Reviews of the movie Watchmen have been mixed: 65% positive on Rotten Tomatoes, for instance, and 56% positive on Metacritic. That’s not as uniformly negative as the secondhand buzz might indicate, but this is perhaps because the most prominent “establishment media” reviews have leaned toward the negative side:  e.g., Anthony Lane’s in The New Yorker, wherein he demonstrates his usual sarcastic derision for anything pop-culture-related, or A.O. Scott’s disdainful take in the New York Times. Many quite simply seem not to “get it”; they betray preconceived expectations of what a “super-hero movie” ought to be that obstruct appreciation of what this one actually is.

Reactions in”new media” seem generally more positive—e.g., Andre O’Hehir’s piece at Salon (“Dense, intense, tragic and visionary, this is the kind of movie that keeps setting off bombs in your brain hours after you’ve seen it”), or Keith Phipps’ in The Onion (“[it] keeps moving so assuredly, it’s nearly impossible not to get swept along… the film’s ambitious drive to create a dread-soaked alternate America and people it with flawed, recognizable heroes carries it along”).

However, by far the most interesting and informative opportunity to study the reactions to this film, both pro and con, inverts that pattern. Roger Ebert is unquestionably an “establishment” critic, but he’s always had something of a populist streak, and he not only gave the film a four-star review in the Sun-Times but also blogged about it at greater length after seeing it a second time, delving into some personal observations:

[Dr. Manhattan] is the most metaphysically intriguing character in modern superhero movies. … I’ve just come from seeing “Watchmen” a second time, this time on an IMAX screen, which was an awesome experience. Not having read the graphic novel, I found my first viewing somewhat confusing. There were allusions and connections I suspected I was missing. I had to think back and take inventory of the characters. On the second viewing I was better prepared… I found myself really listening to what Manhattan says, and it is actually thought-provoking. I didn’t care as deeply about the characters on the human level as I did with those in “The Dark Knight,” but I cared surprisingly about the technically inhuman Manhattan.

And what makes that blog entry particularly noteworthy is the lengthy comments thread that follows it, with intelligent and thoughtful posts from a variety of readers about subjects ranging from details of the film’s plot and backstory, to the respective narrative techniques of comics and film, to the story’s complex moral politics (as blogger Cole Odell noted elsewhere before the release, “One of the most radical things about Watchmen as a superhero text is how it refuses to settle on any character or philosophy as the right, ‘heroic’ one”), and even to competing theories of quantum mechanics, and beyond. Ebert himself regularly dips into the discussion, in a respectful way, with thoughtful comments and questions for the various participants.

On the other end of the spectrum, though… we have a pair of screeds (and I feel a bit guilty even about linking to those) from the online critic Debbie Schlussel. I confess I hadn’t heard of her until the other day, but apparently she’s a political right-winger who makes periodic appearances on Fox News… and her demeanor lives down to all the worst stereotypes one might expect from that brief introduction. As the L.A. Times‘ Patrick Goldstein concisely puts it, “Let’s just say that Schlussel makes the saber-toothed [Ann] Coulter look like Miley Cyrus.” And indeed she seems to have copied Coulter’s business model:  find something already at the center of media attention, make outrageous and offensive statements about it, and wait for celebrity (at least within the right-wing echo chamber) to follow. A sampling:

If you see [Watchmen] yourself, you’re… probably a moron and a vapid, indecent human being. … This really isn’t a superhero movie at all. In fact, there was little “superheroing” until after the second hour of this nearly three-hour exercise on defining deviancy down. Some on the right are claiming this is a conservative movie because it’s made by some of the same people as “300.” But this is no “300”… A few lines of dialogue by the character “Rorschach” deriding “liberals and intellectuals” doesn’t excuse the nearly three hours of poison here.

[Plotwise], the Soviets are about to nuke America. It’s 1985 and Nixon is President. We’ve won in Vietnam. … Wow, isn’t that cool that they got it wrong on purpose? I’m so amazed at this “high-brow art” of deliberately getting dates and timelines wrong, you know, just to be “artistic,” and get the drooling of the critics. That is sooooo genius.

Then, after offering a painstakingly detailed itemized list of every depiction of sex or violence in the movie…

But just because shameless whores and crack dealers of Hollywood deal this stuff out, doesn’t mean you have to buy it and poison your kids’ minds with it.

At one point she even compares it to Mein Kampf. And from her follow-up piece:

I guess I shouldn’t be amazed at the number of slacker ignoramuses who are up in arms about my frank review cutting down the absolute crap they worship a/k/a “Watchmen.” … The e-mails they send me and the comments they make about how “deep,” “edgy” and “profound” this vile piece of trash (which is none of these) is, reminds me of the blind statements of followers of Jim Jones. And we all know what happened after they drank he purple Kool-Aid. If only this movie could achieve that result, it would be the most fantastic exercise in natural selection ever conducted in America.

You’re a bunch of dummies with no moral compass, but liking this stupid comic book which pretends violence and the depraved is “edgy” or “sophisticated,” makes you feel smart. When you’re actually quite stupid. … It’s frankly hilarious to read the arrogance of the ignorami, telling me I don’t have “cultural literacy” because I don’t like a movie based on a comic book promoting rape, torture, and brutal killing. … And maybe your sister should be fed to dogs and your mother raped and your brother should have his arms sawed off (as they do in this snuff/torture-porn movie). You know, just to make the point.

