A Tribute to the Joker

the_joker-wallpaper-1366x768Soon enough, the third and final installment in Chris Nolan’s Batman franchise will be premiering. I can’t tell you how much I want to see it. Ever since The Dark Knight ended and it was clear the Joker would not be appearing in movie 3, I’ve been itching to see what they would do with it.

And from what I’ve seen, they are taking the proper route. Combining elements from the comic book The Dark Knight Returns with a real life or death, all or nothing feel, this movie might even top the last one in some respects. Don’t want to jinx it, just saying it’s sure to be good.

But I think I speak for more than just myself when I say that it’s a shame the Joker won’t be making it back for one last dance. We all know why he won’t, of course. For one, it would have been in bad taste to try and replace Ledger after his untimely death. What’s more, after the masterful performance he gave, no actor could be expected to fill the role. I mean, c’mon, you don’t ask to go on after the Beatles, it’s just plain silly!

So in honor of Ledger, and every other actor that has ever tried to bring life to this character, I’d like to do a post detailing this villain that has remained so popular over the years.

The Joker:
To put it simply, this character, this villain, is a work of genius. Designed to be one of the many villains the “caped crusader” did battle with, it wasn’t long before this smiling psychopath became Batman’s arch-nemesis and the chief pain in his ass. The reasons for this seems pretty clear, but just for fun I’ll get into them anyway. Basically, he was the perfect villain because people loved to hate him and found him so dark and yet so fun.

Persona:
For starters, his whole work up was immensely inspired. By adopting the whole insane clown thing, he combined the macabre with the innocent, which pretty much made him the stuff of nightmares. He killed, he maimed, and he tortured people sadistically, but he always did it with a smile on his face and a quick joke. He could be insane, yes, but he could also be brilliant and cunning. His method was madness, but it was concealed behind a sort of playful, laughable exterior.

This was in stark contrast to Batman’s tough and cold character and the permanent scowl he had etched on his face. As such, he was the perfect foil for Batman’s particular brand of heroism and social control. Whereas the dark knight was obsessed with order and stability, the Joker was malevolence and disorder personified. In a way, he played Lucifer to Batman’s God, messing with his designs and subverting his sense of right and wrong. And, like Lucifer, he knew how to turn the tables and get people to do his bidding. And whereas Batman never smiled, much like God, the Joker could be counted on to see the fun side of things, even in pain, suffering and death.

Origins:
Due to the many adaptations and interpretations of this character over the years – be they in print, television or cinema –  there are more than a few different origin stories. And they don’t always agree. However, certain common elements can be seen across all the different iterations. The earliest mention of his past indicated that he was a criminal named the Red Hood before he donned the clown makeup. This changed when he fell into a vat of chemicals while trying to escape from the Batman, an experience which left his skin permanently discolored.

This was expanded further in Alan Moore’s The Killing Joke, where he was shown to be a chemical engineer who quits his job at a chemical plant to become a standup comedian. After failing in this endeavor, he agrees to help two criminals break into the plant. Shortly before the robbery can take place though, he learns that his wife and son have died in a freak accident. He tries to back out of the crime but is strong armed by the other two thugs. And of course, the crime goes south and he is left disfigured. Between this and the loss of his family, he is driven insane and becomes the Joker.

Later versions once again resurrected the concept of the Joker being a career criminal before he became a sociopathic villain. In these versions, the name Jack was used, and it was said that he had some contact with the Batman before taking on his new persona. In fact, in Batman Confidential it was suggested that it was his obsessions with the Batman that eventually led to the accident which forever changed him.

All of these elements informed Tim Burton’s adaptation of the story in the 1989 movie. Here, the Joker was portrayed as a petty thug named Jack Napier who worked for Rupert Thorn, the Gotham city crime lord. Then, after tangling with the Batman at a chemical plant, he suffered a disfiguring injury before falling into a chemical vat, which left his skin dyed and his face permanently scarred. The Joker therefore blamed Batman for his transformation, but would later come to learn that he had been the one who shot his parents when he was just a child.

Personally, I found this version to be genius in that it managed to capture the true insanity of the Joker. Faced with an image of himself that was twisted into a hideous smile, Napier could do nothing but laugh at the sick joke that had befallen him. From thence forth, he was determined to make others see the humor in it as well, right before he killed them! And by making him responsible for killing Bruce Wayne’s parents, the two were ultimately responsible for the others’ creation. Clearly, Burton interpreted the whole “flip sides of the same coin” thing quite literally!

However, Christopher Nolan took a different approach with his adaptation of the criminal mastermind. In the 2008 film The Dark Knight, we are given a version of things where we know nothing about the Jokers origins. On several occasions, he offers up explanations as to how he got his scars; but of course, the story keeps changing. No one can be sure which version is the truth and which is false. In one, he’s the victim of an abusive father who slashed his face. In another, he had a wife who gambled and had her face cut up by the Mob. His own scars were self inflicted out of grief so that he could resemble hers.

This is apparently in keeping with the fact that no definitive explanation has ever been given as to how the Joker really became what he was. Over the years, many different explanations have been given and it’s unclear which are true. In the end, this was resolved by saying that the Joker frequently lies, or can’t keep all the facts straight in his head. As he says in The Killing Joke: “Sometimes I remember it one way, sometimes another… if I’m going to have a past, I prefer it to be multiple choice!”

Weapons of Choice:
smilexThough the Joker appears to be adept at firearms and somewhat versed in hand to hand combat, his preferred method of killing has to do with various “comedic” weapons. These include razor sharp playing cards, acid-spewing flowers, cyanide pies and lethal electric joy buzzers. Clearly, the man understands irony and is willing to go the extra mile for consistency.

