Wednesday, March 4, 2009

Following Genius?

This Friday, the film adaptation of the 12 part comic book series Watchmen will become the first superhero movie to follow Chris Nolan's total eclipse of that genre, last summer's billion dollar world wide blockbuster, The Dark Knight. And it's not as if audiences have had time to forget what an amazing movie that was. With nearly a quarter of a billion dollars in DVD sales and 8 Oscar nominations, The Dark Knight will likely still be being talked about a year from it's July 18, 2008 release. And then there's Heath Ledger's Oscar winning performance as the Joker, arguably the finest film portrayal of any comic book character in the history of cinema and one of the most complex takes on any movie villain, ever. That's an act no one in their right mind would want to follow, no matter how much time passes.

Take a look at the trailers to Watchmen and you get the sense that no one in their right mind has ever been any part of where this story came from, or is going. But the history of the tale, from it's release as a comic book series to it's genre defining release as a hard cover "graphic novel", to it's unpredictable and unlikely inclusion on Time Magazine's All Time Best 100 Novels list, Watchmen isn't by even the craziest definition, standard stuff. But is it going to make great cinema?

What has caught our interest during the prerelease hype, are the interviews with the cast and the reverentially praised director Zack Snyder. Snyder, who was approached by Warner Bros., Watchmen script in hand, was still filming the movie version of the graphic novel 300, and hadn't yet proved his eye for cinematic visuals that would ultimately elevate ancient battle tactics and extreme bloodletting into digitally enhanced art.

In seemingly every interview, there's a declaration, a rationalization if you will, of how Watchmen is somehow moving beyond the comic book conventions of The Dark Knight. That somehow, because the Watchmen comic was "conceived" as being "adult", that it's inclusion of rampant flowing blood, corruption, craziness and direct sexual entanglements was blatantly deliberate, that the film would carry an "R" rating, that this was above and beyond what The Dark Knight could have had an ambition to be. The Watchmen was authentically original and "targeted" to be serious, complex and DARK. That makes it different, somehow more. That places it's story in a new strata than any that have come before it. The very story itself, sets it beyond anything that a simple comic has been able to achieve as a film. And there's where we differ.

No one's comparing Watchmen to Iron Man, last year's third largest grossing world wide release. We're talking about The Dark Knight. The second largest grossing film in the history of all cinema. All cinema. The Dark Knight successfully and beautifully transcends superhero movies. It transcends comic books, originals, sequels, action, thrillers and any other singular genre. The Dark Knight succeeds as a film on the scale of the very best movies ever made. To compare yourself to only it's comic book attributes is to compare yourself as a film, to only other films who used a particular cinematographer, a specific type of camera or films shot only in a single location. That would defy logic as it would honesty.

To rate the potential of Watchmen against the filmmaking achievement of The Dark Knight is as ridiculous an exercise as listing it's comparisons to The Wizard of Oz. The discussion is broadly misplaced if it centers on a mismatched and narrow category of film rather than the merits of it's success in telling a cinematic story. Watchmen is a different kind of superhero movie. But so was last year's boring and unbalanced Hancock. If Watchmen is to break new ground at the movies, much as Zack Snyder's extraordinary visual achievement in 300 did, it will have to do so by forging its own destiny. If it indeed does that, the cast and the director, we're sure, will be first to claim that their movie defies any comparison, to any movie, superhero or not.

After seeing 300, we walked from the theater with the overwhelming feeling that we'd seen something new on a movie screen. Something a bit awe inspiring. We're hoping Watchmen delivers that same sensation. It certainly has that potential. But then, we laughed out loud when we saw the first trailer for Hancock. The groans at having spent ten bucks to see that one, still haven't stopped. Zack Snyder and cast... amaze us. You said you would. But we think it's one hell of a tall order.

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