Anthony Lane’s review of Watchmen will possibly receive a lot of ire. The probable quality of most of those complaints will be inarticulate, awful, and possibly violent. What else can one expect from a fan base full of what he refers to as Wagnerian Ardor. But does he deserve said ire? Why would people specifically target Lane when there have been plenty of mixed reviews for Watchmen out there? I cannot say for sure, but I know there is a reason I have singled out his review.
When it comes to critics, the most common complaint of populist moviegoers is something akin to “they’re snotty.” It is an inane response, a joyful celebration of both stupidity and futility. On the other hand, nobody likes to be marginalized or belittled, even if the commentary may be accurate. In going over Lane’s review of Watchmen again and again, the problem is that I cannot understand or see the film from his perspective. It is an indignant perspective, a dismissive perspective, and perspective that (much to my chagrin in using the word) defines “snotty.”
The initial problem is that Lane intentionally sets himself up to be the pariah, never mincing his words about fans of the superhero genre; he derides their intelligence, values, and juvenility. Can comic book fans be those things? Of course. But to so callously lump the stereotyped fan-boy with the litany of people who just so happen to read/have read some superhero comics is folly. Not to mention that there are a host of excitable moviegoers who read the comic in anticipation for the release of the film. Many of those moviegoers subsequently found the novel to have some worth. Ultimately, I find what Lane assessment of the audience, and any critical proclamation of this nature, to be solipsistic. It singularly benefits him. It directly antagonizes the reader (even if they dislike the film as well). It is helpful and enlightening to absolutely no one.
Even the world of Watchmen seems to irk Mr. Lane. He laments the “bevy of brutes” on display; not to mention Nite Owl’s inherent Batman similarities (he calls “plagiaristic,” a falsehood), one hero’s shampoo-sounding nickname, Dr. Manhattans glowing “pornographic” phallus, Ozymandias’ boyish looks and qualities (somehow presented as criticism of itself?), and a complete misunderstanding of just what the heck was going on with The Comedian. These complaints are wholly tangential, but are somehow presented as evidence of Watchmen’s inane qualities. The observations are not useful criticism, they are a comedy routine. Which I suppose is fine in some forums, but as funny as it could possibly be it is wholly pointless to have a running commentary on the merits of character appearance in a five paragraph review in The New Yorker, especially when said comments serve no purpose in building to a specific point. This is even odder because these surface details that he observes have inescapable conclusions.
In a world where superhero movies are the most popular thing on the planet, how is a movie about their subversive id, selfishness, peculiar dress, and eccentric nature wholly without merit? No matter how banal the may seem? It seems like logical fallacy. Even if you find the philosophy beneath you, the superhero movie is entering a retrospective or deconstructionist phase (started 30 years ago in comics themselves). And Watchmen is important because it is about our very attraction to superheroes in the first place. We are a certainly a culture addicted to them. While the heroes themselves may provide some kind of commentary on the world, the real commentary deals with our desperation to be like them, to reek vengeance on the amoral of the world, or to be larger than life, or special. Watchmen is about the extremes of these behaviors and it goes to amazing depths to get to the heart of the dangerous reflexive relationship between them, even while it has no problem being hypocritical in doing so (more on that later).
Of course there are minor nitpicky things I can take with the review. It’s littered with inaccuracy, which has been a disturbing trend in Lane’s work. For what it is worth (and it is worth something) Dr. Manhattan is not a radioactive being. It is even the crux of the plot. He is not radioactive in the slightest, but the commentary lies in the popular perspective that he is indeed radioactive. His identity is synonymous with fear. Fear of nuclear war, of god, or even of death itself. The worst offense is that Lane seems to take a peculiar delight in spoiling the end of the film. Make no mistake, the film is a noir-ish mystery (he even says so) and casually tossing in the ending of a mystery (without even discussing its merits!) reeks of reader-directed sadism. Yes, we live in a spoiler paranoid culture and I have problems with that too, but it is a reality that every reviewer has to respect. We like the surprise of the mystery, even if one deems that mystery to be lame. That is how we universally watch films; even we The New Yorker readers. To deny that and to intently spoil, is nothing but 100% nihilistically glee, akin to the greatest contrarians, the malcontents, The Joker(s), and The Comedian(s). Again, solipsistic.
