Some movies are bad, but some are undead: Watchmen

Curator's Note

    It’s a good month for bad film, which doesn’t get much more overwrought and overblown than Watchmen’s bloated animated corpse.  As bad movie, Watchmen is no laughable musical extravaganza a la Xanadu, nor ridiculous Vincent Price b-movie, but something portrayed in a more sinister light.  Much of the negative critical discourse surrounding the long-awaited adaptation points toward a high-budget soullessness staining the frame like so much blood spattering from a repeatedly cleavered head—yes, that happens. What Watchmen throws into relief are two categories of bad filmmaking: the film with too much heart and often too little money, and the film with too much money and a gaping lack of compassion.  While Watchmen’s stylized and relentless brutality coupled with major financial investment are, I think, part of what makes for such an unlovable experience-- it’s worse when people are paid a lot of money to make something rotten--, there is something else at work as well when a movie is called soulless, “artificial” (Los Angeles Times), “fascistic” (New Yorker), “embalmed” (Nesw York Magazine), or an “artifact… brought to zombie half-life” (New York Times) more than merely bad.

What does it mean to call a film “soulless”?  Watchmen, of course, is hardly much more soulless than other blockbusters of the past several years, but something about its pretensions toward edgy nihilism and detachment make it a particularly salient critical target.  In Watchmen’s case, I suspect this is linked to a medium specificity argument, wherein graphic novel simply doesn’t translate to screen despite (because of?) a slavish attention to the original comic book’s detail.  The movie lacks a soul of its own, and is instead possessed by the string-pulling spirit of another medium jerking the textual body into a danse macabre.  Perhaps there is something about bringing still image and unspoken word from one medium to “life” in another which results in an impression of a body rising from the grave.  Rather than a life-giving event springing from a formerly motionless text, Watchmen looks more like a corpse shocked into freakish puppetry, lumbering onto the screen monstrous and electrified. 

Theorists of paracinema might suggest that bad film of the loveable sort can sometimes provide a glimpse of the excitement of unbounded possibility: in the realm of the amateur, rules are broken and anything can happen.  Bad film of the soulless kind, however, shows the grim, bored stasis of circumscribed potential.  Maybe this is part of why bad cinema-philes tend to ironically but affectionately celebrate the absurd and the overly sincere while deriding the hubristic world weariness of Watchmen’s ilk.  But I wonder if a refusal of or turning away from the soulless speaks to a kind of textual apprehension born of recognition.  Calling a film such as Watchmen “soulless” suggests an almost religious revulsion, as though this particular brand of half-dead cinematic awfulness hits a little too close to the heart of some uncomfortable honesty.


Wow, Jocelyn, this may be the most boring three minutes of film I have ever seen: way to go! You, however, manage to reanimate the Watchmen quite artfully. I love the image of the comic book pulling the strings of this cinematic zombie like some malevolent B-film wizard.


I wonder whether Watchmen might not give the lie to corporate fantasies about media fungibility: comic books exist for the sole purpose of providing intellectual property that can be more lucratively developed in other media, and any successful character must be cloned, reborn, and zombified in as many products as the board room can imagine. Lara Croft might serve as poster girl for the cooperative zombie. If we can derive any pleasure from Watchmen-- and having seen these three minutes, I am doubtful-- it is in watching these characters refuse reanimation. If capital wants to dematerialize them, to yank them unceremoniously from the pages where they feel at home, they are determined to play dead.  Too bad they'll bring the audience with them.

Jocelyn, thank you for a wonderful, timely post. I think you’re especially apt to point out the ways in which Watchmen might simply not translate that well from one medium to another. A lot has been made about Snyder’s supposed faithfulness to the source material. I think the running joke is that, if Snyder were himself a super hero, his power would most likely be something akin to media synergy tracing paper.  He takes a large portion of his shot structure (and dialogue) directly from the source material. This is Snyder’s calling card, sure, but it also seems like a paranoid way to stave off the rather diehard legions of Watchmen fans out there. And, surprisingly, it seems to have worked. This, I think, has a lot to do with the soullessness of the film. Like the futurity of Lovestory 2050, we’ve seen it all before, resulting in a film that feels rehearsed.

