Demons of Denak, Neilalien‘s been doing this for ten years!
That’s just crazy. Raise your glasses, folks.
“Some Circumstantial Evidence Is Very Strong, As When You Find A Trout In The Milk” – H.D. Thoreau
Demons of Denak, Neilalien‘s been doing this for ten years!
That’s just crazy. Raise your glasses, folks.
This happened about a month or two ago, I just remembered it today and started laughing my head off. Don’t know why, it’s such a sad story…
STUART: So I went up to Oakridge Mall yesterday…
ME: (taking pull on beer) Oh yeah? Was it crazy up there?
STUART: A little. Not too bad. Oh, except they just opened an Apple store up there now, so of course that was pretty intense.
ME: …Are you kidding me?
STUART: No, no. Big grand opening. Very bizarre.
ME: Did you go inside?
STUART: Nah, the lineup was way too long…
ME: Jesus, I BET it was! Whoa. Now that takes me totally by surprise, TOTALLY…
ME: …How did I not hear about this? My mind is BLOWN.
ME: I mean I just never even thought of something like that, it never even came close to crossing my mind as a possibility…!
STUART: Yeah…they sell, like, iPods and stuff.
ME: They…uh, they do? That’s weird…
STUART: Carrying cases for your iPod, they sell laptops…
STUART: …Because it’s not an APPLE CORP BOUTIQUE, you insane freak! Apple, you know, like Apple Computers, like things that actually exist? Holy shit, how many beers have you had?
STUART: Yeah, Paul called Yoko and said “What the fuck, eh? We’re both billionaires, why not give it a go? Ringo’s still storing a bunch of old conceptual art in his basement, we can open the first one in VANCOUVER BRITISH COLUMBIA in the MIDDLE OF WINTER, you can fly over there and get in a BAG as part of the window display…” And she said “Great idea, let’s do it!” Oh my God, have you lost your mind?
Told you it was a sad story. I just figured, we got new Beatles songs a few years ago, Beatles @ the BBC, those Mono remasters just came out, it’s like a cornucopia of Beatles stuff, I guess I just figured…well, I don’t know how this can be topped, but I bet somebody’s got an idea of how to do it…
I dunno, I guess it just seemed to fit, somehow.
Sigh. Woulda been so cool…
So, here is something that bugs me.
The other day on TV I see two businessmen talking. One businessman says he wants to buy a small handful of Canadian newspapers. The other businessman says he thinks that’s crazy, newspapers are dinosaurs, newspapers are dead, the Internet’s killed them. The first businessman’s rejoinder to this is that he’s not afraid to take risks, and he’s got people on board who know how to run newspapers, he thinks they can prosper despite the Internet. The second businessman says, well, he still thinks newspapers are a risky business. And now here’s the kicker.
The presumption seems to be, that these guys have some kind of insight into what is going on with the newspaper business. But you have to wonder…
…Have they ever in their lives read a good one?
Risk. They think it’s about risk. But what, after all, is so risky about words printed on paper? People will read anything that’s put in front of them, and that’s the problem right there. It isn’t that people have just gone “off” papers, in favour of computer screens and cell phones. It isn’t that people have just gotten so efficiency-savvy that they’ve dumped the whole concept of sitting down and reading the paper entirely. This isn’t Megatrends 2010, and it ain’t Wired magazine circa 1995 either. There’s a key to this. The problem isn’t some new development in how people are predisposed to get their reading done. The problem isn’t even that there are so many more ways of getting material to read, that people are torn between the clock and the wordcounts to the point where they have to choose between their options. The problem is, that when all options are about equally bad, choice becomes something not worth thinking about.
And that’s what’s really killing newspapers: that they suck.
In my country, all the papers are simply godawful, have been simply godawful for years. Throw a dart at the United States on a map and you’ll hit a city (or a town!) that’s got (and probably has already lost) a better paper than any of ours have ever been; papers with more talented writers, more experienced editors, and yet what becomes of them? They go down under the water. The writers and editors bob to the surface, jobless.
And Canada’s newspapers don’t change.
Ours aren’t folding like yours are, you see. But in a way they’re doing something more shocking: they’re not adapting at all, not even to the point of folding. They’re still pursuing readers in the same race-to-the-bottom way they have for about thirty or forty years, even as the bottom drops out and goes elsewhere. Out there right now, looking for work, and available for bargain-basement rates, are some of the best newspaper people on the continent, far better than most of the clowns we’ve got stirring the cement up here…
And the sad truth is, even they aren’t that good.
Here’s Michael Kinsley on the subject…and you can see it right away, can’t you? Instantly you can see it: newspapers bore people because they are written to do so. The presumption that newspapers have been supplying a goshdarn terrific product for ages, but people just don’t seem to like it, so why would we pay top dollar to make it better still if we already know “better” isn’t popular enough…this presumption is false. The idea that people can’t recognize or aren’t drawn to good writing is baseless. Well of course it is, because what is good writing but that which makes you interested in reading more of it…?
I read Book Review sections in Canadian newspapers; you should read some of these, they’re fun, often you can come away without a single idea in your head about what any of the books dithered on about therein are about, even more often you find yourself coming away from those reviews unsure about whether or not the reviewer liked the book or would recommend the book. This isn’t even getting into movie reviews, TV reviews, music reviews, lifestyle columnists, op-ed pieces…I mean, I don’t want to be cruel, you know? But book reviews are basic, at least for writers they damn well ought to be; so that those are being bled dry of readability should shock us…at least, it should if we take our time machines back to the Eighties or whatever so we can see it start to happen. Nowadays, naturally, it’s just a big Ehh — people don’t even really expect to encounter lucid prose in a newspaper book review anymore, do they? Does anyone still expect that, is that something anyone still expects? Nowadays if everything I’m being offered is written on about the same level and in about the same manner as Yahoo News tidbits on my email, I don’t see any special need to seek out that crap writing and crap concentration anywhere, it isn’t that I prefer not to read newspapers it’s that I don’t owe anybody anything for what they once provided but don’t anymore, and haven’t for years.
The newspapers of the United States, that outshine Canada’s newspapers…the sad likelihood is, that it is mainly by comparison with Canadian newspapers that they shine. And the gruesome lesson there is that Canadian newspapers don’t even care to be that good, as good as the Post-Intelligencer (RIP), as good as the Examiner (vale, immortal Examiner), as good as the New York Times which is not that good…though it may have some good qualities…because if they were, wouldn’t they be being just a little bit brutal about their quality control, now that the pool of available people who know their oysters is much deeper, and broader, and cheaper to fish in? I actually read a lot of stories online that come from print publications, and usually I can count myself lucky to find anything even slightly chewy, because most of it is pointless filler and most of what isn’t filler is no damn good. This is why I’m eschewing newspapers for the Internet, because I have to hunt for good stuff, you know?
The two businessmen joust about the future of newspapers. Truthfully, that any stock can be put in their speculations is a measure of how far standards have fallen. They’re not writers, these guys. Much less are they editors. In a word, though a slightly outdated word, they’re not newspapermen. So what has to happen, for their ideas about the future of newspapers to be worth a damn?
The content of newspapers has to be simplified, is what has to happen. Turned into section headings and trend-chasing design imperatives, made fungible, commodifiable, summarizable.
And it should surprise no one that this is just what has happened. The story of the Great American Newspaper (or Canadian newspaper, or English newspaper, or French or Russian or Italian newspaper) is the story of the Great American Editor, and as the Editor goes, so goes the nation. Writers are trained by editors, brought along, trimmed back, raised up…sent to market. Writers are the golden wheat, the glorious fruit; but editors are the sowers and the reapers of it, the farmers labouring in the fields to make sure it thrives.
And, what’s the farm itself?
Well, the farm is education. Because writing is not the only talent; and writers are not the only crop that editors give their sweat to raise up. Any good editor is probably worth ten writers in terms of rarity, in terms of necessity: the eye, the quick thought, sensitivity, decisiveness, taste and smarts. Editors are good teachers because they are good students — writers can’t often touch them for either of these virtues. And yet all that virtue is being educated out of our editors…has been being educated out for some time…
And that’s why newspapers are failing, and why the two businessmen get to talk in easy terms about the why of it. Newspapers are failing because they’re not good enough to survive. And I know that sounds harsh. But there’s a silver lining to this cloud, which is:
Newspapers can be as good as they want to be. When Mordecai Richler was a columnist for the National Post, and Carol Lay’s comics were featured on page five, I read that shit every single day. I sought it out. I believed in it, and I boosted it. You have to understand, too, that I hated its publisher, hated him like poison…and I still sought it out, and talked it up.