In addition, he has a signature poison known as “Joker Venom”, a deadly poison that leaves his victims with a ghoulish rictus grin as they die while laughing uncontrollably. This venom comes in many forms, from gas to darts to liquid, and has been his primary calling card since his character’s inception.

All of this was featured in Tim Burton’s Batman, where it was revealed that the Joker was well versed in chemistry and was using this knowledge to create his Smile-X poison. By smuggling various chemical precursors into common consumer products, he was able to disseminate his poisons into Gotham city without anyone knowing. Once these different products were used in combination, people began to die, all of them with a massive grin on their faces!

In Nolan’s version, the Joker retained his preference for simple weapons, but dropped the whimsy, poison and chemistry. As Ledger’s Joker said to a detective while in custody: “Do you want to know why I use a knife? Guns are too quick. You can’t savor all the… little emotions. In… you see, in their last moments, people show you who they really are.” Later, while free and in the company of the Russian mob, he added: “I’m a man of simple tastes. I enjoy dynamite, and gunpowder, and… gasoline!”

Between these two takes, the Joker retains one basic characteristic… Fear! Whereas a criminal with a gun is scary, a mad man with sharp objects, burning acid and explosive devices is downright terrifying!

Criminal Acts:
The Joker’s resume reads like that of a man who desperately wants to be the biggest maniac in town. Over the many years of his character’s existence, he has committed countless crimes, some whimsical and some downright brutal. All of these have been done for reasons which, in the words of the Batman: “make sense to him alone.”

In the Killing Joke, the Joker paralyzes Batgirl (aka. Barbara Gordon) by shooting her in the back. He also kidnaps Gordon and taunts him with photographs of his crime, hoping to drive him mad and thus prove his point that any man can go insane under the right circumstances. In “A Death in the Family”, the Joker also killed Jason Todd, the second Robin. This, he did with a bomb, but only after beating him senseless with a crowbar.

During one of his many stays in Arkham Asylum, the Joker also managed to convert Harleen Quinzel, a psychiatrist who was sent in to examine him, into his willing helper. Convinced that the Joker might be faking insanity to avoid the death penalty, she sets out to unlock his past. In time, he earns her sympathy and convinces her to help him escape. Eventually, she is caught and her obsession with him leads her to seek him out and become Harley Quinn, his criminal sidekick.

He also went as far as to murder Sarah Essen Gordon, Commissioner Gordon’s second wife, after kidnapping her. Once Gordon took him into custody, he once again taunted him in the hopes of driving him mad and getting him to forsake his moral code. However, Gordon sticks to his code and only kneecaps him. True to form, the Joker quickly laments that he might not walk again, but then finishes with a maniacal laugh!

Of course, the list goes on. Given his many years of sadistic stunts, it would impossible to include them all in one post. Suffice it to say, he has been a constant source of (ahem) “entertainment” to Batman, Commissioner Gordon, and the Gotham Police Department.

Death:
Though the Joker experienced near shaves with death on many occasions, he finally met his end in Frank Miller’s The Dark Knight Returns. It was here that, after a prolonged absence, the Batman came out of retirement to fight crime one last time. This soon inspired the Joker to awaken from his drug-induced slumber inside Arkham and begin creating havoc again.

It began with Joker once again pretending he was rehabilitated in order to gain parole from Arkham, and was followed by him releasing his toxic venom into a crowded talk show studio before making his escape. After many deaths and a chase that took them across the city and into an amusement park, the Batman finally cornered the Joker inside a tunnel and engaged him in mortal combat.

The Joker managed to stab him several times, but Batman eventually got the upper hand and snapped the Joker’s neck. However, this didn’t prove fatal, and a laughing Joker once again mocked Batman for not being able to go through with it. The Joker then took a deep breath and snapped his own neck the rest of the way. Thus, the Joker died as he lived… laughing, mocking and batshit crazy!

Final Thoughts:
What more is there to say? The Joker is just one of those characters who’s stuck with us over the years, and for good reason. Not only did he have all the right characteristics to make a fitting villain, he was also the perfect arch-nemesis for the Batman. Overall, I have to assume that he wasn’t the kind of character who was tailor made for the role, but an inspired invention that grew into the role over time and became a permanent feature before long.

To paraphrase cartoonist Berkeley Breathed, good characters aren’t just created, they wander in off the street looking for a meal and a bath and end up staying. In the Jokers case, I’m glad he stuck around. Much like the Batman, he’s probably the most realistic, dark and gritty personality to ever come out of the comic book world!

The rest, as they say, is insane cackling laughter… HAHAHAHAHAHAHAHA!

RIP Heath

V for Vendetta

Chances are, we all know people who are avid readers and swear up and down that a movie is never as good as an original novel. Man, those people can be annoying! However, as time goes on I find myself identifying with those people more and more. The difference between them and myself is, they read the books first and then see the movies. I, on the other hand, see the movie, listen to people complain about how “it wasn’t the same”, read the novel, and then join the chorus! Maybe this is a sign that I should read more, maybe its just dumb luck. But somehow, I find that with a lot of adaptations, I’m getting it all backwards.

The experiences tend to be pretty far between, but on the whole, I notice they are becoming more and more frequent. First, there was The Lord of the Rings, where I saw the first movie and then read the trilogy. By the time the trilogy was wrapping up, I was nitpicking all the omissions and changes with all the other Rings geeks! Then there was Fight Club, a movie I thoroughly enjoyed but then read the book and suddenly found reason to criticize. Then came Blade Runner, one of those rare instances where I liked the movie better. More recently, its been Game of Thrones – we’ll see how that turns out! – and, for the purposes of this review, V for Vendetta.

