Su­per­heroes come to zero

Evan Wil­liams

The Weekend Australian - Review - - Film -

AN avid reader of comics as a boy, I was left in no doubt by my el­ders and bet­ters that they were an in­fe­rior form of lit­er­a­ture. But now that comic books are called graphic nov­els — an­other kind of text — we have to take them more se­ri­ously. Zack Sny­der’s film, Watch­men, is based on a graphic novel by Alan Moore and Dave Gib­bons, listed in a re­cent sur­vey among the 100 great­est nov­els. No won­der the film is be­ing taken se­ri­ously. At more than 21/

2 hours, it will test any­one’s en­durance.

I want to be quite fair to Watch­men . Al­though I hated ev­ery minute of it I can see why some are prais­ing it. It oozes a cer­tain kind of sel­f­re­gard­ing style. Much of its im­agery is flashy and in­ven­tive. I pre­dict award nom­i­na­tions for such things as film edit­ing, sound record­ing, spe­cial ef­fects, pos­si­bly even best screen­play adapted from an­other source ( or text). The vi­o­lence is sick­en­ing, but I think we are ex­pected to en­joy it be­cause the vic­tims and per­pe­tra­tors aren’t or­di­nary mor­tals. They are su­per­heroes who can with­stand the most ap­palling phys­i­cal abuse and re­cover to re­tal­i­ate in kind.

It would be im­pos­si­ble to sum­marise the story. We know there are deeper mean­ings be­cause cer­tain char­ac­ters, at odd in­ter­vals, ut­ter sen­tences with long words re­fer­ring to phi­los­o­phy or physics. In the hope of con­vey­ing some­thing of what view­ers can ex­pect, I of­fer the fol­low­ing un­re­li­able synopsis, writ­ten, as best I can man­age, in the man­ner of the film.

A tall per­son who looks like Bat­man ap­pears in a high-rise build­ing and at­tacks a cheer­ful­look­ing man wear­ing a badge with a smil­ing face on it. Af­ter a fight last­ing 20 min­utes, Bat­man throws the other man through a win­dow. There fol­lows a quick re­sume of the Cold War, in­clud­ing in­ci­dents I don’t re­mem­ber ( this is al­ter­na­tive his­tory). The man with the ci­gar, who has just been killed, shoots Pres­i­dent Kennedy in Dal­las. So this is 1963. No, it’s 1985. The Rus­sians are in­vad­ing Afghanistan. The world is on the brink of nu­clear war. Richard Nixon is serv­ing a third term as pres­i­dent. And it’s rain­ing. It al­ways seems to be rain­ing in Watch­men .

A Rus­sian called Rorschach ( Jackie Earle Ha­ley) wants to avenge the killing of the man with the smi­ley-badge. The Rus­sian wears a white mask with mov­ing black patches on it, which may mean that he sees the world in black and white terms while wag­ing a cam­paign against im­moral­ity. This doesn’t stop him killing peo­ple. A big fight fol­lows. Some­one men­tions Dr Man­hat­tan, but who is he? Af­ter an­other fight, Dr Man­hat­tan ( Billy Crudup) is re­vealed as a huge, naked man with white eye­balls and a con­spic­u­ous pe­nis. He glows with a mys­te­ri­ous blue ra­di­ance. It’s still rain­ing.

While Dr Man­hat­tan is in­ter­viewed on tele­vi­sion we cut back and forth to a an­other vi­cious fight. It is not clear who is fight­ing whom, but we learn that Dr Man­hat­tan was once a sci­en­tist ac­ci­den­tally ir­ra­di­ated in a nu­clear fa­cil­ity, which turned him into a su­per­hero. Every­one near him gets can­cer. Some­one kills an in­no­cent Viet­namese woman, but why? An­other woman is bru­tally beaten and kicked. She must be a su­per­hero be­cause she hasn’t been killed. Is every­one in this film a su­per­hero, or only the peo­ple wear­ing funny clothes? Is Danny ( Pa­trick Wil­son) a su­per­hero? He looks more like Clark Kent than Su­per­man.