So…how hard is it, really?
And I’ll tell you, you could be excused for thinking to yourself “what the hell does this guy know, who the hell is he to pontificate on the newspaper business?” It’s a fair question. I’ll answer it.
I’m a guy who knows just as much about it as the two businessmen on TV.
And so what’re you keeping so mum about, if you know more than me?
Especially when that means you know more than them, too. Because they don’t even consider that newspapers could be “better”: better-written, and better-edited. Seriously, as long as they talked, the topic never even came up. And why should it? This isn’t their area of expertise; they don’t know a thing about it. I had a roommate once who read about fifty newspapers a day — he told me the best papers in the world are African papers that are published exclusively online…because it’s easier to flee death squads with a laptop under your arm than with a printing press strapped to your back, you see? Now you look at your local paper over coffee, and ask yourself if any death squads would ever come for any of them, even if they were in Africa…and I think you’ll see that it’d never happen. Well, not that we would want it to…and not that we should expect that much, from our newspapers, anyway…
But oh, just to be able to care about it, just a little! To be able to care about any part of it! Just for a really good sports page, a good comics section, an intelligent editorial, an informative or intriguing book review, a lifestyle column with the slightest bit of wit, political news with just a hint of some real perspective, some sign that somebody somewhere for the love of God is so much as being underpaid…! I don’t need anyone to go out of windows with laptops in the dead of night, I just need to look around the newspaper stand and not think to myself “Christ, it’s like there’s a million places to get a drink here, but they’re all T.G.I.Fridays, CAN A GUY GET ONE! LOUSY! REAL! HUMAN! BAR IN THIS TOWN, OR WHAT?”
Or might as well call Dial-A-Bottle, and drink at home.
If you think about it a little bit, I believe you may come to believe it’s a fairly apt metaphor.
But then, I would say that, wouldn’t I?
Because as a cursory inspection of this rant will show…I could use an editor myself.
But then WE ALL COULD USE THAT.
I don’t know why it should be so, but God seems to have blessed me with wonderful Internet searches. Some of you may know the best one. Here’s the second-best, and for second-best I think it’s pretty great.
“Jack Cole walking out with Cardiff City”
Don’t know what it means yet, but I aim to find out…oh nameless Internet searcher, now I am on your search too! Bless you sonny.
Well, no…obviously he’s not Superman, why what an idea, Lois…
Which is good, because I’ve had a thought in that direction myself. How to put some drama back into Superman? Andrew grabs firmly onto the Morrisonesque, the saviour, the symbol. Me? I’ve gone to astronomy instead.
And continuity. You know, there are a lot of things I miss about the Superman of my youth, and chief among them is Kryptonian Exceptionalism. Not that I miss all the crazy stuff they used to put in there like: Kryptonian aspirin, it cures a super-headache! But I do miss the “one and only” stuff, the super-iconicity that you can still get even in quite lousy movies featuring the Man of Steel. Here’s this guy, and he can do things you and I can’t imagine, he’s a streak of strangeness across the sky. Sent from the satellite of the red sun, where they scoff at Earthmen for being so primitive that we don’t even have X-ray vision yet, I mean c’mon, what kind of shoddy excuse for a planet is this? Jor-El sends his son across the gulf of space to escape planetary cataclysm, knowing that when he gets here he’ll have powers and abilities far beyond those of mortal men. But you have to wonder: how does he know that, eh?
What makes him so sure?
And why does it work?
And what’s so special about Superman anyway.
WARNING TO READERS: it gets geeky from here. And it goes on for quite a long time.
…So, roll the clock forward a few decades and suddenly there’s all this stuff, alien races galore, slightly “harder” SF (which just means more previously-exotic knowledge being streamed into general science education, but you can read all about that in a week or two hint hint), and you can’t go back to the days of the one-and-only. Because this isn’t the world of the Thirties and Forties anymore, this is a world with a Superman in it, and in this world the slum-smashing, building-scaling, you’re-not-fighting-a-woman-now Superman is as out of place as…well, the world he comes from. Which means he starts to not add up, slightly. For one thing, red giant stars are common in the universe, and satellites around them are common too. So, say you had an Earthlike planet orbiting about as far away from its star as Jupiter is from Sol — and why such a planet would be habitable isn’t super-simple to explain, but you could say it had some weird internal heat-process going on, Krypton had those “fire-falls” and such…if Krypton had actually been the moon of a giant planet like Jupiter you could chalk it up to tidal forces, but oh well…
…But say you had such a planet, and it was life-supporting, and the life was all kind of photosynthetic: sucking up the low intensity of light from its star, which at that point would be a “yellow” star pretty much like our own. Okay, then the star begins to expand, and get cooler, which means redder. So the amount of luminosity the planet gets goes way up, which is good…but the spectrum-peak of the sun’s output slides way down. So Kryptonian life gets a boost of energy, but can’t process it as efficiently since their adapatation is to the “yellow” spectrum peak (it’s actually a green spectrum-peak, but never mind that now)…and of course if you were to figure life in the yellow-sun days was pretty rough way out there at the Jovian-scale orbit, you might expect all the Kryptonian organisms to be using the energy they derived from their sun, like a LOT, just to survive. And if you figured that, you’d probably also figure it’d be an evolutionary habit they’d have no reason to break. Hence you might expect to see the fauna (not to mention the flora!) get very charismatic as soon as light starts getting dumped in buckets all over the planet, instead of trickles. Even if it’s red light; all it means is that Kryptonians could only go “Superman”, could only develop a huge energy-surplus in their tissues despite their high energy-use, if it was a yellow sun they were under. And the inherited “heavy use” of the absorbed energy could still explain why Superman can blow through his energy surplus so quickly under certain kinds of extreme stress/special irradiation…
But I don’t want to go down this road too far, since I’ve promised Nathan a very chewy bit of unapologetically geeky fan-fix along these same lines, for his blog. Suffice it to say: okay, that would make sense for Kryptonian life, to develop an adaptation like that. Stars like our own spend ten billion years “yellow”, about ten million years as red giants…then they turn into white dwarfs, and sit around waiting for the universe to end. So this is all demonstrably a long enough time for ecosystems to evolve, and it gives the Kryptonian civilization itself, which I think we’ve been told at some point was 500,000 years old — not the species, the civilization was 500,000 years old! — more than enough time to a) never ever have known a different stellar environment than one with a big red sun in it, and b) be reasonably sure their world will just go on and on, and on and on, pretty much as it is until some incredibly distant time. And this pretty much accounts for everything in the Superman story, except for just a couple of things. Except they’re big things.
The first one is: then what in the hell’s so special about Superman? Red giants are common; why would just this one produce such phenomenally universe-beating adaptations? Hell, having two of them would make it even weirder…you know how many red suns are out there in the Milky Way? Why wouldn’t the place be teeming with potential Supermen?
And here’s the second: given that the Kryptonians were, for whatever reason, super-asskickers under a yellow sun…well then, why in the world weren’t they? Asskickers, that is: I mean, how hard would it have been for them to whip up a massive galactic empire? Alternatively, if it would’ve been so easy, then why didn’t the Guardians of the Universe slap a big-ass cordon around their solar system, to make sure they never got out of it?
Or weren’t they, after all, that special.
But damn it, they must be special!
