Friday, March 13, 2009

Watchmen, Comic Books and the Collapse of Western Civilisation

News of persons reading the original comic while queuing to see the new Watchman movie when it opened last Friday, the better to quickly spot any on-screen heresy, is a portent. Of what exactly it’s hard to say, but it can’t be anything good.

It’s a good experiment always to substitute names to expose prejudice. Persons reading the Bible while queuing to see the Passion of the Christ would lead to sotto voce muttering about Godboys and nutjobs. Pale young men taking a comic as their totemic text cause just a smile. Ah – they must be cool, we think, and pass merrily along.

There is a tacit understanding that people know what’s serious, and what isn’t. But is this really the case?

The film critic Tom Shone wrote a book called Blockbuster in 2004. Shone’s book concentrates on where the culture actually is, rather than where film critics would like it to be. The critics love Woody Allen, the people go to see Spielberg and George Lucas.

Blockbuster identifies just how seriously people are taking these comic book movies. In the penultimate chapter, Shone discusses the Phantom Menace, the movie that was embraced like the second coming of Christ on its release in 1999 by a generation that had grown up with the original Star Wars movie in 1977.

The problem is that while the first Star Wars retains its charm, the Phantom Menace is utterly devoid of same and makes for a dour night at the movies, leavened only by the horror of Jar-Jar Binks.

Did this cause people to stay away? No, it did not. People taught themselves to love the Phantom Menace, just as religious women try to ignore that passage in Paul’s letter to the Corinthians that fits so very badly with current enlightened feminist theory (1 Cor 11:7-9, for anyone that wants to look it up). Shone himself puts it best in his book when, after quoting a fan’s internet posting on her determined efforts to like the Phantom Menace even though it’s a terrible picture, Shone writes of "the plaintive sound of a fan, masking her heartbreak, and returning to see the film, again and again, in the hopes that she may one day grow to love it."

People take these things seriously. After the heavy damage sustained by the Western Canon by the successive attacks of modernism, deconstruction and, most virulent of all, the 1960s, people are looking to fill the void that was once filled for intelligent people by the arts or the Church, and they are finding it in the lowest common denominator.

People are looking for messages in texts that were never designed to carry them. Comic book movies are fun for kids, or somebody’s inner child to return to a happy place in an unhappy world. But there seems to be a worryingly large population who are looking to them for life guidance. A lot of these pilgrims have votes. They elect governments.

The theory is that this is not so bad because the comic book itself came of age with the Watchman comic in 1984, and the comic book movie came of age with last year’s Dark Knight. These are darker texts, with fully rounded, recognisably human characters.

What rubbish. There’s nothing in either movie that’s as dark as the harrowing fairytale about the Little Mermaid, and the characters are about as a rounded as a brick.

Heath Ledger won a posthumous Oscar for his portrayal of the Joker in the Dark Knight. When was the last time you met or read of anyone like the Joker in that movie? And if you haven’t read or heard of anyone like him, how can he then be real?

But when you read David Copperfield, you feel a real and palpable shock of recognition when you realise that, even though he’s disfigured her for life, Rosa Dartle will always love James Steerforth. An astonishing level of depth in a walk-in part, written by a man about whom the most frequent criticism is that he was an unredeemable caricaturist.

The most articulate advocate of the mature comic book movie genre is the Chicago film critic Roger Ebert. Before his recent illness, Ebert was on Jay Leno’s Tonight Show when Batman Begins was released, protesting that the movie should have a 15, not a 12, certificate. Adults should be allowed to see an adult Batman movie, Ebert claimed, to applause from the audience.

But if adults are watching Batman, what are the kids watching? Another question to worry about in a world where 300, the film directed by Zach Synder before Watchmen, took $300 million dollars at the box office. Charlotte Mary Yonge must be spinning in her grave.

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