Wednesday, June 6, 2012

AVENGERS vs. WATCHMEN: Hollywood’s Take on Superhero Movies

Rarely does a movie to make 20 million dollars in ticket sales on a weekend a month after it is released; rarer still to perform that well in the early summer.  The AVENGERS is a rare movie. It resonates with audiences around the world and people have the urge (myself included) to go back to the theatre and see it again.

As of this writing the movie has passed (cue Dr. Evil here) the 1.3 billion dollar mark.  Only James Cameron’s AVATAR and TITANIC stand ahead of it in total earnings; both are within reach—possibly before AVENGERS goes to DVD.

Meanwhile, I picked up a copy of WATCHMEN (2009) from the discount bin at Wal-Mart.  I love two genres of adventure movies: superhero and anime.  I missed this one in the theatre but decided to fill in a gap last weekend.  I was disappointed in the WATCHMEN.  By the end of the movie I regretted the time I had just lost and considered even the five dollars movie cost wasted.

Watchmen failed for many reasons; not just excessive violence, unnecessary sex and nudity, it failed because—for a superhero movie—the stars were neither super nor heroic.  All were deeply flawed, most were mentally unstable and none had the slightest air of nobility.   They were basically violent people who enjoyed dressing in costumes and inflicting pain on ordinary people.

The one powerful being in the movie, Dr. Manhattan, spent most of the movie naked with an enormous penis swaying across the screen.  He had the power to alter reality and move people and things great distances with his mind.  He just didn’t care – not about people, not about justice, not about much.

Flying men in tights, busty women who can throw a bus halfway to orbit without breaking a nail; these were the heroes of my youth.  All were larger than life, supremely confident, capable and always – noble.  They stood up against injustice and risked everything to right the wrongs of the world—even when the world did not show gratitude.

Everyone in my family is an avid reader. We read everything from encyclopedias to the TV Guide.  Interspersed with all the text books we could find was a growing collection of comic books of every genre.  We kept most of them in an Army foot locker my dad gave us.  Rainy days found us scattered all over the house watching thrilling battles unfold in the theatre of the mind.  Ink and paper were no boundary to our imagination.

I grew up without learning to fly or deflect bullets.  But I still wanted to live up to the ideals of the costumed crime fighters.  I wanted to stand for the little guy and risk it all, if necessary, for the safety of my home and family.  My Navy uniform was never as cool or fitting as any member of the Justice League but the same heart beat in my chest as my ships sailed over the horizon.

The Movies

The first superhero movies left a lot to be desired.  Technology and imagination in Hollywood were inadequate to the story they were trying to tell.  It seemed to me for years that those making the movies had never read a comic in their lives and had no idea how the stories played out in the mind of a child.

Later we finally got the Christopher REEVE’s version of SUPERMAN (1978).  Still campy, but not as bad as Adam West walking up a wall beside Burt Ward in the BATMAN movie and series of the previous decade.

The greatest blessing for science fiction and superhero fans came with the development of CGI (computer-generated imagery).  Clumsy and glaringly fake in the beginning, by early in the 21st century the CGI was indistinguishable from real life.  Real actors blended seamlessly with their avatars in AVATAR.  And finally, it became true that “you will believe a man can fly.”

A v. W

So how did Watchmen go so wrong and what did Avengers do right?  Simply put, Avengers took what worked in comic books; the elements that had sustained the paper industry well into the age of videogames, and put it on the screen.  Adults could go to see the Avengers and bring along their children.  They can introduce them to the heroes we only saw fly in our imagination while reading by flashlight under the bed or up high in a tree fort.  We can stand up and cheer for the good guys and genuinely hate the bad guys.

On the other hand, the makers of Watchmen did as Hollywood does – tear down the things ordinary people cherish and cover them in sleazy sex and bloody gore.  There really aren’t any villains in Watchmen because the “heroes” are so bad that villains would be redundant. One hero commits forcible rape, another becomes a prostitute, another is a flaming Lesbian, still another goes insane (though it seems all of them are insane to a degree).

At no point is the audience presented with a personality they would want to cheer for, to emulate or even call on in an emergency.  Hollywood took out a stack of comics, crapped on it and asked us to sit back and watch.

How bad was it?  Do you see anyone wearing Halloween costumes from the movies?  Do kids want pajamas in the image of the Night Owl or Dr. Manhattan?  No, not even rebellious teens embraced the Watchmen.   It was simply that bad.
The lesson for Hollywood is loud and spoken in a language they can understand.  Give us true heroes; let us stand and cheer for the good guys.  Avengers is even pro-American yet it is racking up monstrous sales all over the world.  There is still something about right and justice and just plain goodness that resonates in people even overseas.  Give us back our heroes. If you must make flawed, pornographic versions of our stories, please, keep them to yourselves.  The rest of us want to take our families out for a good time without having to explain what that glowing blue thing is dangling on front of the camera.