So, okay…red giants worked well enough in 1938, maybe even in 1958, 1978…but now they’re not quite special enough to do the job. So how about a red supergiant instead? Red supergiants (you may know them as the stars that go supernova) have a far shorter lifespan than ordinary stars, way too short for ecosystems to form…no one would even look for people around them, astronomically it’d be a crazy waste of time. Or, even better, how about a red hypergiant? Much like a supergiant, but bigger: hypergiants are stars that are pushing the limits of how much crap a star can have in it before it flies into pieces — the odds of finding people around a hypergiant would really be next-to-nothing, they don’t even last five million years from start to finish, heck it’d probably be a shock even to find a planet around one. Hypergiants, at least we can hypothesize, would make for a very scary stellar neighbourhood — little bits of star flying around at significant fractions of the speed of light, you wouldn’t want to fly any ships around in it! Even if (somehow — but this is comics, it’s all about the “somehow”) a planet were to form, and an ecosystem were to develop, intelligent life were to evolve (somehow…), one thing you just wouldn’t get out of any of it would be a race of star-travellers! Because that’s just crazy.
So if Krypton was a planet orbiting a red hypergiant, that’s a pretty big “somehow”…which bodes well for us, because we’re going to need all the somehows we can get to explain how life evolved on it, and even why in the hell that life would have any sort of energy-sucking adaptation…because it sure wouldn’t need it, in that environment!
And so that’s a somehow too far, for my purposes here today. We’ve made the Kryptonians special only at the cost of making them so massively unlikely we’d need a somehow that was Very Special to account for anything about them…but most of all what needs to be accounted for is why in the hell anyone living around the most short-lived (and in the case of the hypergiant, most super-volatile) of stars would ever be the slightest bit complacent about their world coming to an end in some gigantic catastrophe! In the old red giant model, it’s fine: the Kryptonians are a latecoming species on their world, born at just the right time to flourish and become great…ironically in their star’s senility. That late-born magical child they said you were too old to have: a wonder. Of course the big debate on Krypton would then be, “did we come along nearer the beginning of the red giant phase, or nearer the end of it?” Because 500,000 years is a long time, and if the Kryptonians were anything at all like us they must’ve spent about another million or so as prehistoric…and if they spent more time than that, it’s getting up to a significant chunk of their star’s life expectancy as a red giant. 15%? 20%?
But there’s still wiggle room, and no one likes a doomsayer, Jor-El. You can imagine all the bushwah flung around throughout the ages of the Kryptonian civilization, probably a lot to do with how “Rao wouldn’t let it happen” (hey, isn’t that the name of their sun, too?) or how the unbelievers must be stoned to death…lots of bad, self-serving, self-congratulating science for the proud Kryptonians who compete so well in their mad, wild, charmed world…
Well, it’s not too bad, eh?
Unfortunately, though, there are two problems with it. The first being that red giant stars are not fucking SPECIAL!! And the other is…well, why does Krypton even blow up, then? In a supergiant or hypergiant system, we can believe it might: those stars go through some relatively rapid changes, one can imagine tidal stresses becoming a factor, perhaps. Massive ejections of stellar material or something. Somehow. But the good old red giant’s a placid beast by comparison…and besides, we’ve been over this.
But then it can’t be a super- or hypergiant either, and we’ve been over that too!
But it has to be one or the other, and worse than that it pretty much has to be both, and it even needs a great big fat Somehow to make any of it work…!
So what’s the solution?
Happily, there is one, and it doesn’t involve rewriting all the broad strokes of DC’s published internal “history”, either. Just one small part of it. And it wouldn’t even be the first time: why did you know that, so far from being the one, the original, the one-and-only, Superman’s been relegated to the status of Pretty Strong Guy who Came Late To The Party? Not only doesn’t he have any justification for being the Best anymore, he doesn’t even get to be the First.
So…it just came to me one night…
Why not make him the Last?
“The Man of Tomorrow”, they called him way back when. Let’s make it literally true, and restore some of that old Red Giant glamour. The late-arising race, the wonder children. Want to know why the Guardians didn’t slap a big cordon around this scary bunch of overachievers? It’s because there weren’t any Guardians around anymore, to do it. And there weren’t any yellow stars for the Kryptonians to conveniently go to, anyway. Night falls on the universe, and most of the stars have long since moved off the Main Sequence. No alien races, no Legion, no Space Cabby, no Starman…no nothing, it’s all just too far out there, past the fences of time-travel. Even the Time-Trapper’s not around. As far as anyone would know (if they were there, which they’re not), the universe is already as good as dead. Galaxies slipping back over the edge of the Hubble Volume, fading from the night sky. It’s the end of everything.
Except for the star Rao, and its lone satellite Krypton, waiting there on the edge of the dark, completely self-involved.
Well…not completely. One thing the Kryptonians can do, is look at stuff: they’re the luckiest practitioners of telescopy there ever were, as all the light from all the events that ever happened is theirs to catch, sort, catalogue. Seeing out for billions of light-years, they observe all…uh, that is until the things they’re observing fade out, vanquished by cosmological expansion. There is, as it happens, a cut-off point past which the Kryptonians can see no more, and it’s always advancing on the past. In the records of their observatories, events are marked down which are now (bizarrely) too recent to be witnessed with any telescope…and Krypton’s long-ago Dark Ages mark the point at which they stop knowing their deep history, which is our far future, at the same time.
But our past…that, they still know quite a bit about.
Rao, as the last of the great stars, has a peculiar chemical makeup: lots of elements that in our day are rare, run through it in profusion. Since this is comics, some of them are elements we ourselves know nothing of: futuristic, way-out stuff. So therefore, Rao is weird: it’s very big, bigger even than a hypergiant, but it holds its form and it keeps on going. Somehow. It isn’t on the Main Sequence; it’s on a whole other kind of sequence, the sequence of the Last Generation Of Comic-Book Universe Stars. Krypton, its planet, is full of all this stuff too, since of course it was part of Rao’s solar nebula (as we still call those things)…not “just” radioactive, but pulsing with unimaginable impulses, Krypton doesn’t have anything so simple as a nickel-iron core. Its rocks and plants and animals and people aren’t just made of carbon, hydrogen, oxygen, and nitrogen. Krypton’s got a lot of things going on, things in every science we just can’t conceive of. Except, that is, for astronomy.
Which they used to worry about: were they born at the beginning of Rao’s red giant phase, or more toward its end? 15-20% of a red giant’s ten million years (it’s big and it’s dim and it’s cool, but crazy Rao’s also stable, so that says “red giant life-cycle” to any casual observer…besides, everyone knows life wouldn’t have time to evolve around a star with a super- or hypergiant’s evolutionary history) is a heck of a lot of time, you know! Ages ago on Krypton, there was serious millenial panic that lasted a thousand years, and tore up everything…until they were released from fear by an advanced analysis of their unique star. Rao, the Eternal — in functional terms, it might just go on and on, limitlessly. The last of the universe’s civilizations might also be its longest-lived ever.
What a relief!
But unfortunately, planets aren’t stars…and the same thing that makes Rao “eternal” makes Krypton a doomed world. Deep in its core, exotic materials interact and fluctuate, begin to separate into strata over time. Eventually, according to Jor-El’s research, an extremely energetic layer of anti-gravitic metal (“Negative Metal”?) will form around the core, crushing it as it explodes off all the rest of the planet into cosmic debris. Let’s say he knows this because he discovers the Phantom Zone, which exists throughout all time and space: but Krypton is its farthest point of extension in time. In fact he can get a pretty good date for the planet’s destruction out of his Phantom Zone analysis. Gee, too bad you can’t use the Phantom Zone to escape into the past! But although the materials exist on Krypton to fashion a machine that can open a portal to it, once you’re inside there would seem to be no way out into a time that doesn’t also possess such a machine, and the exotic power-source necessary to drive it. Whoops! So logically, what you’d want to do is figure out some way of making a time machine, send some people out in it to some other region of space, have them set up a Phantom Zone portal, then you all go into it and get pulled out again back in the past. Unfortunately, if no one even believes you that the planet’s going to blow up, you won’t be able to do that, so. Might as well load your infant son in a time-travelling rocket ship and send him off, then…to that funny litle place you can just still make out in your telescope, where he’ll have powers and abilities blah blah blah.
So here’s what results from that: as the elements in Krypton stratify out, the crust turns to Kryptonite and the Negative Metal starts to sheathe the core…then boom. Powered by that explosion, and the tremendous radiative force of Kryptonite, little Kal-El’s rocket ship hops over the fences of time-travel, to land in Smallville several billion years before the star Rao even condenses from its cold cloud, and out he pops with his personal future a mystery: as what hasn’t been seen, hasn’t been set. Dragged along in his wake, a few tons of the deadly green glowing stuff, which sort of lands all around the planet at random. And that’s all the Kryptonite there is or will ever be: not just the rarest substance on Earth, but the rarest substance in all the universe.