Not as much has been made of the crucial ways in which the film differs from the graphic novel. First and foremost, Snyder’s indulgent opening credit montage utilizes the most sentimental aspects of the 1950’s and 1960’s American archive. This includes Bob Dylan’s “The Times They Are A-Changin’” playing over scenes of the Moon landing, Kennedy’s assassination, and the Kent State Shootings—all with hints that we’re in the alternate timeline of Watchmen. It fails in no small part because its efforts to pull on the heartstrings are so transparent. Inasmuch as films like Forest Gump “succeed” in invoking this nostalgia, it nevertheless relies so heavily on what Berlant calls infantile citizenship that it always runs the risk of coming across as merely condescending. Such is definitely the case in Watchmen where, as Barton suggests, this montage is clearly about nothing more than capitalizing on nationalist sentiment.


Moreover, Snyder’s decision to change the ending and remove the infamous teleporting space squid (what he’s called a “problem” that he "fixed") shows a profound unwillingness to engage seriously with the text. Yes, it’s a little cheesy visually, but that doesn’t mean the squid (as over-the-top parody of super hero comics as a genre) isn’t smart.  Surely, this highlights a problem with the original text—it has hardly any sense of humor, and thus Snyder is the perfect choice for director insofar as he has no sense of irony (just watch 300). In his anxiousness to move away from what he apparently thought was too “comic book-y” a plot point for mainstream audiences, Snyder shows us that he’s more than willing to bypass what makes Watchmen actually important. He'll play up the super hero glitz for the sake of making a blockbuster, but he isn’t willing to take the genre seriously on its own terms.

Jocelyn raises a number of interesting points here.  First, in terms of big vs. low budget "failures," I wonder if there isn't a parallel here with Sontag's notion of "failed seriousness" (translated into economic terms).  We forgive and even adore low-budget movies for their failures because we admire their (dare I say it?) "indie spirit."  A colossal Hollywood failure, on the other hand, reminds us of all that is contemptable in filmmaking today as a kind of potlach of destruction--creative and financial.

A "soulless" film may also be code for the above; that is, there is a sense (populist, perhaps) that a beloved property has been dissected by bueraucrats and technicians--slavishly copied to the letter, but wholly missing the point.  Perhaps the "best" adaptation of Watchmen would be on more limited resources but helmed by a genuinely detached nihilist (recruit a Watchman obsessed teen currently in a psych ward--wouldn't you much rather see that movie?). 

I am also struck by the visual style of this sequence (and I assume the entire film, which in turn might issue from the graphic novel). I'm always struck by how filmmakers today can't resist trying to "out noir" each other, and can now use all manner of paintbox technology to do so.  I guess they think that the more noir it looks, the more sinister and nihilistic the film will be (plus it gives them more credibility as an 'artistic' filmmaker).  But of course the whole ethos of noir was tied to a very historically specific moment in post-war urbanity/hollywood filmmaking.  The 'noir' look has now become so thoroughly hyper-stylized as to be less 'gritty' than 'Oz-like.'  In truth, if someone really wanted to emulate  noir's evocation of dread and social alienation today, he or she would be better off photographing a faux-stucco strip mall in the brightest sunlight possible.

I'm also impressed here by the Baudrillardian attention to pointless stylistic detail--visual touches done, not because they are necessary, but because they can be done: the repelling hook that perfectly strikes a neatly arranged bullseye of police tape; the lightening strike that occurs just as he lands on the building, etc. This is state-of-the-art blockbuster, to be sure, in its most obscene form.  And again, how does one evoke dread and nihilism in a visual style that is all about pure surface and fascination?  The former are tied to the remnants of interiority, the latter form an aesthetic of radical exteriority. 

Finally, I'd like to hear Jocelyn expand on her final paragraph a bit.  In particular, what is the "uncomfortable honesty" you see in play here?  I think the badfilm/paracinema crowd has always had two faces--a 'camp' empathy for the folly of all representation and also a certain despair for the futility of all representation (closely related and overlapping, to be sure, but still a bit different).  Does Watchmen-grade awfulness suggest a third possibility? 

Thanks, everyone, for some truly insightful and provocative comments. I’m delighted to read all of them, challenging and smart as they are.

