Insert obvious Watchmen reference here

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It has to have been 1988 when I first read Watchmen. I was a Mormon missionary stationed in Wenatchee, Washington—a zone leader, no less. We weren't allowed even to read newspapers or magazines, let alone comic books, but some sainted individual at church (I now forget who) had found out I was an aspiring science fiction writer and decided I needed to know about the most exciting thing to happen in the field in the time I'd been away. He (because he was definitely male) made me a gift of Issues 2 through 12.

I still remember the marathon reading session that went on that night. Two other elders were hanging out at our apartment that night, and as I finished each issue I would hand it off to my companion, who handed it off to the next elder, and so on. I think all our minds were blown that night, to one extent or another. I don't know what stood out for the other elders, but I was as fired up by the formal brilliance of the books, the panel-to-panel transitions and juxtapositions and visual motifs, as I was by the surface level of the story. Even at 20, I could tell that I had just watched a depth charge exploding against the hull of superhero mythology. I could also tell the blow had been delivered in a way no other medium could have accomplished.

My reading experience wasn't crippled, I think, by not having Issue 1 at hand, though the next day I dragged my companion to the first comics store I could find and plunked down something like ten dollars for a copy. That hurt a little, but it was still less than I would have paid for all twelves issues had I bought them as they came out. I still have those books, bagged in plastic and locked in the safe. I'd be hard-pressed to part with them, even though my Issue 1 is not from the first printing.

But now I digress. I've reread Watchmen many times over the years, and even turned my wife into a fan, so like any other fan I approached the news of a movie adaptation actually going into production with a mixture of excitement and apprehension. I didn't go to a midnight screening last Thursday night, but I did see the earliest showing I could get to on Friday. And I sat rapt, thrilled, and hypnotized for nearly three hours. Seeing those familiar scenes translated so beautifully and faithfully to the screen, I was transported.

Is it a good movie or not? I don't know. I honestly can't answer that question. There were moments that struck me as cheesy or overwrought, and certain alterations of the canonical text that I didn't think played as well on screen as they did in their original versions in the book (though I have to admit that, given the necessary simplifications of the plot, I thought the alteration of the ending worked very well in the context of the film). But I have a hard time divorcing myself enough from my pre-existing immersion in the Watchmen world to judge the movie on its own terms.

Would I have enjoyed the film as much as I did if I had never read the original comics? Would I have tolerated some of the hammy acting as well? Would I even have understood what still seems to me to be the top-level story's obvious critique of superhero archetypes, a subtext I believe actually survived the shearing off of the comic's deeper levels? Why did I love this moviegoing experience so much when I felt such utter loathing for the first two Lord of the Rings movies that I have never been able to bring myself to watch the third? I do not know. I can not answer these questions.

I do know that plenty of critics seem to have had their knives out for this movie, and not just for it but for the book and very industry that gave rise to it. Anthony Lane in The New Yorker, often a critic worth reading, leaps from a (perfectly fair) evisceration of the movie to a misunderstanding and violent condemnation of Alan Moore's original writing without even having read the book. (It's enough, to Lane, simply to have glanced at a few panels.) A.O. Scott of The New York Times salts his disapproving review with rhetoric that strongly implies he himself was a rabid Watchmen fan in college but has since grown the fuck up.

This is both more and less than I wanted to say on the topic of Watchmen. Really, everything else I've been thinking, which might reasonably be summarized as "I don't know why everyone is so upset," has been more deftly articulated by [info]asphalteden than I could do it. So please, read his review of Watchmen right now, and pretend that I am standing behind his shoulder nodding vigorously.

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This page contains a single entry by William Shunn published on March 11, 2009 8:45 AM.

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