Anyone care to guess what the second rarest substance in the universe is?
Must remember to save some stuff for Nate…meanwhile, now that the long preamble’s over, let’s get to the new Pop-Drama Superman. Which for me needs that “specialness”, that “either First or Last” business…and a set of superpowers resulting therefrom that’s practically unchallengable. Sure, some other species under a red sun might develop amazing energy-sucking capabilities too…somehow…but they weren’t from the last red sun, the Sun at the end of the Universe! And that makes a big difference: bigger and cooler and much more ancient, my proposed Rao would’ve operated for a lot longer as a red star, giving Kryptonian organisms much more than a mere three or six million years to improve their energy-absorbing adaptations through competition, and the species that came to tame that planet were the most efficient energy-absorbers of all (it says here)…retaining their sensitivity to the particular spectral distribution Kryptonian life started out with in the “yellow” days, their general sensitivity to light just went way up, perhaps to take better advantage of their star’s very occasional variabilities. So: super-duper powers for Clark Kent.
But additionally, a unique cosmological status: as Superman’s personal timeline is the only one that goes “back” all the way to the end of time. Other folks in the DCU might have time machines, but they can’t step into them and rocket back to their own past, to change anything but the past; Superman’s past, on the other hand, is the future itself. And along with that dazzling fact, one even more dazzling: his past is the only route “back” to Krypton, the very last world of intelligent life, the very last home of all universal history. If you were Lex Luthor, you’d say “screw making Kryptonite-powered machines, I want to go there!“ If, that is, you ever figured it all out. Which there’s no reason to think you would, except you happen to be Lex Luthor, and so that means if anyone’s ever going to figure it out, it’s probably just down to you and Brainiac-5. And maybe Brainy already knows the story, somehow…
But enough with hints. Here we have a Superman very much like our own, disguised as mild-mannered reporter Clark Kent, with co-workers Lois, Jimmy, Perry, and fitting into the general sweep of the existing DCU quite smoothly. Lana and Lex, Ma and Pa, Pete Ross, Smallville, Lori Lemaris, Patty and Violet and Shermy…the whole shebang. Fortress of Solitude, Legion of Super-Heroes, JLA, World’s Finest, even CoIE if desired, basically just all the stuff you would ever want to stick in there is fine. Only, a couple of things would be different: one major one being that Krypton returns to its “Amazing World Of Krypton” portrayal, and another one being that Doomsday never existed…or if he did, he had a completely different origin. Also, the story of the space-travellers Kryp and Tonn is apocryphal as it obviously must be even without my changes, though I wouldn’t rule out the idea that it hints at a real historical occurrence, since many folk-stories do. (That Kryptonian schoolteacher was like one of their fundamentalists! She wasn’t supposed to be telling those kids that story! The Science Council probably put her in the Phantom Zone when they found out!) But outside of that, it doesn’t really matter all that much what gets stuck into this Superman of mine, so long as it pays attention to the loose handful of things I’m attempting to stick onto it.
Which are, in no particular order:
1. What’s Superman’s hobby? Superman’s biggest hobby is collecting Kryptonite, the amazing, world-transforming power source that powers a great deal of advanced Kryptonian technology, and that also happens to be the only thing that can kill him. Which seems only fair: uranium kills us, after all!
2. What replaces the justification for Clark Kent being a reporter, now that it obviously wouldn’t help his crimefighting efforts? Madeley and I have discussed this before, in his “Delineated” posts. Clark Kent is a reporter, and not just a reporter but a freakish throwback of a reporter, because there are some things Superman can’t do. He can’t expose corruption, topple governments, smash vast conspiracies, or act politically. But Clark Kent can do all these things, because he’s not only a very good writer and researcher, but he’s also secretly Superman. Perry White doesn’t even know what to do with the guy, he seems to have imbibed a lot of old crap about the intrepid investigative reporter with the press pass stuck in his hatband, he’s just a big dumb cluck of a farmboy who happens to be able to write — Clark Kent’s dangerously naive, and should’ve been killed about a hundred times by now, but he always turns in the story, and he sells papers. He just happens to trip over his own big dumb cluck feet every time somebody shoots at him. Guy is to crooks what Scud missiles are to Patriots. Huge problem for Perry! Like it wasn’t bad enough when he just had to deal with Lois Lane, but at least Lois understands what the words “stupid” and “dangerous” mean. She doesn’t care, but at least she gets it. Clark Kent just seems to lead such a charmed life that he’s got no concept of getting in over his head — he’s an awful coward, but he doesn’t see things coming, so he just goes mildly along writing articles about Intergang and such. So then certain other people seem to take this blithe attitude on board, Jimmy Olsen for example seems almost to idolize Kent, but Jimmy’s life is far from being charmed…despite the outstanding pictures he gets, Perry was all set to fire Jimmy until Superman showed up and gave him that signal-watch, promising he’d keep an eye on him. And Perry feels like he was a bit railroaded there, but Superman or no Superman he can’t really blame anyone but himself for letting Jimmy stay on. That damn Kent’s infected him too, he sometimes thinks: he looks at Cat Walker and wishes he could fire her, strip her useless (but popular!) gossip-column garbage out of his paper, and fill it with more…well, more what? More 40s-movie intrepid-style newshound stuff like Lois and Jimmy and Kent bring in? It’s ridiculous, he catches himself looking at Steve Lombard thinking “why do I tolerate this clown?”, and then he remembers that any paper in town would love to have Lombard in their sports section, for Christ’s sake what’s happening to Perry, he’s becoming a Hollywood parody of a newspaper editor, next thing you know he’ll be chomping on stogies and keeping a fifth of Scotch in his desk drawer, slamming down his receiver all day on one of those old-style telephones…
And then there’s the other justification for Clark Kent working as a reporter, specifically a reporter at the Daily Planet…because Lois Lane works there. Lois Lane, who does everything he does only without the benefit of having bulletproof skin and X-ray vision and super-hearing, and all for the same reason: that business about truth and justice. Clark Kent is a Lois Lane fan, in part because he knows that she’s actually a better reporter than he is; he wanted to work at the Daily Planet because he admires her. Then he gets there and he can’t really understand her: she does interviews with people like Lex Luthor, and seems somewhat sympathetic to his point of view about Superman keeping technological advances from the world. She seems suspicious of Superman, he’s just another story to her. Everything’s a story to her, and she’s brash and she’s cutting and she’s all that stuff, but she’s kind to animals and blah blah blah, and she’s still uncompromising and he still admires her, and wants to know what makes her the way she is. She gets the Superman interview because he wants to convince her he’s good and Luthor’s bad; the more she’s attracted to him the more rigid her objectivity about him as a public figure, the more committed her critical weighing of his actions. Is Clark Kent occasionally playing this for all it’s worth? Hey…if it were me, I might do a little of that myself, you know? Yes: it’s time to mainstream a little superdickery. Not much! But just a little. Lois Lane likes Superman, but holds his feet to the fire when she feels it’s necessary — cannot be said to fully trust him, because wow, yes let’s all trust and adore the Superman what a marvellous plan! Not that he doesn’t think it’s an admirably principled stand. But would he snicker a little when someone at the Planet mockingly called her “Superman’s Girlfriend”? Sure he would. Might he not, as Clark Kent, rattle her cage a bit both by writing gushing Superman pieces, and borderline anti-Superman pieces? Yes, he might. And then as Clark Kent he can get close to her, as Superman he can be all handsome around her as he saves her from falling to her death…oh, Superman, what a game you’re playing, are you sure you want to go down this road? You know it isn’t exactly the most ethical thing you’ve ever done…oh, but come on, this is a unique situation, there aren’t any ethical codes set up for this, and besides he’s just got to know what makes that woman tick…! He’s fascinated by her. Hmph, “fascinated”, oh Superman, if only you could admit to yourself that you’re falling for her a little bit, come on wake up, man…
Don’t worry, he’ll straighten up and fly right soon enough…remember, he’s just a farmboy, he’s got a big secret, he’s fairly young yet and he’s feeling a bit at sea in big-city life…he’ll figure it out, he just has to figure it out, that’s all. And besides, it’s still not nearly as icky as “Superman Returns”…
3. What’s Luthor’s deal, is it gonna be that baldness thing? You know, I actually like the baldness thing, so maybe. But not mainly. The thing about Luthor is that he’s a scientific genius, so a thing that really interests him is Kryptonite…and where it comes from, and how, and why, and what the hell it even is. He puts a lot of this together in a hurry, Superman clashes with him more than a few times before he ever grants Lois her interview…so it’s Luthor that tells the world Superman’s an alien, Luthor who explains from his prison cell all the very acute stuff he’s deduced about who and what Superman must be…Luthor who’s studied Kryptonite the most extensively and perceptively of anyone on Earth, Luthor who explains all that it could do to help mankind, and how Superman’s secretly scooping it all up. The one thing they got right in “Superman Returns”: Superman really won’t share. He’ll stop some earthquakes and expose some government corruption, but he knows perfectly well he’s choosing not to do everything he could: heck, compensating for that is a big part of what the “mild-mannered reporter” identity is all about, after all! And to tell the truth, the split identity is indeed reflective of a certain amount of cognitive dissonance our man suffers. And that’s important stuff: shouldn’t he give STAR Labs a tiny piece of Kryptonite to experiment with? Shouldn’t he try not to indulge himself by rattling Lois’ cage? I mean there’s no instruction manual for any of this stuff, he has to figure it out as he goes…and so this particular underwear-on-the-outside psychodrama is all about finding your place, standing on your own feet, being your own man blah blah blah…in slightly less cliched terms, about developing one’s own ethical code.