Yes, here too I saw the movie before I ever knew the source of inspiration. Then, having finally read it, I found myself having second thoughts about the movie. In truth, that’s not really fair, but it is kind of unavoidable. Regardless of what order you do it in, you can’t help but be very much aware of the fact that between the original story and the screen adaptation, things change. It might not always seem faithful, but a movie is not diminished simply because it’s different from the source material, nor can you fault director’s for taking creative liberties. And with adaptations that come years or even decades after the book was first released, you have to figure that changes will be made because they have to be. Things have happened between now and then, things which may make certain parts of the story impossible or at the very least unlikely. So with that in mind, let’s get down to V for Vendetta – the movie, the graphic novel, and everything in between!

(Background—>):
Since I knew in advance that V (the movie, not the sci-fi series) was based on an original graphic novel, I thought it only fair that I read it before giving the movie a review. After reading it, I was reminded of why I enjoyed Watchmen as thoroughly as I did. In both cases, Alan Moore was the creative mind, combining an obvious passion for politics, history and narrative depth with the usual subject matter of comic books (i.e. superheros). It was these same elements that Frank Miller would later emulate in order to create one of the best entries in the Batman franchise – The Dark Knight Returns. This is surprising, seeing as how V was apparently a side project of Moore’s, something he and illustrator David Lloyd did for fun more than anything else. The fact that it went on to become one of the most critically acclaimed series’ in history, eventually spawning a movie adaptation, was just a sign of its quality.

But of course, the graphic novel was released between 1982 and 89, covering events which took place towards the end of the 90’s. In it, a post-apocalyptic Britain has been spared the ravages of the nuclear holocaust, but then finds itself struggling to survive in a devastated world. It is then quickly taken over by a fascist government that uses the chaos of the outside world and the mentality of “Lifeboat Britain” to take power and justify its extreme policies. After many years of supposed peace and stability, a masked anarchist emerges who begins to slowly take apart the state, exposing its lies, secrets, and the crime that made him what he is.

Not only was this a chilling basis for a story, it also had an undeniably British flavor to it. The setting, the characters, and the mentality of it all just screamed Britain! In the movie, we get much the same feeling, but the elements are different. Rather than involving nuclear war, the plot revolves around the threat of terrorism and repression done in the name of security (something audiences in 2006 would find much more relatable). That, and a slew of other changes, made the movie more current, but also had the effect of watering it down somewhat.

(Content—>):
The movie opens almost exactly as the graphic novel does, except that for the sake of American audiences, the story of Guy Fawkes is first explained. Natalie Portman tells of the Gunpowder Treason, the man behind the plot, and the difference between ideas and the people who fight for them. However, the movie then moves to a near-future London at night, where both Evey (Natalie Portman) and V (Hugo Weaving) are getting ready to go out. In the background, the “Voice of London” – the regimes chief spewer propaganda – is delivering his latest spiel.

Evey then goes out for the night, on her way to meat her suitor and superior over at BTN (British Television Network) where she works. However, on her way she is intercepted by Fingermen (government spooks) who attempt to rape her. She is narrowly saved by a masked stranger who is in the habit of spouting poetry before wielding his knives and cutting his enemies to ribbons. He says his name is V, a name which he then cuts into one of the government’s posters. Thus begins Evey’s adventure with him, and the premise of the story.

He then takes Evey to the roof of a nearby building where a performance is about to begin. This “show” involves the destruction of the Old Bailey, the symbol of Britain’s justice system in London, done to the tune of 1812 Overture. During the display, he mentioned the 5th of November to her, and how that act, over 400 years old at this point, has been largely forgotten. As has the lesson. Through all this, we are made immediately aware that V is a revolutionary anarchist who has a score to settle with Britain’s fascist government. His theme: Guy Fawkes, and the Gunpowder Treason!

I should note that within these first few scenes, there are some notable differences between the book and movie. For one, Evey did not work in television, she worked in a munitions plant. And she was not out for a date, she was out trying to sell herself. Yes, this 16-year old (they never specified her age in the movie) had fallen on hard times since her job didn’t pay enough, was looking to make a little extra money and thought dabbling in prostitution might make up the difference. What’s more, in the movie V whooped the Fingermen’s asses but left them otherwise unharmed. In the book, he killed several, and used gas and an exploding hand, not knives!

What’s more, V did not blow up the Old Bailey in the opening scene, but Parliament itself! Much like the Old Bailey, this was an old government building that was no longer in use. Given the fact that the fascist party that had taken control had no need of parliamentary procedure, the building was essentially empty. But of course, it was the symbolic value that mattered. It was shortly thereafter in the book that V blew up the Bailey, but only after delivering an impassioned speech to the figure of Madam Justice on the subject of betrayal.

In any case, we then get a quick gander at the authorities who run Britain and their leader – the Lord High Chancellor Adam Sutler (John Hurt). Much like in the book he is a totalitarian and runs Britain through several branches known as the Eyes, Ears, Nose, Mouth and Finger – video, audio surveillance, regular police, propaganda, and secret police (echoes of 1984 with its four ministries!). But whereas in the movie they are known as the Norsefire party (a clear reference to their Nordic beliefs and action platform), the Party was never really named in the book. Regardless, they are of course determined to find the masked vigilante, and put out a spin story about a controlled demolition to cover up the terrorist incident. Since this is a criminal investigation, it falls to inspector Finch (Stephen Rea) to find him.

