[23 March 2009]
PopMatters Contributing Editor
As it continues to underperform at the box office, it’s obvious now that the entire Watchmen phenomenon was one magical adventure that few were prepared to meet head on - or even halfway. Audiences apparently want things spelled out for them in abject specifics, or they’ll simply meanderer down the Cineplex hall to see what Tyler Perry or The Rock is up to. Even worse, as a result of this lack of appreciation, some of the smarter marketing angles invested in by the filmmakers are now seeing their possible payoffs weakened by a less than excited public. This makes the DVD release of necessary supplements Tales of the Black Freighter and Under the Hood that much more arresting. These provocative puzzle pieces, meant to complement and complete (for now) the faithful adaptation of Alan Moore and Dave Gibbons graphic novel vision now feel like afterthoughts. Too bad all postscripts aren’t this provocative.
Tales gets its EC Comics kick from an unexplored storyline from the book involving a mysterious writer, artists with a knack for creating the gruesome, and the infamous funny book they forge. Read by Bernie, an African American kid sitting on the New York City street corner where some of the later action in the plot takes place, “Marooned” (as the specific story is labeled) centers on a sunken schooner, the Captain (voiced by 300‘s Gerard Butler) and his crew left for dead. Washing up on a deserted island, our delirious sailor tries to return to his home of Davidstown. He’s convinced the sinister Black Freighter is headed there, bloodthirsty ghost pirates bent on taking the entire village - including the Captain’s wife and daughters - to Hell. Fashioning a raft made of the bloated corpses of the dead, he traverses dangerous seas. Once he arrives back home however, the horror final begins.
On the other hand, Under the Hood, a memoir written by original Nite Owl Hollis Mason, has been made over into a 60 Minutes like news special (complete with era appropriate commercials). In the book, we saw excerpts of the actual text. Here, a typical talking head named Larry Culpeper hosts The Culpeper Minute. For this 10 year retrospective, we are whisked back to 1975, before the Keene Act, before masks were outlawed, before the events in Watchmen literally change the fate of the entire world. In a series of exclusive interviews and archival footage flashbacks, Culpeper talks to Mason, original Silk Spectre Sally Jupiter, and a few more fringe characters from the surreal subtextual history of the avengers. We discover links to the McCarthy hearings, the hints at Ms. Jupiter’s assault at the hands of the Comedian, and lots of mea culpas from agent (and former husband to Silk herself), Laurence Schexnayder.
Like Alice tumbling head over heels deeper and deeper into her own special rabbit hole, Tales of the Black Freighter and Under the Hood are destined to overfeed a fanbase already rabid for anything Watchmen related. For them, this is the final visual epiphany, the moment when the promise Zack Snyder exhibited all throughout the feature film is fully realized and expanded. Granted, the “visionary” director is not on hand to helm either project, so it goes without saying that there’s some palpable pizzazz missing. But for the most part, this daunting double feature reminds us why Moore and Gibbons are so revered, and why so few outside their skewed sphere of influence “get” their incredible accomplishment.
Indeed, to the outsider looking in, Black Freighter will feel like a failed episode of Tales from the Crypt, The Animated Series, while Hood will have little relevance if any. They’ll question the importance of these supposedly significant parts and wonder why they weren’t given a place somewhere within the features already daunting two hour plus running time. For some, the allure of Black Freighter‘s Grand Guignol anime take will be too much to take. Others will see the stilted nature of Mason, Jupiter and the others and argue that everything about Watchmen plays that way. What this means of course is that the doubters are simply jealous for being left out of the creative clique. When this material works - and it does so in any medium - it’s mesmerizing to behold.
The best moments in Black Freighter come toward the middle, when the Captain’s madness finds him talking to the decomposing head of his shipmate Ripley. As voiced by the always recognizable Jared Harris, the exchange sparkles with sinister allure. Equally endemic are the times when Hood traces the rise and rapid stardom of the original hooded crusaders. While the footage may not look “found” enough, it’s great to see these often overlooked characters getting some necessary live action due. Indeed, those suggesting that Snyder and company helm a prequel dealing with the original Minutemen are totally misguided. As Hood illustrates, there really not much more to it than a 30 minute overview can’t cover.
Sure, there’s some material missing. The lesbian inspired hate crime death of Silhouette is never even mentioned, while Dollar Bill’s demise is given equally short shrift. Black Freighter is far more true to its source, since there’s not much more to Moore and Gibbons tie-in than narration and nasty action. What would have been nice, however, is a nod to the whole underlying intrigue involving author Max Shea and artists Joe Orlando and Walt Feinberg. Their subplot helps explain Ozymandias’ plot, as well as the reasons he resorts to the scheme he eventually follows. Maybe it was left out since the movie changed the way in which the last act Apocalypse occurs. After all - no squid, no need for Shea and the gang.
As a DVD, Tales of the Black Freighter feels like a sensational stopgap between the present and the future fleshed out digital package that will surely follow Watchmen‘s release on the home video format. The only intriguing bonus feature is a fine making-of that manages to explain both the creation of these narrative complements as well as why they are important to the overall storyline. Certainly, more could have been done to make this a must-own stand alone item. Perhaps a collection of other missing elements from the novel itself, or a catalog of items from Veidt Industries (also hinted at in the book) could have been included. Of course, once the super colossal X disc special editions come out, complete with everything you ever wanted to know about Watchmen and its various interconnected facets, these qualms may be appeased.
Still, one has to wonder why Watchmen wasn’t more popular? Granted, it’s a wholly insular experience, but then again, isn’t any superhero effort? After all, it was more than just fans of a certain caped crusader that drove dollars to The Dark Knight‘s eventual box office supremacy. So apparently, this long held holy grail of comic book classicism just didn’t appeal to the mainstream loving masses - and that’s too bad. Zack Snyder’s film is a fascinating, flawed masterwork, and these ingenious add-ons make the experience all the more meaningful. If they reach beyond the believers, great. If not, the reasons why will remain a motion picture mystery for decades to come.