Well, sure! You didn’t think these things came ready-made, did you Lois? You can’t buy ethics off the rack, after all…though it seems many people try. “Luthor must be bad in order for me to be or because I am so good…Lois must see that!” No, actually, that isn’t the way it works: that isn’t a mature ethical posture, and it won’t stand up to much. It won’t lead to “doing good”: because it’s neither truth, nor justice, and it certainly ought not to be the American way.
And isn’t that realization what’s really missing from Superman?
Doesn’t that “big blue Boy Scout” thing just get goddamn old, after a while? Prescriptive, idealized, perfect ethics that you receive just by standing there because you’re so awesome: never needing to perform any but the most minimal and formalized and safe actions to maintain your status as moral exemplar — a Scout is brave and clean and reverent, and that’s all there is to the story, now shut up and pose for the camera. Well, that’s not what Siegel and Shuster’s Superman was all about, it’s not what I’m about, and I trust it’s not what any of you are about — also, it’s not what any of the Superman stories I’ve ever liked have been about — so let’s jettison the thing with a big fat raspberry, and pay it no more mind. Boy Scout and Emo Whiner: we need to get rid of them both. Both caricatures of superhero ethicity.
Because they just won’t go with what’s on tap: Krypton can’t be found, and it worries Lex Luthor, the pre-eminent expert on All Things Superman. He’s found a way to synthesize small amounts of Kryptonite, though it’s at very high cost…but don’t think he’s planning to share it with anyone! In fact that’s why he’s a super-crook, you see: he always needs more money, to make more Kryptonite. It isn’t necessarily about having a beef with Superman — it’s about having power. It’s about being special. And in many ways, Luthor is a reasonable man: but his tragedy is that he’s an opportunist, and he knows it, and that’s what makes him dangerous even though he is in many ways a reasonable man. People always argue that Luthor’s character is motivated by jealousy, and in a way that’s true, but that makes it sound a lot simpler than it is…maybe it’s true anyway that Luthor might’ve been a great man if Superman had never come to Earth, but to Luthor himself the feeling is more like he would not have been a great man without his nemesis, and that’s true as well. Doing whatever he wanted to do would’ve been easy for Luthor, without Superman around; maybe too easy for him to have bothered with it. After all, what does he really want? To live in sybaritic luxury? But that’d be barely an afternoon’s work, for him. Couple of patents, boom. There you go. To be respected? Obviously, his intellect is respected. To indulge his scientific curiosity? He indulges it each day, whether he’s in a laboratory or a prison cell. In the kingdom of the blind, the one-eyed man is king, but the two-eyed man is bored…and there is no way for him even to explain to those around him the difference between having one eye and having two. So he sighs, and he closes one eye; what else is there for him to do?
And so Superman, Kryptonite, Krypton…these words are like rain in the desert, to him. In my version of the story, Jor-El never tells us the name of his home planet, and Superman never utters it. Instead, it’s Luthor himself who names it: mystery, occlusion, secret…as he opens his other eye. He longs to know what the Kryptonians really called themselves, longs to know what they knew. If he were Clark Kent he’d put his genius in the service of mankind, but he doesn’t have that sort of imagination, before Superman comes into his life he is aspirationally inert…and then suddenly, one day, he isn’t.
And it totally pisses him off! Oh, Superman is so special, eh? My specialness is just a byproduct of his, eh? Well screw Superman, I’ll have the bastard in little pieces on slides under a microscope by the time I’m done, I’ll have every bit of his magic specialness out of him. The hell with him.
Of course, he’s doomed to failure, because Luthor has no idea what and who Superman really is, where he comes from, why he’s there. Or anyway…
…Not yet, he doesn’t.
So, I dunno…I guess five thousand words on this is enough? Yeesh, I had no idea it’d take so long. Not sure I’ve succeeded in daylighting the theme enough, may have to return to it…
Oh, no. “Andrew’s Superman Returns”?
But that’d just be confusing…
Bet you thought I’d never get back to this one.
(I no longer like “the oughties”, by the way…)
Well, neither did I. But then Ed brought over the Watchmen movie, so I figured “what the hell”…and who knew this extremely late review would turn out to be at all topical? Huh. Well, it’s probably just that the DVD came out, so that’s what’s driving rumours, possibly even will drive soul-chilling announcements, who knows? But so anyway I am trying to watch it a second time now, and let me tell you it is slow going. For the life of me, I can’t understand how non-comics people could’ve been interested in this, why they didn’t run screaming from it. I mean, “realistic superheroes”, okay, that pump’s been primed already — in an obvious, if roundabout, way by Watchmen itself — but did anyone watching this really get a head rush from Dr. Manhattan’s history? Weren’t all the “head rush” parts mostly taken out? And so it seems too lackluster to really reach out and grab anyone by the throat, not just in the critical “Watchmaker” section, but in various bits and pieces throughout the movie that should have shone even with no polish on them whatsoever, but somehow didn’t. Meanwhile most of these “realistic” things have probably been seen before, so what else gets added? The best dialogue in the movie is still Alan Moore’s, but the worst thing that happens to it sometimes is that it doesn’t get changed when it oughtta, and (astonishingly!) it does get changed when it doesn’t need changing…with the result that many points of tension simply fall right out of the thing, along with the supersymmetry. Which of course isn’t just about the way Dr. Manhattan sees things, but about the way all the other characters don’t see things. When Laurie and Dan fight the muggers in the alley (and believe me, I’ll get back to that!) it has nothing to do with Jon’s TV interview, because words and pictures don’t synch up…which is fair enough, you can’t have everything, and as has been noted many of Watchmen’s coolest bits on the page would turn to trite conventionality on the screen, so there can’t be anything sacred about saving them. Even the matter of supersymmetry isn’t absolutely essential, I guess. From a certain perspective. On the other hand, though: tension. Without the supersymmetry, there are so many ways in which it fails to be built. Did anyone honestly not get the memo about who Laurie’s father was, when they saw this? Did anyone not come away from that scene with Adrian and Dan, you know the one where Adrian looks out the window and says “by the way, it was me”, and not realize that, by the way, it was him? Already in my head is a voice screeching that at some point you’re going to know it’s Adrian anyway, that it’s just the nature of the moviemaking beast…and that’s the same voice that says Watchmen always did show blood, gore, dirt, sex…that Moore is always toying with the darker notes hidden away in characters like these, that he wants you to see them…
…But this voice is an asshole, I think. Hey, remember last week or something there was some fuss made over the Fantastic Four comic where Valeria calls her brother a “retard”? The thing is, the casual use of this word offended some people. In case you missed it, other people (including the writer) defended the word choice by saying “that’s just how kids talk”. But if you boil it down, that’s the same sort of bullshit argument I outline above. And don’t get me wrong, if I wanted to weigh in on how cautious we should be with potentially offensive language, I would have — that isn’t the part I’m identifying as bullshit. But the suggestion that any writer of Fantastic Four, or Spider-Man, or Batman or whatever has some kind of artistic obligation to be real with his language is clearly bullshit, I think. Because it isn’t society that’s on trial, here: most of the words spoken in superhero comics are outrageously not-how-real-people-talk, never are going to be how real people talk…these aren’t documentaries, and it’s damned rare that controversial or realistic language does much for a story in this mode, but it’s even rarer still that a controversy completely unintended, that doesn’t even have a point it wants to make, can pull off claims of story-based value in “realism”. And so it makes me laugh to think how little would be lost, if the writer had said something more like “jeez, I guess I didn’t think about that very carefully; you’re right, it was unnecessary.” I mean, people make mistakes all the time, right? Sometimes they are small mistakes.