However, their attempts at spin control prove futile when on the 5th of Nov, V marches into the BTN network headquarters with a bomb and forces them to broadcast a manifesto of sorts. In it, he declares that the people of Britain have been robbed of their freedom by the Lord Chancellor and his goons, and were of course complicit in the process. And that, in one year’s time, he will resurrect the Gunpowder Treason by blowing up Parliament, and invites the people of Britain to come and watch. In the course of his escape, Evey comes to his rescue and is knocked unconscious. Unsure of what to do, he brings her back to his lair and they become acquainted.

In the course of this, Evey begins to tell V her story, how her parents were political dissidents who were taken away when she was young. However, her sympathies are soon spent when she realizes that he is killing people and she hatches a plan to escape. She puts this into action when V asks for her help in killing Archbishop Lilliman (Eddie Marsan), a Party member who was the Chaplain at Larkhill – now the Archbishop of Canterbury – and who just happens to be a pedophile. She knows that running away is dangerous since the police now believe she is his accomplice, but can’t stomach what he’s doing. This is also different from the book, but more on that later.

Shortly thereafter, V enters into phase two of his plan, which Evey becomes involved in. This includes him isolating members of the Party that run Britain, key personnel in the regime, who he then murders. The first is the Lewis Prothero (Roger Allam), otherwise known as the “Voice of London” (Voice of Fate in the book). But whereas in the book, V goes through the process of kidnapping him and bringing him to Larkhill – where he destroys his prized dolls (which he collects), in the movie, V enters his apartment and kills him with a poisoned needle. I notice a subtle reference to the doll collection though; in his bathroom, Prothero had a small collection up on his wall.

In the course of investigating, Detective Finch (Stephen Rea) – head of the Nose – discovers that Prothero was once the Commandant of the camp. His other victims all have similar ties to the place, one of whom was a doctor named Delia Surridge (Sinéad Cusack), the one who conducted the camps’ experiments and was responsible for creating V. When she is dead, V leaves her journal, in which she kept detailed notes about her time in the camp, for Inspect Finch to find. It is from this journal and their own snooping that the Nose men begin to see what’s going on. Like V, they’ve stopped believing in coincidences and suspect that everything in this case is connected. And since things have escalated, the investigation has been taken over by Creedy (Tim Pigott-Smith), head of the Finger, which is a blessing since it leaves Finch free to look into this conspiracy.

Things become increasingly desperate as things get closer to the 5th of Nov. The government, as predicted, begins to become more repressive, leading to increased resentment and backlash from the people. Into all this, V continues to point Finch and his investigators in the direction of the overarching conspiracy. This includes the creation of a biological weapon which the people of Norsefire unleashed on England in order to secure power and then pinned on some hapless Muslims as a terrorist incident. They realize that Arkhill was ground zero, and that V was a test subject who became changed as a result of the testing, then blew the place up and escaped! Whats more, they know that this can only end in bloodshed, and with the fall of the Party… unless they can find another way.

At this point, something crucial takes place. Evey, having run away from V, goes to stay with her friend Dietrich (Stephen Rea), who just happens to be the one she had a date with at the beginning. He is her superior over at BTN and takes her in, revealing that he too has secrets, being a liberal intellectual and gay to boot! He promises to jeep her safe. However, after an episode of his show that makes fun of Chancellor airs, the is taken in the night by Creedy and his men. Evey is forced to watch as he’s beaten and has a bag put over his head, thus reliving what happened to her parents. She tries to escape but is captured outside the house.

Afterward, she believes she is in a government camp, where she is tortured, interrogated, and locked in a tiny cell for weeks on end. During that time, she finds a note stashed in a rat hole written on toilette paper. The note is apparently written by a woman named Valerie (Natasha Wightman), a former actress who was an inmate on a count of her being a lesbian. Her story empowers Evey, and when asked to give up V, she refuses, choosing death instead. Her guards offer her one last chance, but when she again refuses, the guard says only “Then you have no fear any more. You’re completely free.”

Mystified by this statement, Evey leaves her cell and finds that she is still in V’s lair. It seems her conducted her torture and detainment as an elaborate ruse to help her come to terms with what happened to her parents, and to find the strength to fight the fascists and win. She is initially quite furious, but in time sees to see what he did as a good thing. It is at this time that he reveals that the woman Valerie was real, that she and V were both at Larkhill together, and he is doing what he’s doing to avenge her and everyone else they murdered. In fact, it was her love of roses that motivated V to use them as his calling card. Eve leaves, but she and V promise to see each other one last time before the 5th.

At this point, V makes a deal with Creedy to betray and kill the Chancellor. In exchange for overthrowing the man,
V will surrender willingly. Creedy agrees, mainly because he knows he’s not likely to be able to stop V otherwise, and that Sutler will have his head in that event. Meanwhile, Evey meets V one last time and he shows her the train that he’s loaded up with explosives and placed on a track that leads underneath Parliament, true to the original Gunpowder Treason! He leaves the controls to her, saying he must go do his final errand, and that she is to decide whether or not to blow up Parliament. She naturally tries to stop him, but he insists that he must go and leaves her.

Nearby, Creedy and his men show up, bringing the Chancellor with them as agreed. Creedy then shoots Sutler and demands V come with them, but V refuses. A gunfight ensues, but V is relatively unharmed and kills all Creedy’s men. He saves Creedy for last and then strangles him, but not before delivering one of the best lines of the movie. “Behind this mask lies more than flesh. Behind this mask lies an idea, and ideas are BULLETPROOF!” He then unstraps the metal vest that absorbed most of the bullets, but is still mortally wounded and lurches his way back to the subway. Once he gets there, he dies in Evey’s arms, and is followed shortly thereafter by Finch.