An­other fight. Some­one’s hands are hacked off dur­ing a prison riot. Why is Rorschach in prison? Ozy­man­dias, a tall, el­e­gant su­per­hero ( Matthew Goode), is ob­sessed with the an­cient pharaohs. Ozy­man­dias is also called Adrian. He is dis­il­lu­sioned with hu­man­ity. Henry Kissinger briefs Nixon and the joint chiefs in the war room from Dr Strangelove. Dr Man­hat­tan blows up a tank by point­ing at it. Some­one says he’s Amer­ica’s se­cret weapon. The woman we saw get­ting kicked ( or is it her daugh­ter?) loves Dr Man­hat­tan. They go to Mars. And what is this huge metal con­trap­tion? Var­i­ous peo­ple are blown up or oth­er­wise an­ni­hi­lated. I think they were bad guys. The woman who loves Dr Man­hat­tan dis­cov­ers she’s some­one’s daugh­ter, but why didn’t she know this be­fore?

This vi­o­lent, pre­ten­tious and in­co­her­ent film was re­port­edly made on a bud­get of $ US120 mil­lion ($ 185 mil­lion). It bears the trade­marks of two key stu­dios, Warner Bros and Para­mount, that ought to be ashamed of them­selves. Zack Sny­der’s pre­vi­ous film was the Spar­tan bat­tle saga, 300 , also based on a graphic novel. I read the di­rec­tor’s cut of Watch­men runs for more than three hours. Is this the fu­ture of cin­ema?

* * * ERIC Bana shares at least one qual­ity with Steve McQueen: a love of racing cars. In 1971, McQueen starred in a dull film about the Le Mans grand prix. This was said to be a re­ward for the suc­cess of The Great Es­cape , in which he was al­lowed an ex­trav­a­gant ( and largely ir­rel­e­vant) mo­tor­bike ride to near-free­dom. Bana has given us a more mod­est ac­count of his ob­ses­sion in Love the Beast, an en­gag­ing au­to­bi­o­graph­i­cal doc­u­men­tary about his in­fat­u­a­tion with fast cars, es­pe­cially his 1974 GT Fal­con Coupe, the car of his dreams, nick­named the Beast.

Grow­ing up in sub­ur­ban Mel­bourne, young Eric de­vel­oped an early fond­ness for ‘‘ mus­cle cars’’, the high-pow­ered gas-guz­zlers prized by driv­ers be­fore any­one wor­ried about global warm­ing. There were two defin­ing ex­pe­ri­ences for Bana in those years: watch­ing two Fal­cons bat­tle it out at the fin­ish of the 1977 Bathurst road race (‘‘ bet­ter than see­ing Neil Arm­strong on the moon’’), and watch­ing Mel Gib­son be­hind the wheel in Mad Max. Eric kept his beloved Fal­con Coupe for 25 years be­fore restor­ing and re­build­ing it, with the help of like-minded mates, to com­pete in a road race in Tas­ma­nia.

He proves him­self no mean hand at di­rect­ing. Love the Beast has warmth, hu­mour and mo­men­tum, and it’s a nice touch when we hear an uniden­ti­fied Bana fan leave a recorded mes­sage on his an­swer­ing ma­chine, an­tic­i­pat­ing the mis­for­tune to come. Two days later, shaken but un­scathed, Bana was in New York for the pre­miere of Lucky You , in which he played a world cham­pion poker player com­pet­ing with his fa­ther. I looked up my re­view and found that I didn’t much like the film and gave it 21/ stars.

2 This time I’m be­ing more gen­er­ous. Bana looks like a good bloke ( though he scared me in Chop­per ). He smiles a lot. He doesn’t dis­guise his Aussie ac­cent. It’s a pity he hasn’t quite grown up. But which of us has?

Vi­o­lent, pre­ten­tious and in­co­her­ent: Jef­frey Dean Mor­gan as the Co­me­dian in Watch­men

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