Bart, I really like your concept of characters “playing dead” and I wonder where else we might find this happening.  Is this unique to comic book movies?  To be perhaps completely absurd, why not in Jane Austen adaptations (for what it’s worth, I’d rather watch Watchmen)?  I really think there’s something to the visual-to-visual medium here, but I’m not sure what; I’d love to hear your additional thoughts on this.

Kaelin, I completely agree with you about the refusal to really engage with the text here—like it’s enough to use the dialogue and images, but the undercurrents are too icky to deal with. This is a fascinating angle to the question of medium specificity and to what filmmakers should be faithful: the content of the text? The form? The underlying fears and anxieties? And I, too, long for the squid (really, Snyder? THAT was what would make your movie ridiculous?).

Jeff, I love your comments about noir’s (“noir’s”?) irresistible attraction yet utter impossibility of achievement for blockbuster filmmakers.  It’s like Hollywood isn’t really sure that it’s depressed, but it’s going to try to fake it in the fakest way possible.  To at least gesture toward an answer to your final question, I do on some level think that a third possibility exists for the soulless bad film (poor, soulless movie with no one to love it!).  The discomfort I’m pointing to stems from the negative criticism of the film; from the bad reviews I’ve read, not even trashing Watchmen yields any creative pleasure. I think despair can, sometimes, still function as a productive place to be—and what reaction to Watchmen might reveal, horribly, is that an awful boredom trumps all. There’s a level of encyclopedic everythingness to this kind of moviemaking that underscores the absence of truly creative potential—we can do anything with all these tools, and anything ends up just being sadly interminable and hollow. It’s a pathetic kind of immortality, one that’s circled with ennui; I suspect that the disgust this kind of movie inspires speaks to a fear of overdetermination, of apathy, of an inescapable steely grey future.  Ironically, these are some of the very anxieties permeating the graphic novel; maybe we’re just miserable to see that, over two decades later, we still haven’t gotten our apocalypse.

I’m really inspired and excited by all these ideas you’ve all brought up and for your fantastic musings.  Thank you again!


Excellent posts, Jocelyn (and Bart, Kaelin, and Jeff)!

I haven't seen either 300 or Watchmen, but I'm very convinced by your post.

I won't be able to provide a thoughtful response, but I would to hear what you all think of this critic:


"Indeed, the ideal viewer — or reviewer, as the case may be — of the “Watchmen” movie would probably be a mid-’80s college sophomore with a smattering of Nietzsche, an extensive record collection and a comic-book nerd for a roommate. The film’s carefully preserved themes of apocalypse and decay might have proved powerfully unsettling to that anxious undergraduate sitting in his dorm room, listening to “99 Luftballons” and waiting for the world to end or the Berlin Wall to come down." (NYT, 06mar)


This is an excellent and biting review. But I think it gets at an interesting point: this reviewer doesn't ask a question of "should 'Watchmen' have stayed a graphic novel?" but "is there anything left of popular relevance in 'Watchmen' in 2009?" Just as Jeff notes, genres have expiration dates. The noir of 2009 is a warmed-over facsimile of noir of the 1940s. Could nihilism of Reagan-Thatcher have passed (I say yes, but I won't stop listening to the Smiths...)? In addition to a bad medium-to-medium transfer, could Watchman's bad-ness also lie in the fact that it was DOA, twenty years too late?

I, too, think that Jocelyn brings up a very interesting distinction between "bad" films that have low budgets with great intentions, and "bad" films that have unlimited budgets with no soul and vision.

One of the most infuriating things about the Watchmen film (for me) was the bad acting. Malin Akerman ("Laurie") really stood out in the acting department, looking unsure of her lines and numb in the face. Frankly, her automaton-like performance played a large part in my distaste for the film. But even more notable actors, like Billy Crudup ("Dr. Manhattan"), Carla Gugino ("Sally") and Patrick Wilson ("Dan") delivered terrible performances. Jackie Haley ("Rorschach") and Jeffrey Morgan ("Comedian") gave it their best, but were overwhelmed by an otherwise lacklustre cast.
I think that in the performances of The Watchmen we have a point of intersection between the two financial opposites of "bad film". The Watchmen had the acting of a low-budget b-film, but the finances of an a-list film. And while I'd be willing to overlook some adaptation flaws in the structure, the awful direction and performances were too difficult to forgive.

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