Wednesday, 8 April 2009

Geek Cred: or ‘why geeks love The Dark Knight and aren’t really that into Watchmen’

Call me contrary, but I really enjoyed ‘Watchmen’ and found ‘Batman: The Dark Knight’ a bit on the dull side. Having browsed blogs and forums across the web I know that there are a few people out there who agree with me on this one, but usually The Dark Knight is held up as a master piece of super hero cinema and Watchmen as either unfathomable or unfaithful. My problem with this view is that The Dark Knight is not a super hero film. Sure it has a guy in a bat suit in it, but he doesn’t really do anything a super hero should do. And by that I mean he absolutely sucks at fighting. Isn’t Batman supposed to be one of the best hand to hand fighters in the DC comic universe or something? Watchmen, on the other hand, was a big surprise in the action department. The action in the Watchmen comics was never really that great, so seeing them kickass in a genuinely superheroic manner in the film made it for me.

Now I know what the pro-Dark Knighters are saying: that the Dark Knight’s fight scenes were ‘realistic’ and that action doesn’t make a film great etc. I’ll answer the second point first. No, action scenes don’t make a film great and yes, too much time and energy spent on them will probably damage a film, however the Watchmen film also had a great storyline (I know I’ll get shit for this, but I actually preferred the film’s ending to the comic’s ending) and amazing action. Whereas The Dark Knight did have a good storyline (I’m not too bothered by the plot holes etc.) but the action was woefully bad. Leading me back to the first point, Batman is a superhero. True, he has no superhuman powers, but we’re talking about the super hero genre here. I’m not sure what the latest theories on the idea of the ‘super hero’ are, but one thing’s certain, super heroes are supposed to be able to do things that we as mere mortals cannot do, or at least things we can't do very well. Some of these things are obvious, like flying, being invulnerable, being a god etc. others are less fantastical, like being super smart, having cool gadgets and being able to perform incredibly skilled physical actions.

Much is made of Batman’s role as a ‘symbol’ of salvation for Gotham’s citizens, but he never at any point really embodies any of this in action. Yes, he drives really fast and does the cool flying bit, but these sequences feel almost shoehorned in. Given that the director felt the need to explain the flexible neck on Batman’s costume, we don’t really get to see him take genuine advantage of it. Watchmen on the other hand shows super heroes, regardless of their social status, as highly capable and efficient at their job, far more efficient than genuinely super powered individuals like Superman and Spiderman have been portrayed in the past. Silk Spectre and Nite Owl’s scene in the alleyway and the prison break, not to mention the opening scene of the film, demonstrate realism as it should be in a super hero film. That is, if a regular guy takes a punch from a super hero they should damn well feel it, not in the form of a split lip or a bruised eye, but in the form of crushed faces and snapped limbs. It’s brutal, but surely so is the realistic take on the super hero world which is what pro-Dark Knighters got so excited about in the first place, right?

Getting back to the main point of this piece, The Dark Knight diluted its super hero elements so much that it stopped being a super hero film and became a thriller with a guy dressed as a bat as the hero. Watchmen managed a really good balance between characterisation, story and action, in many ways it delivered the perfect adult super hero movie. Geeks, however, are very sensitive about their status in society. Certainly they have greater status than 20 years ago, thanks in part to comics (I refuse to call them ‘graphic novels’) like Watchmen and The Dark Knight Returns, but status is a precarious thing, look what happened to the Star Wars films. So the Dark Knight hits all the right ‘geek cred’ buttons, it’s ostensibly a super hero film, but eschews anything which visibly references super hero comics apart from the costume (maybe they’ll have ditched that too by the time the next Batman film comes out). Whereas Watchmen’s use of extended action scenes fits the super hero stereotype far too comfortably for geeks. So, future directors of super hero films, if you want to make a film that keeps the geeks happy just leave out as many of the super hero bits as you can, they won’t appreciate them anyway.


Anonymous said...

The problem is that Watchmen is the comic book bible, so the movie version is going to be held to a different standard. Geeks needed Watchmen the movie to be to super hero movies, what Watchmen the comic was to super hero comics.

The hyper violence was simply not there in the comic. Sending the message to all those who have not read the comic that this is what Watchmen was about. The reason Geeks loved Watchmen was that it had depth, not that it glorified violence, and not because it was real.

Reality has nothing to do with Watchmen's success and enduring appeal, that's the mistake of comic book industry. After Watchmen comic companies pushed real and they pushed gritty. But those were just the surface elements. Story, character development, and a true emotional connection with audience were what really drove Watchmen and those were the elements that were missing from the film.

Nick said...

I agree, but let's face it a film of a comic that's over 20 years old was never going to have the same impact and personally, heresy though it is to suggest it, I think the influence of Watchmen is probably greater than the comic series itself.

Also style wise Watchmen looks very dated compared to the top crop of today's mainstream comics, particularly in terms of the action. So I think it needed to hype up the action a bit, but i honestly don't think for a film adaptation that a great deal of the character and story development was lost. O just felt fans were getting a bit hung up on the violence/action side of things which as far asI'm concerned should be super hero staples.

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