Not surprisingly, Finch does not stop her. He knows this must happen and lets her set the train off. Up above, the masses are converging on Parliament in anticipation for its destruction, each of them wearing a Guy Fawkes mask! Without orders and no word from the Chancellor or Creedy, the soldiers decide to do the right thing and stand down. The crowd is then in the perfect position to see the fireworks. And they do! The crowd whip off their masks, revealing everyone who’s been in the movie, even those who have died. This coincides with Evey explaining that V was every one of them, not just some masked vigilante inspired by Guy Fawkes.

(Synopsis—>):
Okay, now would be a good point to mention all the differences I had to skip over because believe me, there are a lot!
As I mentioned, the character of Evey was different in the book, being far more vulnerable and naive than she was in the movie. It was in this way that her transformation, which happened because of her contact with V, became all the more apparent. Making her character a stronger, more nubile and independent person who saves V at one point was clearly designed to appeal to post-modern audiences.

In keeping with this, she did not leave V during the commission of his murder of the Archbishop. In truth, he kicked her out shortly after this, thus forcing her to shack up with Deitrich, who was then murdered not by Fingermen, but by thugs. The reason for this was because in the book, Deitrich was involved in criminal activity and had nothing to do with broadcasting, nor was he gay. He and Evey had a sexual relationship for a time, and it was clear that Evey’s unresolved father issues had a part to play in that!

Moreover, the “Leader” (not Chancellor) did not work from some bunker and communicate with his lieutenants on some massive monitor. In fact, he worked from a central location called “The Head” where he was connected to all the other branches (Eyes, Ears, Nose, Finger, Mouth) through a computer named Fate. Strangely enough, he became increasingly obsessed and even enamored with this computer over the course of the story, leading to an eventual breakdown that led to the plot to overthrow him by Inspector Creedy. Speaking of which, the plot to overthrow was not spearheaded by V but occurred as a result of inter-Party politics, a lot of which was the result of Creedy’s wife who was scheming to make sure her lover the new Leader. V, of course, took advantage of all this and played the people against each other so that by the time the train was dispatched, they had all killed each other.

However, in another twist, this plot came to halt when the Leader was shot point blank by the wife of Creedy’s successor (Inspector Almond) during a parade. Her involvement was a side-story that was completely missing from the movie. As indeed was the confrontation that took place between Finch and V in the subway. Yes, in another change-about, that action scene at the end did not take place between V, Creedy and his Fingermen but between Finch and V alone. But similarly, it was this confrontation that caused V to be mortally wounded, right before he meets Evey for the last time and leaves it to her to dispatch the train.

But, as mentioned earlier, V didn’t blow up Parliament at the end, he’d already done that at the beginning. His target
was the Head, and Evey did not just send the train but adopted V’s persona and addressed the crowds of London before it went off. This, combined with a scene were Evey removes his mask and sees herself, her father, and many other faces (anyone but V’s true face) was meant to illustrate what V said: behind the mask is an idea. Behind the mask was anarchy and freedom, and it lives in the heart of all people. The Wachowski brothers illustrated this as well, but chose to have an entire crowd dressed up as V with Natalie Portman doing a voice over about how “he was all of us”.

But the biggest difference of all had to do with how England came to be a fascist state. In the book, WWIII takes place in the mid to late 80’s, England was spared a direct nuclear attack, but society goes to hell all the same. Then, in the early 90’s, the fascists took charge of the country, taking advantage of all the disorder and chaos. Once in power, they proceeded to round up all the political dissidents, minorities, gays, and placed them in concentration camps. And of course, they established a police state where everyone’s movements, words and actions were monitored.

And their slogan was “Strength Through Unity, Unity through Purity”, not Strength Through Unity, Unity through Faith“. Faith, after all, implies the presence of religion – i.e a state where religion and politics are not separate. Purity, on the other hand, implies a state that seeks singularity, which in the case of Fascism involves the active liquidation of minorities and other “undesirables”. This is in keeping with the fundamental character of the Party in the book, a ruthless, fascist organization that has no qualms about committing genocide. By contrast, the Norsefire party was somewhat more subdued, concerning itself with direct control and avoiding racial purity. Ironic, considering the fact that in the movie, they committed mass murder in order to obtain power!

Which brings me back to the different back story that was used in the novel, which I found far more realistic than the movie’s. With the movie, the Wachowskis needed to update things since the end of the Cold War pretty much meant that WWIII was no longer a likely event. And after Sept.11th and the advent of the “War on Terror”, what better angle was there than a government that turned totalitarian because of terrorism and the manipulation of people’s fear? True, it WAS more current, but it also a lot less realistic. The 9/11 Truth Movement’s opinions aside, are we really to believe that any government would be willing to commit mass murder just to get in power? And its openly alluded that the world outside was going to hell all same, even if it wasn’t specified from what (the US’s war is mentioned, but they do not go into detail). This alone would have been enough to create a the “Lifeboat Britain” mentality, why did they need to kill 80,000 people as well?

But aside from all this, the movie was quite faithful to the source material. And most of what was changed arose out of the need to shorten and condense the original ten volumes into a two hour movie. And dammit if they didn’t do a good job of it! Above all, the back story of V was treated faithfully. V being the Roman numeral for five, signifying the 5th of November, and also referring to the five V’s that make up “Vi Veri Veniversum Vivus Vici”, which is Latin for “By the power of truth I, while living, have conquered the universe”. This quote, which is attributed to Marlowe’s Dr. Faustus, has immense symbolic value since V himself is the product of a Faustian deal, though it was the state who forced him into it. The deal he makes with Evey is similar, that in exchange for his help, he forces her to undergo a painful transformation.

