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.