Watching the Watchmen

Too much blue wang!While I had generally been skeptical and downright pessimistic about the Watchmen adaptation that came out back in 2009, it turned out to be much better than I had expected. When I first saw it in the theatre, two things surprised me about the film. First, I didn’t think a movie could do justice to the classic comic book miniseries. Through a lot of care and an obvious passion for the source material, director Zak Snyder proved that wrong. While I would have done certain things differently, all of my criticisms are minor nitpicks that do not overshadow the excellent quality of the film. The second thing that surprised me was that a Hollywood studio actually gave Snyder the go ahead to actually put the comic book on screen. These are guys who care more about making money off of action figure sales than actually producing a work of art. That they allowed a film with superheroes to include graphic violence, heavy philosophical themes, and full frontal male nudity is mind boggling. I figured the best we’d get is a watered down version of Watchmen that puts shorts on Doctor Manhattan, makes Rorschach a masked James Bond rather than the psychopath he really is, and ends with the heroes saving the day to some rock and roll music rather than leaving us with bleak ambiguity. That type of film would be keeping with the public’s idea of a superhero movie and would allow parents to bring their kids for a fun couple of hours.

That last sentence brings me to the point of this little rant. I can only hope that Watchmen finally showed parents that just because a movie has some guy in a costume doesn’t mean that it’s safe to bring kids to. I heard a lot of reports of parents bringing children under 10 into this R-rated film, only to walk out in shock when they see Doctor Manhattan walking around with a big blue penis flopping around everywhere. Admittedly, some of that problem came from the trailers, which billed the movie as traditional superhero fare. Nonetheless, the film did have an R rating, and any parent with half a brain could go to the local bookstore and flip through the best-selling comic to get an idea as to what the content is. But instead parents decided that it would be a good idea to bring their kids into this movie because it’s just a comic book film.

(As a side rant, I think that it’s funny that a lot of moral outrage seems to stem not from the graphic violence, the cruelty to animals, or the extended sex scene in the film, but rather a few scenes where we can see a digitally-created penis. Sure, it’s okay to have a woman punch a guy so hard that a broken bone protrudes from his skin or see a man attempt to rape a woman, but God forbid we ever see someone’s genitalia.)

This same phenomenon has happened before. I saw kids sitting in the theatre on the opening weekend of The Dark Knight, a film that features an anarchistic psychopath in clown makeup and a man with half his face burned off. Parents saw a guy in a mask and figured that V for Vendetta would make a good kid’s film. A lot of vocal criticisms of the 2003 Hulk movie centered around the film not being kid-friendly enough, to which we got a watered down remake in 2008’s Incredible Hulk. Most of America is under the impression that comic books are kid’s stuff and nothing more. That’s pretty amusing, because comic books haven’t been written for kids since the early 1960s.

Look at some of the most popular superheroes out there. Batman watched his parents get shot right in front of his eyes. His enemy, Two-Face, suffers from Dissociative Identity Disorder and has repeatedly mutilated himself with acid to reflect that. Bruce Banner, aka the Hulk, watched his father beat his mother to death right in front of him. The Punisher willingly tortures, mutilates, and kills criminals. These are not examples of fringe characters who are tucked away in miniseries. These are established and long-running characters who have been around for decades. And a lot of the worst stuff hasn’t even been put on film. Imagine what parents would have thought if The Dark Knight was an adaptation of The Killing Joke, complete with the Joker paralyzing Commissioner Gordon’s daughter, kidnapping Gordon, stripping him naked, and tormenting him with images of his helpless little girl?

There was only a brief moment in comic book history when the medium was designed with kids in mind. Before then, it was actually the home of some of the most graphic and horrific stuff out there. In the last couple of generations, it has become a medium targeted squarely at adults. Look at mainstream titles from Marvel and DC and you’ll find all manner of adult themes, ranging from graphic material to complex emotional storylines. Action Comics currently involved Lex Luthor traveling the world with a Lois Lane sex-bot (or at least the sex part is heavily implied). Bane of the Secret Six grew up in a prison and lived a life filled with abuse and drug addiction. The Incredible Hulks just wrapped up a storyline where the Hulk’s own child winds up slaughtering multiple planets as part of an insane scheme to make the universe a better place.

If we were a generation back, I could see the ignorance on parents’ part. But most parents of young children right now were young children themselves in the early 1980s, when comic books returned to their dark roots. Watchmen came out in 1986. The Dark Knight Returns was written in the same year. The Killing Joke came out only two years later. If you are 30 years old today, then the comics you read when you were 10 were directly influenced by those darker tales. So don’t get all high and mighty and start talking about how comic books used to be simpler when you were a kid. Unless you were born in the 1950s or 1960s, that’s just not true.

Along those same lines, it’s not like the movies themselves have been rays of sunshine, either. X-Men, while generally regarded as kid-friendly, deals heavily with the themes of discrimination and genocide. V for Vendetta portrayed anarchy as a legitimately good thing. Sin City featured loads of graphic sex, violence, and language. Blade, the film that arguably kicked off this whole frenzy of comic book movies, was released with an R rating. The notion that parents are getting in a huff about their kids being exposed to Watchmen is outrageous because: 1) the movie was rated R, and 2) anyone who does even a little bit of due diligence could have found out that it is not kid-friendly content.

Despite their reputation, comic books are not written with kids in mind. Similarly, a majority of comic book films are not created with kids as the primary audience. These movies wouldn’t even be made if there wasn’t a guaranteed installed audience for them – an audience made up of comic book readers, almost all of whom are adults. I can only hope that Watchmen finally made parents realize that just because a film is based on a comic does not mean that it’s fun for the kids. If a giant blue penis on the screen isn’t enough to do the trick, I don’t know what is.

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One Response to “Watching the Watchmen”

  1. Good review. I was on a film set working as an extra discussing Vertigo with a fan, and the older women said to us, please invite us to your 14th birthday party. 14 year olds read comic books? I’d love to meet them ’cause I’ve never seen any. And I explained that Vertigo isn’t kids stuff but that just went over their heads.

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