WATCHMEN, JOKER And How Comic Book Movies Become “Cinema”

'Tis the season for adult comic book stories.

Four episodes into HBO’s ambitious Watchmen sequel series, I’m confident in saying publicly that I have no idea what it’s about. There’s clones, giant clocks, allusions to space travel, racism, and a large, blue dildo. I’m stumped, left every week to grapple with a surplus of ideas that haven’t quite gelled into any one specific point yet. It feels like the season for “adult” comic book stories, with Watchmen and Todd Phillips’s Joker film both attempting to elevate the superhero genre by telling more grounded stories that just happen to involve people in funny costumes. Joker tries this through a Martin Scorsese pastiche full of sour, grim nihilism. The only time the movie even makes an attempt to be whimsical, it’s at the expense of a dwarf. It goes backwards in time to tell an anti-dramatic origin story, as if HBO’s Chernobyl mini-series was exclusively about how they built the reactor. 

Like Watchmen, Joker’s point isn’t clear. I walked out of the theater not sure what any of it meant or why I was supposed to care. I doubt that was the intent of the filmmaker, considering the bulk of the third act builds to the titular character telling an audience full of people what the movie means and why you should care. So far, Watchmen is not that. It’s a collection of elements—the Tulsa Massacre, liberal guilt, racism, police brutality—that haven’t quite coalesced into a coherent theme yet. It works despite this because these pieces bumping together is so provocative and intriguing that the very question of “what does it mean” is the dramatic thrust.

As with most Damon Lindelof works, this is a feature, rather than a pesky bug. I pretty much knew without a doubt that at the end of an episode of The Leftovers, I would be left wondering what, if anything, it all meant. Your patience for such things may vary, but it hit exactly the spot in my brain that loves to spend the intervening moments between episodes pondering. When filmmakers like Martin Scorsese and Francis Ford Coppola make bold proclamations about what constitutes art and true “cinema,” this is what they mean: provocative, inscrutable works that allow the viewer to do some of the mental heavy lifting on their own. Or, at the very least, to convince you to watch the after-show or subscribe to the official podcast.

Watchmen aspires to those lofty heights, attempting to honor the subversive, satirical legacy of the source material. It’s never quite didactic, but it also isn’t afraid to underline its more controversial elements. Most importantly, it’s grounded in a humanity that, while heightened with masks and capes, is still recognizable. Angela Abar/Sister Night might be one of the most interesting, complex black female TV characters ever. This is both high praise for the work being done, but also an indictment of how few truly memorable black female characters there have been in TV drama. How does one cope with the possibility that their best friend is not only very much dead, but also a secret Klansman? Angela has a dedication to a profession that, in our world, we know to be teeming with white supremacy and racist practices. It’s likely that part of what Angela will discover in the final five episodes is that the alternate universe Tulsa PD she’s sworn an oath to is just as culpable for racist crimes as the real one.

The narrative heart of the original Watchmen was a moral quandary, just like the one Angela is dealing with in the sequel series. In the comic, we have to ask if Ozymandias’s ends justified his means, but more broadly, if superheroics and vigilantism are selfless acts of social responsibility or signs of extreme, godlike narcissism. It’s fair to assume that Alan Moore’s view on the issue leaned toward the latter, but you certainly can divine different meanings if you so choose. Look no further than Zack Snyder’s leaden, music video Watchmen adaptation from 2009. Somehow, he took a message of “costumes can set you free” from the comic books, which I’m still mystified by. 

But what Snyder certainly didn’t realize is that broken bones and curse words aren’t what makes something adult. Ambiguity is what makes something “adult,” those same spaces to ponder that I referred to earlier. Comic books, by their nature, are meant to be simple morality plays for children with good guys and bad guys. The Watchmen comic, along with the works of contemporaries like Frank Miller and Howard Chaykin, brought shades of grey to comics. It’s no longer novel or clever to make anti-heroes in comics. And on TV, anti-heroes reign: The Sopranos, Breaking Bad, Mad Men, The Wire, etc. The Watchmen series is no different in that respect. Then again, neither is Joker, a movie about a burgeoning mass murderer we’re asked to sympathize with. The difference is that Joker seems oddly disinterested in the why of it all. Why is the Joker evil? Because he lost access to his meds and rich people are cruel. It’s such a pat, trite answer that, even if there’s a kernel of truth in it, it comes off as obnoxious. Somehow, Joker’s point was equally obvious and completely incoherent, because it felt like so little thought went into it.

Both Watchmen the series and the comic pose the question of why people dress in costumes to fight or commit crime, but it never definitively answers it. In episode four of Watchmen, the idea of the “profile” of the mask and their origin story is even poked at a bit by the scene of Angela, Laurie, and Agent Petey in the car rehashing Laurie’s Silk Spectre II origin. Angela rolls her eyes at any idea that her choice to wear a costume can be distilled down to one thing, even as she hears Laurie’s truly harrowing tale. 

Joker does not give us anything close to this moment. Instead, it tells us exactly what we want to hear, that bad guys are made because we’re mean to sick people. It’s a self-congratulatory pat on the back about “societal ills” and the corniest kind of message movie there is. If, at the end of Watchmen, the takeaway is about how “love conquers all” or something like that, I’ll be happy to admit my mistake, but as of now, this show soars over other modern works of its ilk by eschewing pat philosophizing and luxuriating in the questions that have no answers.