And of course the movie has undeniable signs of quality that is typical of the Wachowskis at their peak. The colors are vivid (in the Matrix everything was green and black, here it’s red and black), the direction and cinematography are very good, and the writing was both cool and faithful. In many places, the Wachowskis took liberties but still managed to capture the essence of the story and the characters. And I musn’t forget to mention how much the movie benefitted from an all-star cast! Hugo Weaving was especially good at capturing the magnetic personality of V, John Hurt is sublime as the ruthless High Chancellor, Stephen Rea was spot on as the straight and fearful detective, and Tim Pigott-Smith was very convincing as the evil “Creepy Creedy”. And Natalie Portman, wow! Those scenes where she is being tortured and humiliated in prison were made real by her powerful performances.

In the end, I think I’d file this movie under the same category as the Dune Miniseries. In short, it was different from the source material, but was faithful nonetheless. I highly recommend both the graphic novel and the movie, the one is inspired and interesting, while the latter is highly entertaining!

V for Vendetta:
Entertainment Value: 8/10
Plot: 8/10
Direction: 9/10
Total: 8.5/10

The Watchmen

Sometime last week, I finally got my hands on the original graphic novel of V for Vendetta. I figured that since I was going to review this movie at some point, I ought to read the source material and treat it like all the other adaptations I’ve covered so far with this blog. Interestingly enough, the creative force being the graphic novel was none other than Alan Moore, the same man who created The Watchmen! While I’ve never been much of a comic book guy – which I admit is both treasonous and weird given my obvious geekhood! – I can honestly say that this was one of the best graphic novels I have ever read. Hell, it was guys like Moore with such creations as Watchmen and V that helped to establish the very concept of the graphic novel. While the dividing line between them and comic books is pretty fine, one can’t deny that guy’s like Moore combine a great deal of thought and inspiration to come up with these things, certainly no less than what typically goes into a high-end novel.

Not only that, but with The Watchmen, we got a story that was equal parts satire on the traditional subject matter of comics (superheroes) and the history of the 20th century. This is done in true sci-fi form, employing an alternate reality to show how the existence of a certain phenomena altered history, and using the differences to illustrate what took place in the real world. Embracing such things as generational change, feminism, war, civil rights, the decline of America, politics, nuclear holocaust, paranoia, UFO hysteria, and the American Dream, the scope and depth of this book was virtually undeniable. And when it came time to adapt it to the big screen, the same spirit came through pretty clear. There were naturally some weaknesses that emerged out of the monumental task of adapting the voluminous text to the big screen, and some complained about the changes, but in the end, it felt like a pretty faithful adaptation, and one that was overdue!

(Background—>):
Zack Snyder must have seemed like the natural choice to shoot this epic, having directed 300 – another graphic novel adaptation – just three years before. The end result was an official release that left out various parts of the plot in order to cut down on run time, but still managed to be two and a half hours long. As expected, a directors cut and an “Ultimate Cut” were also released on DVD that contained much of the missing elements, and they run for approx. three and three a half hours respectively! That’s what you get when you try to adapt a classic to the big screen, I guess. In either case, the box office draw and DVD sales were through the roof, another result of a classic meeting the big screen!

Naturally, there were those who complained about the cinematic release, citing the things that were left out, the new ending which did away with the whole UFO theme, and what not. However, the thing that divided audience the most, ironically enough, was Snyder’s commitment and reverence of the original source material. While some praised him for his faithful adaptation, his biggest critics saw this is as a drawback, claiming that his commitment to the source material made the movie feel “stuffy” and “boring”. Some even found themselves falling in the middle, saying that they were impressed with the faithfulness of the adaptation, but unsure as to whether or not this made for a good movie. One thing was certain though, for fans of the graphic novel, the biggest source of contention was the changed ending! Squiddy or Manhattan, which was better? For those of you who read the novel, you know what I mean 😉 For those of you who don’t, read on!

(Content—>):
The story opens on the murder of a superhero by the name of The Comedian. Whereas the novel only shows the aftermath of this, the movie gives us the full fight scene in order to open with a bang and get our attention. In any case, we begin the movie knowing that The Comedian (played by Jeffrey Dean Morgan) is dead, and his friend, fellow superhero Rorschach (Jackie Earle Haley), is on the case! This latter superhero, named for the mask he wears, is one of the few superheros in this day and age who’s not working for the government or gone into retirement. He believes The Comedians death is part of plot to eliminate the Watchmen, as superheroes have been turned on by popular opinion and outlawed by the state. We also learn quickly that due to the historical presence of superheroes, the world has unfolded quite differently. Due to their efforts, America won the Vietnam war, Richard Nixon remained president since, the Cold War escalated and nuclear war now seems inevitable. Society has also gone to hell in a hand basket, but at least there are electrical cars!

So, fearing a plot against his former superhero friends, Rorschach seeks them out and tries to warn them. These include Nite Owl (Patrick Wilson), Dr. Manhattan (Billy Crudup), his wife and partner Silk Spectre II (Malin Akerman), and Ozymandias (Matthew Goode). Most of them are retired, except for Dr. Manhattan who is doing nuclear research for the government (fitting since he’s a nuclear-powered, godlike man!) and Ozymandias who’s supersmarts have led him into the world of inventing and big business. Most of them are skeptical, until an assassination attempt against Ozymandias is narrowly averted. The movie then gravitates between filling in the characters back stories and the progress of the murder investigation in the present.