She makes exactly one accurate point: the movie is not for kids. (Intelligent parents might glean this from the R rating.)

Beyond that, though? The responses in the comment threads—from the fans who she gratuitously insults from beginning to end—mostly attempt to point out to her that (contrary to her evidence-free assertions) it’s not marketed to kids; and, y’know, it’s an alternate history, a concept she doesn’t seem to grasp; and oh, BTW, the work it’s based on is an award-winning, multilayered moral and political parable in which a certain amount of sex and violence is thematically crucial (just like it is, as one poster notes, in works ranging from Oedipus Rex to Macbeth to 1984 to The Crucible to Slaughterhouse-Five). Her response to all these attempts to dial down the venom and engage in an actual sensible discussion? Well, she periodically pops into the thread, like Ebert, but it’s with comments like this:

UH, I DON’T NEED TO “DO MY HOMEWORK” WHEN I WATCH AND CRITIQUE A MOVIE THAT’S SICKENING AND MARKETED AT KIDS. ALL I NEED TO DO IS WATCH IT AND KEEP MY SANITY, WHICH ALL OF YOU WATCHMEN IDIOTS APPARENTLY LONG AGO GAVE UP. … NO, YOU DON’T HAVE TO BE INTELLIGENT TO FULLY ENJOY IT. ON THE CONTRARY, AS YOU AND THE OTHER WATCHMEN IDIOTS HAVE DEMONSTRATED, YOU HAVE TO BE A COMPLETE FLIPPING IDIOT WITH ZERO INTELLECT AND SOUL. CALLING THIS STUPID STORYLINE A FANTASTIC PLOT JUST SHOWS HOW SIMPLE AND EMPTY YOU ARE.

(And yes, the all-caps style is from the original. When asked why she kept SHOUTING, Schlussel responded that it was the only way her software let her set off her comments from others. Which leads one to conclude that either (A) she has the world’s worst blogging software, or, more likely, (B) she just has no idea what she’s doing.) Meanwhile, the minority of posters who actually support her position do so in tones and terms so similar to her own that one can’t help suspecting the use of sock puppets.

So right here, all in response to a single movie, we have examples of not only the entire critical spectrum but the entire political spectrum—not to mention the entire range of online discourse, from thoughtful, civil and intelligent to angry, insulting and paralogical. (Is it merely coincidence that the relatively liberal source results in the former, and the conservative one the latter? You can judge for yourself.)

At the end of the day, then, I have to say… if Watchmen not only provokes this kind of thoughful discussion, but also makes enemies of people like Debbie Schlussel, well, it must be doing something right.

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5 Responses to “The reactions to WATCHMEN: a study in contrasts”
  1. Andrew says:

    The reactions were truly diverse, if you ask me the film was quite well made, but they exagerated on the comic character part.

  2. I am a big fan of Watchmen, too! It is just an awesome story to start with – and then an awesome movie made. In fact the movie is not just an ordinary super hero movie. I really enjoy it!

  3. phil from new york says:

    Here’s a quote from an analysis of the movie on Alternet:

    “Watchmen tells of the terrible consequences that can ensue when an individual or a nation assumes unwarranted and unlimited powers; for with the donning of the hero’s cloak of righteousness, everything becomes permissible.”

    I can see why some establishment types, and reviewers for establishment media, might be squeamish about this movie. Iif the movie is as the Alternet writer described it, you can see why many of our vaunted establishment media types, who gave Bush a free right for eight years, who breathlessly supported the Iraq War, and who sat on their hands as the Bush administration eviscerated the Constitution, wouldn’t like this movie — and they wouldn’t have liked “V for Vendetta” either.

    I found it interesting that one of the main characters in the movie was on the infamous Grassy Knoll, because one of the reviewers you cited brought up the Warren Report in his review. To borrow from Bob Somerby’s language, it’s “Hard Pundit Law” to deny any possibility that the Kennedy assassination could have been done by anybody but Oswald acting alone. For anybody in the mainstream media to grant even the possibility of a conspiracy would put them in the category reserved for tinfoil hat wearers and people who believe in UFOs, and it would perforce seriously damage their careers.

    Here’s the link to the Alternet article:
    http://www.alternet.org/movies/130947/america_is_a_dangerous_vigilante%2C_heroes_are_sociopaths%3A_the_not-so-mythical_world_of_%27watchmen%27/

  4. Think I heard that one last week… David Edelstein. ATC’s Bob Mondello didn’t care for it much, either. Like I said, mixed reviews. I’ll grant them both that the movie’s bloodier than necessary, but otherwise I’ll just have to disagree… particularly with Edelstein’s assertion that it’s “anticlimactic.” I have that complaint about a lot of Hollywood films—which often seem to think that a blaze of action, bullets and explosions somehow suffices to resolve all the complications of the plot—but not Watchmen, which actually wraps things up in a way that’s both thematically and logically satisfying.

  5. michael says:

    I just heard the Fresh Air critic (forgot the name) pan the film, claiming that *as a longtime fan of the comic* he thought the film was “dead on the screen.”

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