Other times, they’re bigger. Now what I was thinking about, was how amazing it is that Dan and Laurie graphically kill and maim a few people in Watchmen, and then discuss going for a beer. I laughed when the first bloody bone came shooting out of an arm, and I was kind of thinking “wow, just imagine if this was in 3D”. It might as well have been. And of course the whole movie is loaded up with gratuitously violent money-shots such as this, stuff that is just simply over the top, hard sells, hammer-blows, visual amphetamine. Crank? Crank. But it’s not exactly a good sympathy-engine. Meanwhile the little voice in my head says “it’s just explodey fun, why get uptight about it, hey you liked Crank, I thought!” But that voice only finds it convenient to call me a hypocrite because misery loves company: that voice wouldn’t care if it was Watchmen I was watching or it was Transformers 2, because that’s the voice that says “Oh, take it easy, personally I’m looking forward to reading Mark Millar’s adaptation of Pale Fire, just to see the trainwreck.” But as I mentioned: that voice is an asshole. And furthermore, be it known: trainwrecks aren’t really that much fun to watch.
I liked Crank. In contrast, I don’t think the voice ever genuinely likes anything. So there’s that “retard” thing, I want to get back to that…because if the word-choice doesn’t flow from a commitment to “provoke” the reader by being unflinchingly honest, it certainly comes from somewhere, because word-choices don’t really just “happen”. So, where does it come from? I think it’d be uncontroversial for me to suggest that it doesn’t come from what kids say, but what adults say — hip language, pop culture, the zone of hyperactive inter-geek storytelling. The shared frontier patois of we who accept our inner adolescents, our own shared experience/observational comedy stuff. We don’t just pick it up out of our environment as kids do, we choose it: the cheap thrills of lovingly-shot slo-mo mayhem, kickass show-off moments studded with (to paraphrase a friend’s recent comment about what twelve-year-old boys like) non-threatening action spandex girls with huge tits. And so we should know better than anyone: character really isn’t a major concern in this sort of thing, no more than being a veridical observer of How Things Are is a major concern. So there’s nothing to defend, here; the energy spent on this defence is wasted. Concession costs nothing, because there’s nothing at stake.
Or…maybe there is?
Maybe there is just a little something at stake. This movie’s got a shitload of little problems, that aren’t really “little” at all: they’re basic problems, that range all over the map of “basic”. But the voice wants me to know that none of this really matters, because if I think it does then it also means I think the voice is an idiot grazer whose only artistic criterion is whether or not its belly is full. The “retard” thing, I think it’s safe to say, was just a mistake. Dan and Laurie in the alley, slaughtering muggers: oh, come on, that was a mistake too. There’s a thing about this movie, that it makes a lot of mistakes — mostly you wonder why, you wonder how the mistakes came to happen. Some of them are the result of Snyder ramping things up into the stratosphere, and that’s easy to see. You want to know why, when Dr. Manhattan points his finger at somebody, they pop like balloons full of meat salad? But the movie is full of such things, for heaven’s sake this is practically its sentimentality at work! To the extent Snyder has an auteur-ish vision, here it is. The SFX track is pumped way up for a reason. Rorschach only kills the dogs incidentally, for a reason.
And it’s in the reason, that one discovers the nature of the more obvious errors. Look, from the opening fight in Eddie Blake’s apartment, things start to shoot themselves in the foot: these people have some kinda extreme super-strength and resistance to injury, this isn’t Batman, not even Jet Li, this is Superman II. And me, I think that was a dumb idea, but I understand the rationale. Even if the rationale was sort of not quite right. Still, it’s a little dicier when Dan and Laurie kill some ordinary people on the street and then smile about it though, eh? They’re not even the right kind of nervous with one another. One is concerned for the point, as one rationale necessitates another, and the whole thing picks up speed unrestrained. Blake’s scar doesn’t figure into the symbolism, neither does Laurie’s finger on the dust of Dan’s equipment. Of course these things could’ve been left alone about as easily as they were changed, but I think it is fair to ask: left alone to what end, when the supersymmetry isn’t there anyway? By comparison, the long shot of the Argyre Planitia — I can only image what the non-comics moviegoing public made of that. Did they think it just came in from out of left field, did the words “as if” cross their minds? The supersymmetry is not really there!
These are little things, but they do add up, and most of them aren’t just me nitpicking. Me nitpicking would be like: wow, Adrian’s personal worth is enough to buy Chrysler, Ford, and GM a couple times over? It isn’t impossible — this could easily be a world without Microsoft or Apple, and APPARENTLY he’s some kind of whiz at genetic engineering — ha, maybe they left Bubastis in this movie because they’re planning of making her into an action figure? — but I’ve got to say, it was a bit jarring to hear him threaten to buy the entire North American auto industry.
But here’s some not-nitpicking. The sex scene in the owlship is crazy over the top, don’t you think? When Rorschach disposes of Big Figure, that just seems kind of laboured, doesn’t it? But then there are things that aren’t over the top, they’re just sort of…huh? Rorschach’s dialogue in the cell is changed just slightly, for hard-to-understand reasons — the method by which he kills Big Figure’s remaining goon is sort of repetitive. Is that guy even supposed to be alive after having his head smashed through a toilet?
Can the psychiatrist really not recommend Rorschach being committed after hearing his story?
That in particular is kind of a Dark Knight level of inconsistency…so let’s just leave it to one side for a second, and concentrate on the day what was left of Walter Kovacs died. This is a straight-up fumble, isn’t it? Honestly I’m coming to really enjoy the Rorschach guy’s acting effort in this thing, and he knows how to read Moore’s words…but the killing of the dogs is the part where Kovacs finally checks out, isn’t it? Well, it is; but that dark moment — as dark as it gets! — is inexplicably undersold in favour of the bad guy’s punishment. And it’s tempting to chalk that up to somebody’s misreading of the original text, except…come on, did anybody misread that part of the original comic? So, no: the guilty party here is the crazy ramping-up of spectacle, the adrenaline. Rorschach breaking down and butchering the dogs isn’t any adrenaline-junkie’s idea of a fist-pumpingly good revenge trip. Dan and Laurie’s porno-gone-wrong music video starts with Dan feeling impotent standing naked before his owlsuit (which doesn’t really look like an owl at all, but — nitpicking!), however the bit where he’s wearing the glasses is carefully omitted, right? And anyway they’re the wrong kind of glasses, and come to think of it that doesn’t make sense — he’d look a lot more like an owl if the glasses were like Archie’s windshie…oh never mind, there’s so much to say it almost isn’t worth getting bogged down in every little specific. We’ll be here all night. Speaking of which, crazy to think poor old dead Jon still possessed vanity enough to reconstruct himself with both a steroidal physique and a huge schlong (superpowers!) — and yet the key is right here, eh? The key to everything is that the world is no more ready for a superman with a tiny dick, than it is for a masked avenger of the night with real feelings like the kind we’ve got.
“Mommy, is that Jesus?”
Snyder unwisely lets the moment stand. Though at least Mommy says “no”.