On the one hand, we see how The Watchmen, an organization of crime-fighting superheroes, evolved from the Minutemen, a similar group that was formed in the 1930’s in response to the rising tide of organized crime and gangsters. In showing the history of the Watchmen, we are made aware of how history unfolded differently since their own stories are so very intertwined with history. What is palatable in all this is the feeling of loss and betrayal that accurately portrays America in the 20th century. Much like in the novel, there is the pervasive sense of the “end of innocence” as we go from a rought but optimistic past through a series of shocks and upheavals, landing finally in a dark and gloomy present where annihilation seems inevitable. Most of this told from the point of view of Rorschach, a man who’s own cynicism reflects the mood of his age. His thoughts and findings, all of which he puts down in his journal (which will come up later), provide the narration. And I dare say Haley did a very good job portraying this dark, brooding superhero! The way Rorschach always said “Hrrrmmmm”, that I thought was done pretty well too.

In any case, Rorschach’s investigation soon leads him to a former villain named Moloch (Matt Frewer) whom he suspects because of him being a former enemy of The Comedian. However, his suspicions are allayed when he learns Moloch is dying of cancer. Interestingly enough, Moloch tells him that the Comedian showed up at his apartment shortly before he died, drunk off his ass and muttering something about how it was all a joke. This makes Rorschach even more curious, as he now believes the man was onto something that could shake even him. It’s been well established at this point that The Comedian was a real SOB, and that his alias is sort of an ironic joke. Like the Joker, his humor comes in a brutal, sardonic form, albeit somewhat less evil (only somewhat).

In any case, Rorschach soon finds himself framed when he returns to Moloch’s apartment, finds him dead, and that the police are upon him. He puts up a brave struggle, but the police soon have him and rip off his mask. They are suprised to find that this ass-kicking vigilante is actually a pretty puny man who wears lifts, but is a grizzled due nonetheless (Haley looked the part pretty well too!). While in jail, we get to hear some of Rorschach’s story as a shrink examines him, and the reasons for his cynicism and dark world-view quickly become clear. Seems Rorschach was the child of a prostitute who routinely beat him, until he ran away from home and began beating the shit out of bullies. In time, became a vigilante and donned a mask that looks exactly like a Rorschach diagram, dolling out justice to those who violated the law and/or his rigid moral code (which he clearly uses to compensate for his lack of moral values growing up). At first, he had limits, beating criminals up but never killing anyone. But then came the encounter that forever changed him, which he relates with brutal detail to the shrink while looking at (you guessed it!) Rorschach diagrams! I shant go into too much detial, suffice it to say that it involved a pedophile/murdered who’s crime demanded swift and severe retribution!

Meanwhile, Dr. Manhattan comes under fire during a televised interview. Seems some investigative reporter has turned up evidence that everyone he’s ever been in contact with is dead or dying of cancer. You see, Manhattan was created when a nuclear accident broke down ever cell in his body, only to later be recomposed out of pure energy. He can take whatever form he wishes, duplicate himself, teleport, vaporize his enemies, and so forth. However, it was assumed up until this point that his presence was benign and he was not a threat unless he wanted to be. When he learns this, he has a minor breakdown and teleports himself to Mars, wanting to break contact with humanity and spare anyone else the harm of being around him. His partner, Silk Specter II, has already moved out since his lack of humanity was driving a wedge between them. But when she hears of his departure, she is understandably upset. She has already moved in with former colleague and friend Nite Owl (Patrick Wilson) and the two begin a sort of affair.

With Manhattan gone, the Soviet Union, which has been at a strategic disadvantage since Manhattan first started working for the US government, decides to take advantage of his departure and invades Afghanistan. The Doomsday Clock gets closer to midnight! Similarly, Silk Specter and Night Owl decide to come out of retirement because of the impending crises and do what they can to help people in need. Their affair has been abortive up to this point because they feel afraid and impotent with all that’s happened, but after saving several people from a burning building, they feel on fire and do it right in Nite Owl’s hovercraft! To Halleluiah by Leonard Cohen no less! They then break Rorschach out of jail, knowing that he was right about their being conspiracy at work. With The Comedian dead, an attempt on Ozymandias and the confrontation that made Manhattan leave Earth, it now seems evident that someone wants The Watchmen out of the way. After all that is done, Silk Specter decides to confront Manhattan, which she does after he comes for her and brings her to Mars. In the course of a tense discussion, he reveals to her that The Comedian was her father. Seems her mother, Silk Specter the first (played by Carla Gugino) slept with him in spite of his violent behavior towards her, and she was the result. She is, again, understandably upset, but still manages to convince Manhattan to come back and help them.

Together, Rorschach and Nite Owl go to Ozymandias’ office and unlock his files. In them, they find compelling evidence that he has been behind everything. The smoking gun comes when they see that The Comedian was working for him in the last while, and that his death was obviously to prevent him from telling the others what he had found out. They also figure out that he staged his own assassination attempt and sent a false reporter to tell Manhattan the cancer story, thus getting him out of the picture. They then travel to his Antarctic retreat where they know he’s still working on whatever pet project The Comedian died to protect. And here we get another change just like at the beginning (aka. the addition of a fight scene). In the comics, Ozymandias reveals his full plot to them and only tangles with Rorschach briefly. In the movie, there is an extended fight scene between Owl, Rorschach and Specter before he shows them what he’s really up to. And that’s where the biggest change of all comes into play: the big finish! But first, his motive!

