than shock.
While The Watchmen certainly gets you talking after its utilitarian conclusion, I cannot imagine why any of the film is necessary. Alan Moore said a movie couldn’t be made out of the comic book, but it was. I think the better question would be “Should we make a film out of it?” Any attempt to defend Snyder’s graphic choices are as shallow as the comic book’s sophomoric intellectualism that Scott highlighted. Sadly I cannot unwatch The Watchmen.
-Michael E. van Landingham