The only interesting comment I found in the piece concerned of Snyder’s “arousal” by vengeance/violence and the ensuing counter-productive qualities. It is a fair criticism that possibly subverts the intention of Watchmen all together. After all, the sociopath Rorshach is the most popular character. Our attraction to his violence is indicative our zeitgeist. Lane vehemently dismisses the whole relationship as juvenile and without purpose. One could argue it is anything but. Alan Moore acknowledges the hypocrisy and states that it is meant as an indictment of vigilantism and the psychology needed to behave that way. Snyder seconds the opinion, even if he overtly glorifies the violence. Snyder’s contradiction could be the real crux of Lane’s argument, but instead it is presented as a statement against the plot-level heroism of the characters; the gray meta-audience-intricacies are left hanging. Lane instead provides even more focus on his visceral dislike of the level of the violence itself. An indictment of the level of violence may certainly be valid, but it is wholly uninteresting in the context of other questions Lane seems to be dancing around; Watchmen certainly has more interesting things going on. It is a shame because second guessing the amount of the violence is more indicative of the kind of reviews one comes across on religious family-oriented websites.
I acknowledge that all this discourse as a matter of semantics. Maybe Watchmen is simply not meant for Anthony Lane. He is just one man, right? But I can’t help but come back to the Lane’s inherent distaste and disdain for the film, the world of the film, and the audience of the film. What is the job of a film reviewer? Is it to be entertaining? Possibly. But should not he/she be diplomatic in his/her mission? What is a critic supposed to be? Whatever it is, I’m pretty sure the reader who likes said movie should never feel insulted for having liked it. A good reviewer will establish his/her thinking, point to specifics, and then reach out to you. They make you ask questions, maybe even doubt your assumptions. We’re supposed to feel as the critic has engaged us in conversation, not assaulted our intelligence. And Watchmen is not a throwaway horror film or a juvenile sex comedy where you can get away with the “snark as review” approach. If anything The New Yorker IS the publication that shoehorns in the discourse no matter how unnecessary. So why does Watchmen get the contempt, the triviality, and the comedy routine? This is one of the most celebrated graphic novels of all time. It is a landmark achievement. There is some consensus on this. Or are we all banal idiots? I am convinced at this point that the stance of Mr. Lane comes from nothing but a lack of care and effort on his part. Is it really so hard to even engage with us, the ardent Wagnerians?
Rarely am I made to feel as if I am a philistine. It is certainly not a good feeling. There is something parental and authoritative about it, as if you are chided for your natural inclinations and lifestyle. No. I have to stand pat on this. I am qualified to be conversed with on an equal level. I have a bachelor’s degree in film (production, screenwriting, and cinema studies). I could have a conversation about Tarkovsky and “sculpting in time” if Mr. Lane would like? Or perhaps the merits Lynchian subtexts? The reflexive nature of watching television and its effect on our personalities? I could discuss cultural semantics of post-modern literature. Would these be of more interest? Is it a more worthy conversation? Is Watchmen below me then as he seems to insist?
See, I happened to think the political satire had merit. For this, I am apparently a “leering nineteen-year-old who believes that America is ruled by the military-industrial complex, and whose deepest fear—deeper even than that of meeting a woman who requests intelligent conversation—is that the Warren Commission may have been right all along.” There are so many ways to respond to this: the legitimacy of the problems with military-industrial complex, my complete lack of interest in JFK assassination, or my insistence of my mature relationships with intelligent females (and beautiful too, which Mr. Lane leaves an insinuation of implausibility). Should I have a sense of humor about this? Perhaps. But Mr. Lane is so declarative in his assertion that he does not even seem to even care about veracity. The quote above is said by the kind of a man who is sickened by my interests. I am stereotyped. I am something so neatly packed into pathetic-ness. Therefore, I can conveniently be dismissed. No matter who I may really be, I am automatically part of Mr. Lane’s oppositional Wagnerians.
