HBO’s triumphant Watchmen: cinema V television

Damon Lin­de­lof’s Watch­men.

First things first; Damon Lin­de­lof’s Watch­men is some­thing to behold. It’s Back to the Future direct­ed by Lars von Tri­er on a par­tic­u­lar­ly good day, and script­ed by Den­nis Pot­ter. Except it’s been fused in a par­al­lel uni­verse on the oth­er side of the look­ing glass, so that race and gen­der have been reversed.

We’ll come to that in a bit. But to begin with, how has this suc­ceed­ed where so many oth­ers have failed?

Scosese’s Rag­ing Bull.

As has been well doc­u­ment­ed, two fun­da­men­tal changes have tak­en place across the media land­scape over the last cou­ple of decades. On the one hand, we’re in the midst of a prover­bial gold­en age of tele­vi­sion. And on the oth­er, the world of cin­e­ma has become com­plete­ly polarised. 

Super­fi­cial­ly speak­ing, that polar­i­sa­tion has always been there. 20thcen­tu­ry cin­e­ma was made up of Hol­ly­wood films, and inde­pen­dent films. But those two can­vas­es pro­duced a wide vari­ety of dif­fer­ent kinds of films. Hol­ly­wood could mean Dou­ble Indem­ni­ty, The God­fa­ther or Rag­ing Bull. Inde­pen­dent could give you The Unbear­able Light­ness of Being, Amélie, Babette’s Feast or Prospero’s Books.


It’s impos­si­ble to imag­ine any of those being made today with the aim of screen­ing them pri­mar­i­ly at the cin­e­ma. Because there are only two kinds of films that you’ll find in the cin­e­ma today; fran­chise prod­ucts, and real­ly low bud­get, gen­uine­ly inde­pen­dent fare.

That’s what Scors­ese was com­plain­ing about in those series of inter­views that he gave towards the end of the year just gone, and which cul­mi­nat­ed with that op ed piece in the New York Times, here.

He can’t con­nect, he says, with any of those super­hero movies, because there’s noth­ing at stake. How could there be? They’re super­heroes. And none of the peo­ple mak­ing those movies have the room to take any kind of risks. Because there’s just too much mon­ey involved in the fran­chis­es they fuel. Which is why, if you’re an adult hun­gry to explore grown up themes and ideas, it’s to tele­vi­sion that you today turn to. And not, alas, cinema.

So what would be the biggest risk when explor­ing the com­ic book landscape?

The Wachowskis V for Vendet­ta.

Ignor­ing the super of your heroes and view­ing them instead as grown ups dressed in masks. If they don’t have their super­pow­ers, then there’s no need for all that green screen non­sense. And when you don’t have that to fall back on, you’re forced to explore instead the rela­tion­ships between your var­i­ous char­ac­ters, and how they fit in in the world in which they find them­selves. What would dri­ve an artic­u­late, intel­li­gent per­son to put on a mask and fight crime?

That was why V for Vendet­ta worked so pow­er­ful­ly, and it’s why Lindelof’s Watch­men is such a tri­umph. The DC uni­verse of masked crime fight­ers allows him, and the Wachows­ki sib­lings before him, to explore indi­vid­u­als whose time is out of joint and who feel cursed to set it right. Not because they’ve been arbi­trar­i­ly gift­ed with some neb­u­lous super pow­er. But because they can do no other.

And what, if you are a 21stcen­tu­ry Amer­i­can, are the two most press­ing per­son­al and soci­etal issues? Race and gen­der. So here we are in Watch­men, pre­sent­ed with a cast (and crew) who are pre­dom­i­nant­ly black, and female. And older.

Lin­de­lof’s The Left­overs.

Inter­est­ing­ly, both V and Watch­men orig­i­nat­ed with the peren­ni­al­ly grumpy Alan Moore, who, pre­dictably, has dis­owned them both. I tried read­ing (is that what one does with a graph­ic nov­el?) his Watch­men, and I have to con­fess it sailed serene­ly over my head. I just found it flat, and sta­t­ic, and all too black and white.

Lindelof’s Watch­men is so much more dynam­ic. And relevant. 

You can see the trail­er for Watch­men here.

And if you haven’t already, you should watch Lindelof’s The Left­overs, which I reviewed ear­li­er, here.

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