That scene in Watchmen.

I’ve read some carping about that sex scene – you know the scene I mean, with Nite Owl and Silk Spectre getting it on hovercraft-style to the strains of Leonard Cohen’s Hallelujah.

We’ve just seen Nite Owl’s alter ego, mild-mannered Dan Dreiberg, fail to maintain his hard-on when Silk Spectre, or rather her alter ego Laurie Juspeczyk, attempted to seduce him in the living room of his bachelor pad. They take a sad little nap on the sofa instead. A few hours later, after they throw on their costumes and save some kids from a burning building, Dan’s mojo is magically restored. Soon they’re screwing by moonlight in his owl-shaped hovercraft floating above the clouds. At the peak of her ecstasy, Laurie’s elbow bumps a button on the console, and the ship’s flamethrower erupts in a spurt of flame, which we see from the perspective of the mere mortals in the city below:

Father, what is that strange glow in the sky?

That’s the gods, having an orgasm.

Hell yeah it’s silly. It’s silly when superheroes have sex.

I think it’s a pretty good scene. Still, the carping gets at the fundamental problem with Watchmen, the movie: we’re never allowed sufficient space to step back and critically evaluate these heroes and their absurd self-mythologising. In the comic, when Nite Owl puts on his costume for the first time in a decade, his middle-aged paunch hangs over his utility belt. When the vigilante Rorschach is taken down by the cops, they chortle at his elevator shoes. Aside from the godlike powers of Doctor Manhattan, we never see any of the heroes exhibit more-than-ordinarily-human abilities. They’re just people in funny costumes.

Now Rorschach’s elevator shoes are gone, and so is Nite Owl’s paunch. The very first scene has the Comedian and a shadowy assailant punching through walls and tossing each other back and forth like – well, like superheroes. The fight scenes extend and elaborate on situations sketched out in the comic, but these are Hollywood fights, with all the attendant glamour and gruesomeness – the crisp-vegetable crunch of breaking bones, bodies pinwheeling through the air, the combatants reacting faster, hitting harder, and leaping higher than anyone does in real life. We’re not watching the Watchmen. We’re inside their adolescent superhero fantasies, watching them watch themselves. But by aggrandizing its heroes, the film has made them less sad, less interesting, less human – less in every way. And that’s why, as awesome as it frequently is, the movie disappoints.

M.

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