Superheroes come to zero
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