Basically, Ozymandias explains that his plan was to unify the US and USSR and prevent a nuclear war by exploding the world’s largest energy reactors which he and Dr. Manhattan created. This will level several of the world’s major cities. Naturally, they try to stop him, but he explains that its too late and the reactors are already set. The energy signatures of the explosions are consistent with Manhattan’s, in part because the technology is based on the same forces that created him. Ergo, it is believed HE attacked Earth, most likely out of some anger-fueled breakdown that happened as a result of his breakdown. As noted already, this is not what happened in the novel, but more on that later…

Silk Specter and Manhattan have already shown up, and Ozymandias tries to kill Manhattan by luring him into some kind of nuclear de-compiler that is similar to the one that altered him in the first place. However, Manhattan proves immune to it and manages to finally subdue Ozymandias. He, however, turns on his many TV’s and shows him the reports which tell how the US and Soviet Union are standing down in the face of this new attack. They both seem to think Dr. Manhattan is attacking them now and are combining forces to defend against him. The others are angry, but Manhattan cannot argue with the logic and agrees to take on the role of the bad guy and go back into exile, this time permanently. Rorschach refuses to play along, him being a no-compromises kind of guy, and Manhattan is forced to vaporize him to maintain their little secret. Manhattan then says good-bye for the last time and leaves them for good. Nite Owl and Silk Specter leave too, vowing to keep fighting crime as New York rebuilds and build a future together.

The movie then ends with people from a right wing tabloid named the New Frontiersmen talking about there’s no news now that the Cold War has ended. But it seems that in their incoming mail, there’s a strange journal… It’s Rorschach’s, which he happened to mail to them just before he and Nite Owl departed for Antarctica. Remember how he recorded everything in there? Well, it seems like the secret might get out after all! The movie and comic both end on this scene, offering the reader/viewer an uncertain and possibly open ending.

(Synopsis—>):
First off, the new ending. As I’ve said twice now, the part where Ozymandias blew up the world’s major cities and blamed Manhattan was not what had happened in the original graphic novel. There, Ozymandias was working on perfecting matter teleportation, and it was this technology which he also used to try and destroy Dr. Manhattan. In any case, what he was teleporting was the body of a massive, genetically engineered bio-organism that looked very much like a massive alien squiddy into the heart of New York. Sounds weird, I know, but the result was that New Yorkers became convinced that an alien attack was underway. The organism died in the teleportation sequence, and only a few people were killed, but the point is they believed that an invasion attempt had failed, but more could be coming. THIS is what united the US and USSR, the prospect of an external threat that came from another species, not Doc Manhattan.

To be fair, I saw the reason for the changeover. The Squiddy concept was weird, but it played into the whole UFO paranoia that also existed in the latter half of the 20th century, as seen with Roswell and Area 51. The idea of playing that against Cold War rivalry made sense, it was just the execution that seemed a little weird. By putting Dr. Manhattan at the center of the conspiracy, Snyder was able to rework the plot quite effectively, but he did away with an essential element as a result. In addition, the recurring side-story about the pirate comic Tales of the Black Freighter which a patron is reading at a newstand, was also missing. However, Snyder was sure to include an animated adaptation of this portion of the novel onto the DVD.

The concept of the Doomsday Clock was also something that was changed, albeit in a faithful way. In the novel, the clock is not an actual object but a device that tells the reader before each chapter how close they are to the climax. But in order to keep it, Snyder adapted it into the movie as a set piece a media personality used to capture people’s fears about the impending nuclear war. Other than that, the only real changes had to do with action sequences which were included for obvious reasons. And they’re actually quite entertaining, being at once over the top and brutal. In a way, it kind of adds to the satire, combining superhero-like antics with bloody realism, which is essentially what the comic book is all about.

So what else was bang on…? Well, the feel was almost exactly the same. The movie’s intro, done to “The Times They Are A-Changing” by Bob Dylan was quite masterful at establishing the tone and giving the audience a quick glimpse of the back story. In fact, the entire soundtrack is faithful to the time period being depicted, giving it all a sense of historicism. The only flaw I saw in any of this was the scene where Nite Owl and The Comedian (in a flashback sequence) are shown cracking down on protesters during the late 70’s before superheroes were officially outlawed. After dispersing the crowd, Nite Owl turns to The Comedian and says “What happened to this country? What happened to the American Dream?” This was a bit obvious, and it was never done in the comic. For the most part, the movie captured this theme very well so I didn’t see why any of the characters needed to come right out and say it.

But overall, I felt that the movie was a faithful adaptation. In fact, I was impressed with how closely the movie followed the novel until the end. However, this does not mean that it could ever hold a candle to the original. This is not an attempt at snobbery on my part, it’s actually just how I feel about all adaptations. They are fun and serve their purpose, but can never really be expected to provide the same meaning or enjoyment as the original. In addition, reading is always more enjoyable, in my humble opinion, because the reader is able to stop, think, and interpret what they are taking in. In a movie, the entire process is transmissive, no room for interpretation until its all over, and the key jobs of visualization and imagining are done for you.

So… yeah! Watchmen, people! Read it, see it, decide for yourself. And know that the second you do, you too will have an opinion on the subject and demand that it be heard. Hell, you might even shout at a person or two for not sharing your beliefs. See, that’s the thing about geeks. We’re passionate about interesting but inconsequential things!

The Watchmen:
Entertainment Value: 7/10 (run-time kind of brings it down)
Plot: 8/10
Direction: 9/10
Total: 8/10