This is not what I expect from The New Yorker.
Make no mistake, some intellectuals find Watchmen rather interesting: a metaphysical blue entity who plays the role of god, who sees the world through string theory and quantum mechanics (contrary to Mr. Lane’s belief the science that applies to his state of being is anything but junk), the Swiftian pursuit of the greater good, the deconstruction and sociopaths of vigilantism, the plight of American pseudo-fascism, and even the alternatives to our iconic history. But does it all have to be dressed up in an “overblown” and violent world where hyper-kinetic action is modus operandi? Of course it does. What other world could a superhero movie exist in? The biggest problem is that Mr. Lane cannot seem to come to grips with the fact that most Watchmen’s commentary lies in its own hypocrisy: it is both of and transcendent to the world it portrays. In the comic book world, Superheroes could literally tear humans apart, so why haven’t they? Watchmen is the answer to its own question. And to lament the conventions of a superhero movie is like lamenting over someone being killed in a horror movie.
This taps into a frequent problem I find with Mr. Lane. As intelligent and inclined toward thematic motifs as he clearly is, he often showcases a profound lack of genre understanding. I see it again and again, creating a pattern of problematic posturing. Is genre something that every reviewer should intrinsically understand? It is one of the reasons I have been gravitating to some of the more thoughtful reviewers on the internet (they do exist). And I constantly find myself being drawn back to the great Roger Ebert, who has no inclination toward liking superhero movies, but seems to have no qualms with dealing with a film in the context of his own world. And the Watchmen world is complicated and worth effort, so much so that Ebert even published a second review after feeling a responsibility to see the movie a second time and truly absorb it. Yes, the man with the populist “thumbs up” TV show (and therefore appears to be the antithesis of The New Yorker in some ways) is the one who took the time and the care to engage us (the reader) in a conversation. He is not some Ain’t It Cool News fanboy inclined to love the film from the get go, but instead the man often respected by film enthusiasts and the general public alike. This is not a coincidence.
Forgive the metaphor… Maybe Anthony Lane has simply become the Dr. Manhattan of film criticism; content with seeing movies on his own quantum level. We mortals are not privy to it. The way we see movies are trivial. Some of us may even be Ozymandias, the “world’s smartest man” who is no more significant to him as the world’s smartest termite. We see action movies for action. We see superhero movies for superheroes (only we don’t confuse “comic” for “superhero” while doing so). We watch giant robots fight each other because we think that is neat. We care about movies that most Americans will see and have some kind of response to them besides indignation. We might even be able to have an intelligent conversation about it. We really might be Ozymandias, our love of populist genre movies deforms the high art of cinema, just as he “deforms humanity.” Anthony Lane makes it clear he will take no part of that deformity. Maybe he recognizes the quantum analytical level of our film world as nothing but silly human affairs and nonsense. Perhaps then, as Dr. Manahattan, he should simply leave that world alone, and let us deal with it on our own.
I have read The New Yorker for what feels like my entire life and I’ve loved my experience. I also recognize that letter writing is often purposeless, at once cathartic and destructive to the letter-writer himself; but I felt it necessary at this point. Anthony Lane is intelligent for sure, but I’ve never once felt like he has watched a single movie with us. I have been talked at, but I have never had that conversation. It fills me with unquantifiable sadness.
Sadness because is indicative of my greatest fear. The New Yorker is a publication that prides itself on true reporting, journalistic integrity, and understand that the truth of liberal politics has nothing to do with posturing or contrarianism, but the merits of understanding. It is in other words, a cultural beacon. And the greatest fear as a reader of The New Yorker is that there is some veracity to what all the infantile opponents always say: it is “elitist,” “condescending,” “biased,” and “pompous.” I am filled with unquantifiable sad, because in the case of Mr. Lane’s review, it was true.
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