But the point remains: this isn’t nostalgia, it’s mawkishness. And the violence is the most mawkish of all.
Christ, I feel a little bit like I’m picking on a little kid, though. Does the world really need another excoriation of the Watchmen movie? I mean I want to make my point, but I don’t want to be an asshole about it myself, you know? There are just lots of little mistakes in this movie, that’s all. But it isn’t more deserving of scorn than other Moore-derived movies. “From Hell” was actually far more shortsighted than this is. The Watchmen motion comic was far more horrendous. So, this hasn’t ruined the original experience for me like seeing the Star Wars Special Editions did. Good God, but in the age of computers haven’t we been well enough educated to know that “Special Edition” is the mark of death? I’m through with Star Wars now, man. Star Wars and I are done, finished. But Watchmen and I are fine. So what am I saying, it wasn’t as good as the comic? Well, I never thought it would be. Am I accusing Snyder of hubris or something, is that my point?
Am I saying it was shitty?
It wasn’t exactly shitty, but it was a bit WEIRD. If I had to think of a recent superfolks movie to compare it to, I’d probably pick the first Fantastic Four movie, honestly. Which makes sense: because I had the same sort of feeling of aversion to seeing it, as I did with that one. It wasn’t hate. It wasn’t fear. Maybe it was embarrassment? Or more likely it was a kind of sympathy after all. Christ, I couldn’t even make a Watchmen movie that I’d like, you know? In the end, the squid didn’t matter as much as Dan telling people he’d be seeing them all the goddamned time. That was one of the inexplicable mistakes. The ludicrous gore was more understandable, as was the loss of the supersymmetry. But it was the B-grade “understandables” that were really frustrating. Most of Rorschach’s journal came across like the Architect’s speechifyin’ in the second Matrix movie: as text, totally fine, but as spoken dialogue WHAT? I do understand the necessity of having the journal end up in Seymour’s hands, with us knowing what it is, but…seriously, someone says “abattoir of retarded children” aloud, that’s not arresting, that’s either hilarious or it’s disturbing as shit, or it’s both. But are we supposed to think of Rorschach that way, really? Well, I think it was not really considered, I think the question never came up in a serious way…like I said, it’s a bit weird. Do we need to have the name of the military base that houses Jon and Laurie narrated to us, after seeing the sign almost a whole minute before the voiceover gets around to it? In the comics, lots of things can be made to work, that are radically superfluous in film. “Obsolete Models A Specialty” is not necessary in film — and stripped of supersymmetry it looks ham-fisted. Listen, here’s the absolutely AMAZING thing, okay? Movies already trade on supersymmetry. Nobody in a movie ever has a dream that isn’t prophetic. Movies put the foreshadowing in your face ten times a minute. All this shit’s completely normal to movies. Which is why Hollis’ sign is something that won’t make anyone go “ahhh! how clever!” in a movie — in a movie, no one will see the places the camera goes as anything but totally intentional. Hollis’ sign isn’t brilliant decoration in the movie as it was in the comic, “In Gratitude” would be grating even if it were set up properly, there is nothing brilliant about filling spaces in a movie with movie-type-stuff, no one looks at Orson Welles movies and says “that’s so innovative how he has the actors scold the camera like they can see us”, they just DON’T.
And so this may be another key to this movie, specifically to its weirdness: that the comic already looked like a movie, just not enough. Or occasionally: just a little too much. So much hammering, but somehow — somehow — we lose the details of “Watchmaker” that attach us most powerfully to Jon’s experience of time. Little trivial pieces of nothing, they’re just words, so easily replaced…yet without them something’s lost. And why are they not there, if they’re so trivial? I’m not saying we need whole scenes back, although I don’t think it’s very hard to see that Billy Crudup would’ve hit the “photograph lies at my feet” business right out of the park, I mean look what he accomplished just with “perhaps nothing is made” and “it’s too late” — as Jackie Earle Haley would’ve crushed the audience to tears, no doubt, with the dogs — but I love it when he scratches his head later on, you know? — I mean I’m not asking for the whole wide world, but where is the sense that Jon is reassuring Janey in one room, can hear her swearing at him in another? Not all of Moore’s prose is deathless, but the technical fine-tuning is fairly impeccable, and doesn’t take any more time than anything else…that someone made the choice to get rid of it astounds me. Did the non-comics folk in the audience really get Jon’s perspective?
But maybe they weren’t really supposed to — maybe they weren’t supposed to dwell on it that much. Rorschach with the dogs, that would’ve stuck in the mind like a splinter. Could I have appreciated him scratching his head, after that? The movie’s only so long. Jon’s story could fill twice the space it took up, and probably more. I saw the Director’s Cut, it was skinny at a hundred and sixty-eight minutes. In the theatrical release, you wouldn’t want people just zoning out thinking about Dr. Manhattan, would you? And as for Laurie’s parentage, my goodness. It isn’t pretty, the way we get to it. But at least I saw the snowglobe. And you can’t have everything. You can’t have all of it.
And it’s too late now, anyway.
But there are definitely some negative things to say about it all, that deserve saying, deserve hearing, deserve something anyway. Because I may’ve said that nothing really needed to be held sacred in this movie, but then again the movie itself is all about what needs to be held sacred and what doesn’t…and I, myself, am actually so very fondly attached to the book that if given the chance to make this movie I probably wouldn’t've. Sacred, I dunno. It’s funny what cooks down as essential, here. It’s very wobbly. The logic of physical damage, punishment both dished out and taken, is tough to make work…if you care about that sort of thing. It’s so exclusively tonal: Dan pounds on Adrian’s face and makes a little scratch. I have to tell you, it set me back a little: earlier we saw teeth floating in a bloody mouth. This is the logic of bodies and how they work, what they can endure, what they symbolize, how they suffer and why. Adrian’s little drop of blood is meant to touch us. His fight with the Comedian is supposed to fill us with desperate urgency. The violence is the music, here: emotional texture. Watchmen needs a lot of it. Well, that’s what realism is, for heaven’s sake! Dan’s gawping after Laurie is so empty that it needs something, and it was either brutal over-the-top ultraviolence, or it was gonna be “Oh Yeah” by Yello…
Oh yes, folks, don’t kid yourselves! These same choices could’ve been made much, much more poorly!
As for the Comedian himself, his funeral is confusing; camera looks down as rain falls on the mourners, we’ve seen this before, okay, it’s not exactly pure genius but it isn’t unendurable…still, if they’re gonna do that, why didn’t they do the bit where the mourners’ posture at the grave recalls their posture when the Comedian messed with their heads? I mean, I don’t really care a whole lot, but I also don’t understand the choice. Not when Rorschach gets to play with the “fine like this” callback-dialogue thing, and my GOD when did that shit become so de rigeur in American movies, I really really really would like to know. I’d like to have someone to blame for it. I mean if they can do that stuff, why couldn’t they do any of the other stuff, that’s better and less hackneyed?
Although I’d be lying if I said I didn’t like how he delivered the line…heck, the way it ended up, I didn’t even mind the song. But you know, this is like “The Golden Army”, this is just somebody’s fan-fic, like a backhanded review of the source material rather than an adaptation of it. There really are music-video parts — like those long-form videos people used to do, it’s sort of like six or seven of those strung together, with bridges made of “movie”. I’m going to say this is not the most heinous thing there ever was: music does indeed add texture to poses and shots, possibly is the only thing that might add back tension that script revisions removed. The score, the shots, the dialogue in voiceover…that’s the symphonic aspect of film, and it isn’t forceless, it isn’t valueless. Maybe it’s even where the seeds of adaptations take root, translating something difficult from another medium into a kind of Universal Donor form of artistic dynamic, a plug that fits all sockets…”music video”, I mean how did anybody ever even come up with this idea? I remember reading X-Men comics while listening to the Red Album, and it fit weirdly, just as all this does. In the old mixed-tape days, I wrote down themes I was trying to get across, flows for a rainy day, a bad breakup, a party. On to the sampling and mixing of today, and even I, Mr. Old-And-Tired, have just plugged part of the opening of “Ziggy Stardust” into a song’s middle-eight like an insane person, to switch the “logic” track over from Words to Music, a temporary inversion of how meaning is delivered in an ordinary song. We shouldn’t just discount this. This is how we make our own personal fan-fic in our heads, isn’t it? How we play our games of “what would I do”, “what would I match”…
It’s sort of a kink, you see. “Oh, if I could do whatever I pleased, I’d do this…!“ Hmm…something to be said for a job where all you do is cross your own boundaries, make illicit fantasies into normative behaviour…
Let’s see…what else? It is of course nice to see drinking buddies and old professors getting work. What else? Under The Hood is absolutely awful. SURPRISE! Bet you expected it to be good, huh? Me too. But it really wasn’t. The Black Freighter made me laugh, though.
