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Watchmen vs. Aliens?

Photo of Anne Thompson By Anne Thompson | Thompson on Hollywood March 6, 2009 at 5:33AM

[Posted by David S. Cohen]
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MonstersvA First Look - Large

[Posted by David S. Cohen]


It’s a happy accident for fans of comics and sci-fi pictures that Watchmen and Monsters vs. Aliens open within a few weeks of each other, because in some peculiar ways, they’re two sides of the same coin.


Granted, in some ways the two movies could hardly be more different: Watchmen is an R-rated, hyper-violent, serious-as-a-heart-attack deconstruction of the superhero genre, based on a graphic novel that has garnered praise as a serious work of literature. MvA is a joke-a-second kid pic created by DreamWorks Animation that pays affectionate homage to cheesy sci-fi movies of the 50s and 60s. It’s nearly inconceivable that anyone working on MvA was in any conscious way influenced by Watchmen.

But the superhero and sci-fi genres have always overlapped, and the comics Watchmen deconstructs are rooted in the same pulpy pop culture as those old sci-fi pictures. It’s not shocking there are some overlapping ideas. But to an extent no one could have anticipated they’re also mirror images of each other.

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In a nutshell, Watchmen shows that “heroes” can be monsters, while Monsters vs. Aliens shows that “monsters” can be heroes. (Spoilers follow.) To be sure, superhero comics have long grappled with characters who flip-flop between good and evil or at least can be morally ambiguous. Movie fans have seen that in the X-men and Punisher movies, not to mention The Dark Knight. But Alan Moore’s graphic novel took the concept to another level.


Similarly, the idea that monsters can be heroes is nothing new to horror fans. MvA isn’t even the first picture to make the notion explicit. Godzilla, to name just one example, started out as a menace that destroyed Tokyo, but over the life of the franchise protected Japan from worse menaces and became a kind of hero. And the monster-as-hero is the whole gag in King Kong. Kong is the scourge of Skull Island – and Manhattan Island -- but turns out to be a big lonely ape who sometimes is as much Anne Darrow’s protector as her tormentor. By the 60s he was deemed cuddly enough to have a Saturday morning cartoon show and a kid buddy, like an overgrown Lassie. (Speaking of Saturday morning cartoons, by the way, here’s something to make Watchmen author Alan Moore’s head explode: Saturday Morning Watchmen Be sure to click “Watch this movie.” But I digress.)


Beyond that, MvA and Watchmen have some odd similarities. Both start in a world where the protagonists are despised outcasts. The masked vigilantes of Watchmen are despised by the public, and as a result are outlawed or working for the government; the monsters of MvA are feared by the public and therefore are prisoners of the government. “Watchmen” has one true super-hero, Dr. Manhattan, a brilliant scientist who is transformed by a experiment gone wrong into an indestructible blue human demigod. MvA has Dr. Cockroach, a brilliant scientist transformed by an experiment gone wrong into a nearly indestructible human roach. It also has B.O.B., a lab experiment gone wrong that turned into an indestructible blue blob.

Both feature reluctant heroines. The movie’s Silk Spectre II blames her mother for forcing a vigilante’s life on her, but over the story comes to realize that she actually likes being Silk Spectre. In MvA, everygirl bride Susan becomes a 49’-11” woman against her will when she’s struck by a meteorite, and at first only wants to get back to normal and marry, but comes to realize she actually likes being “Ginormica” and embraces being… a monster? A superhero? The lines blur.


If we go back to the Watchmen book, instead of the movie, they also share another element: An alien attack on Earth. In Watchmen, the book, Ozymandias stages a fake alien attack on New York that kills millions but unites the Earth’s warring nations against a common threat. The masked vigilantes and the superhuman Dr. Manhattan fail to stop him – apparently – and a new utopia dawns, while the “masks” who survive go into hiding. MvA offers the flip side: Earth gets in a panic over an impending alien attack, but only the monsters, with their inhuman abilities and powers, step up to save it. Afterward there are new dangers threatening the world and more work to do, and the former monsters have become an adored team of superheroes.


Like the Watchmen once were.


These movies seem to tap the current zeitgeist, though they have been long in development. Today’s real-life news is filled with stories of formerly-lionized figures fallen into disgrace (Bush? Cheney? Madoff? Allan Stanford? Wall Street and the entire financial sector?) for failing to save the world. Down is up and up is down, especially in politics. Plus bad times are making a lot of people feel as angry as Rorschach (Rick Santelli?), or as isolated as Susan. I’d say DWA and Warner deserve some credit for sensing the cultural currents in advance and bringing those pictures to theaters this month.


Or maybe they were just trying to make some pulpy fun, and it’s all a coincidence.
Either way, though MvA hasn’t got a serious idea in its head and I can’t think of a single joke in Watchmen, together they do form a strange yin and yang.

[Originally appeared Variety.com]

This article is related to: Genres, Franchises, Sci-fi, Comics, Action


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Thompson on Hollywood

Born and raised in Manhattan, Anne Thompson grew up going to the Thalia and The New Yorker and wound up at grad Cinema Studies at NYU. She worked at United Artists and Film Comment before heading west as that magazine's west coast editor. She wrote for the LA Weekly, Sight and Sound, Empire, The New York Times and Entertainment Weekly before serving as West Coast Editor of Premiere. She wrote for The Washington Post, The London Observer, Wired, More, and Vanity Fair, and did staff stints at The Hollywood Reporter and Variety. She eventually took her blog Thompson on Hollywood to Indiewire. She taught film criticism at USC Critical Studies, and continues to host the fall semester of “Sneak Previews” for UCLA Extension.