God, I don’t even know. The Nixon is like a Sin-City Nixon, remarkably like a Nixon in a comic-book…for some reason I grew not to mind this.
Ah. And of course, there’s the matter of “was it worth it” and “was it enjoyable to watch” and so on and so forth. You do have to be happy for Dave Gibbons, who got to see some of his masterful artwork diligently recreated by someone who obviously understood just how good it was. How many comics artists get that kind of compliment? How many, who’ve accomplished something as stunning as what Gibbons did in Watchmen, have been so ignored and denigrated by the very people who claim to love his work the most? On the higher plane of human beings getting the respect they deserve, Watchmen’s a success in this sense: Dave Gibbons is in every scene, his name is on it and he got paid for it and people went out and bought his book because of it. And he was happy with it. Good for him. So does it matter if it was any good, if I thought it was “worth it”?
Well, sure it does. I just don’t know if I do think that, because my “review” of the source material is considerably different from the one Snyder’s given me to chew over. Watchmen the book and Watchmen the movie were always going to be miles apart from one another in terms of content — no one thought we were going to get the Gordian Knot, surely? The inside of the Bestiary? The Black Freighter? Blood From The Shoulder Of Pallas? Even the outstanding colouring. Watchmen doesn’t even mean the same thing to me as it did back in ’86 — like me, it’s aged well, but it’s aged nonetheless. The movie, by contrast, is never going to age at all — it’s going to be stuck in the summer of 2009 for all eternity, pinned ruthlessly to the corkboard of this time, this place, this cultural concern. The special effects will one day look primitive. The politics will look as glued-on as the costumes. The story will stay pretty much linear. The particular humour and particular seriousness of Moore and Gibbons will always be absent, as will the true character of their accomplishment. What we were always looking for here was an interesting failure; that really was all we were ever going to get, that really was the best we were ever going to get.
So…was it interesting?
Dave Fiore thought it was. Focussing on the political dialogue between the comic and the movie, he thought it was worth it to consider an Adrian who was more than just an extradimensional-squid inventing madman. And he has a point: in the comic, Adrian’s far madder than Rorschach, more inhuman than Jon, more pathetic than Dan…his life more damagingly composed of lies than Laurie’s. Of course it’s just this that causes the Comedian’s sense of humour to shatter, in the end — a fucking space squid!? — and as Jog noted at the time, Veidt’s apocalyptic landscape is a pretty sanitized one in the film. Very little horror, very little blood. He says he’s made himself feel every death, but in the comic you know he hasn’t; you know he couldn’t. Whereas in the movie he’s allowed to get away with saying this — well, he is the smartest man in the world, after all! Maybe he knows something we don’t! Because we can’t make ourselves feel every death, can we?
So, is it deck-stacking? In the comic we know something Adrian never will, because we’ve been to the bloody Lovecraftian deathscape of New York with Jon and Laurie — so “smartest man in the world” won’t cover anything, for us. It just won’t wash. In the movie we aren’t confronted with this sort of perspective, though, so we do get Dave’s interesting political dialogue coming at us in a more unforced way…the only question is, what should we say about the difference? In the dialogue between movie and comic, a principal difference becomes how much judgement of himself Adrian is permitted — how much certainty he can afford, or manufacture. In the comic he yells “I DID IT!” in childish triumph, but then looks to Jon to solve his dreams of the Black Freighter…and finds no solution forthcoming. One in three go mad, in the new Millenium. However in the movie there is no triumphant schoolboy shout, but there’s no madness either, so…I don’t know, is it enough? True, we can grapple with the same problem Adrian grapples with, using the same tools, and decide for ourselves if his results are reproducible…or worth reproducing…but it’s only Adrian’s tools we’re given, and not (as the fellow named Kieran points out in that long-ago comments thread of mine), Moore’s. Which is to say: our own. We are not really shown anything but what Adrian can see on his TV screens, so naturally we, like him, think the tools he’s got are up to the job. And for myself, I think this constitutes a shortfall in meaning…
…But, yeah: it’s probably interesting enough to argue about, anyway!
And anyway, as I said, we knew we wouldn’t really be getting Watchmen. So maybe the argument is all there is?
I don’t know. There are few scenes that don’t have something to quibble with in them. It’s hard to get around Adrian having an Egyptian statue standing there with Yeats’ lines scribbled beneath it, even though at this point one pretty much expects it. It’s tough to feel bad for Laurie when she could’ve just taken the cab and not killed that guy. The little voice argues that this is just how kids talk, this is just how real-world superheroes would be: they’d be horrors, they’d be fascists, I mean look at their suits. It says: hasn’t Moore made a big enough meal of this in his other comics, for you to accept seeing it here? And yet I did not think Dan was such a big hypocrite in the comic, so…was I supposed to?
Was that the message I missed?
Was it all just a big joke, from the beginning?
Nah. All that hyperviolence stuff, y’know…that’s new. They stuck it in there on purpose, because they needed it. Dan and Laurie in the alley? You think of all the things that sequence was for in the comic; it isn’t for any of that here. It’s for quite another sense of proportion. Nothing “sacred” about it! And so that explains why the defence of this movie seems not to have been centred around the question “did they hold it as sacred”, but around the question “did they blaspheme against it” instead…with the corollary question being “is it even possible to blaspheme against it?” So we’re into the Frankenstein questions here, appropriately enough: is it just a matter of reassembling the pieces in the correct order?
Perhaps Dave is right, and the dialogue between movie and comic is interesting enough in itself, to make the movie worthwhile. I only wish I knew if he saw it a second time, though! Because when I finished my second viewing of it, all these words just about went flying out the window. Depressing? It surely was: largely empty-hearted, dripping crocodile tears, a series of nods to scenes that were presumed to have something in them just because they were there. Snyder drops most of what is in Watchmen, to show us what is on it: owlship crashes spectacularly on Antarctic cliffs, ACTION sequence! But where’s the meaning in it? Dan and Laurie lose my sympathy in the alley, but for what?
Here is a thing about meaning: it’s about thinking globally, and acting locally. One scene doesn’t mean all by its lonesome, but it’s part of a tapestry of cause and effect — a cause and effect whose nature the scene reveals, through being a part of it. So by themselves — and even together! — the scenes in Watchmen might mean anything, you see? And so it always is, with superficial copies — their perceived faithfulness depends on how low they can set the value of faithfulness. Is Watchmen, the comic, any good? Why do we even like it so much? After all, it’s just a bunch of scenes of people doing stuff and saying things, hell I can get that out my front street…so what’s the difference? Thus from Mary Shelley we move off further back in time, to Rene Descartes…
What is “mind”, anyway?
You can’t touch it, or taste it!
And don’t a live body and a dead one have the same number of particles in them?
Structurally, there’s no difference…right?
Well…maybe there’s just a little bit of difference. Mark Kardwell told me, in the last comments thread, that it would be awful and that I would complain bitterly, but that I would still wind up enjoying it…because at the end of the day it is Watchmen. I think he was probably right, when it came to my first viewing: for all sorts of reasons, I felt involved and invested in what would happen, what Snyder would do…how I myself would respond, and what I’d discover from that response. The second viewing absolutely swept all that excitement away, however; as I began to realize that the movie was actually mostly crap. And yet, you know, Mark’s still right. I didn’t enjoy it on second viewing. Quite the opposite. But somehow I have still wound up having something to say about it…because at the end of the day, it was Watchmen.
By which I mean: the comic was.
And of course, it still is.
…But I think that’s all the time we’ve got for today, to talk about it.