Saturday, November 25, 2017

Doomsday Clock #1

A Tale of Two Universes

Doomsday Clock, from the little we knew, and know, about it is a story uniting pairs together. On the one hand, it is about the Watchmen Universe and the DC Universe, and some interaction that has happened and/or will happen between them. More specifically, it is about Dr. Manhattan and Superman as the two representatives of those worlds, alike in being the pinnacle of their worlds' power, but staggeringly unalike in many ways. It is also about a pair of stories, as Doomsday Clock is a sequel to Watchmen, one of many times that Geoff Johns has picked up on an Alan Moore story and taken its storyline further. The structure and visual design of Doomsday Clock is overtly following that of Watchmen and close comparisons between the two texts is called for.

This begins with the covers. A man holding a sign saying THE END IS NEAR appeared often throughout Watchmen and in Doomsday Clock the first cover (and first panel in the story) updates that to: THE END IS HERE. The second seems obviously to be a chronological sequence after the first, but with closer examination, we will see that the two "END"s are quite different. The interior page showing the title cropped in huge block letters makes the "DO…" appear to be a DC, which is not coincidentally the name of the company and the initials of this story. (I'll use DC for brevity's sake, and the italics will be a necessary cue as to whether that means the company or the story.)

The man with the END IS HERE sign is shot dead and his sign trampled upon, which makes for a wonderfully ambiguous response to his prediction: Does this, his end, mean he was proven right or will be proven wrong?

Two Hours in the Watchmen Universe

Most of DC #1 takes place on the Watchmen Universe, and it takes a careful reading to unpack what is going on, because it is one of the most eventful days in that world's history, and much of the narration, beginning with the first panel, is unreliable (as Rorschach – a new Rorschach – is unable to remember the date). Therefore, before the first panel is done, we remarkably have three pieces of information that we can't trust: That the narrator/diarist is Rorschach, the date, and whether or not the end is really here (it is a cliché for lunatics to claim this when it is not truly the end, often intended in a Biblical sense).

Events on this day in the Watchmen Universe include:

• An angry mob storms Veidt's corporate headquarters in New York.
• Soldiers raid Veidt's base in Antarctica.
• Russia perhaps invades Poland.
• The Vice President perhaps goes on a shooting rampage and takes hostages.
• The U.S. government eliminates the news media and begins a central national news agency with monopoly control over the news.
• A President Redford, whose time in office must have begun in 1988, was trailing in polls until the revelation in early November 1992 that the New York Massacre was perpetrated by Veidt. This last-minute revelation swung the 1992 election in Redford's favor.
• The U.S. prepares a nuclear strike against Russia.
• The U.S. evacuates major cities including New York.
• Rorschach, working with/for Veidt, breaks a villain named Marionette out of prison to help him summon Dr. Manhattan to save the world.

We also learn, if appearances can be trusted, that:
• Veidt's faked alien invasion was exposed as a hoax exactly as implied by the end of Watchmen.
• Veidt has cancer; monitors in his Antarctic base show a tumor in his right cerebral cortex.
• The Rorschach in this story is dark-skinned and replaces the one we saw die in Watchmen.


But can appearances be trusted? Numerous things in this issue, some of which we already knew, remind us that appearances are often deceiving:

• The Marionette:  A marionette is a puppet that the puppeteer makes seem alive.
• The Mime: A mime pretends to be in situations that are not real. They also pretend not to be able to speak, though this one is not pretending.
• The Mime's fight: His schtick is to pretend to be losing, for dramatic purposes, then turn things around and win. His weapons are also imaginary.
• Veidt's New York Massacre: The center of Watchmen, Veidt's entire plan was an enormous "ruse" or "hoax," as characters in DC #1 put it.
• Superman's secret identity, the oldest deception in superhero stories. We're reminded of it by the costume folded neatly near his bed.
• Rorschach: We are shown a Rorschach who dresses, speaks, and even writes like the original, but turns out to be a new one.
• Details: Rorschach keeps mistaking simple details like the date, the time, cell numbers, and left vs. right.
• The reveal of Veidt's plan: This was actually published in 1986, as indicated by the final pages of Watchmen, but went totally ignored at the time. It was published and taken seriously only in 1992.
• The fate of the superheroes: Rumors regarding Nite Owl, Silk Spectre, and Rorschach are false, given what we saw in Watchmen.
• The news: The Orwellian (and Trumpian) National News Network, in its first moments, runs a story about Russia invading Poland. They preemptively announce that reports from foreign press to the contrary are "lies." This strongly suggests that the invasion of Poland is a pretence to justify war. The fact that Rorschach has the countdown indicates that Veidt and Rorschach knew about the plot in advance and that the nuclear attack does not depend upon Russia's actions, which would have made their information uncertain.
• Schrodinger's Clock and Watch Repair. Continuing the physics analogies from Watchmen in a new direction, Schrodinger's result with the biggest pop cultural consequence is Schrodinger's Cat, a hypothetical account of how something can be neither dead nor alive, until one examines the cat and discovers which is the case. This is a metaphor for many things we've seen already. In the immediate case at hand, Veidt's ruse was destined to "die" after living for six years. We may find out that many aspects of the DCU, including the Kents' survival, flip between life and death per the machinations of Dr. Manhattan.

In case you missed it, the papers in the manila folder in the end notes are Rorschach's. They fell out of his car and onto the street when he brought the escapees back to the Owlcave.

Russian Collusion

All of these clues about misinformation and deception highlight the unreliable information we are getting about U.S.-Russia relations. The news of that day, as it emerges:

Before 6pm
Misc. TV news: Russia threatening Poland.
Misc. TV news: Russia link government (Nixon or Redford?) to Veidt scheme.
National News Network: Russia has invaded Poland. Four-hour ultimatum.
Rorschach: Prison will be nuked in less than four hours.
Foreign press: Russia is not invading Poland.
NNN: Russia still advancing in Poland.

And, looking at the longer timeline regarding Veidt, Russia, and nuclear weapons:

1986: New Frontiersman publishes Rorschach's notes, unnoticed.
1988: Redford and Veidt run on disarmament platform.
1989: Global Data Exchange Program and NTA begin.
1992: Redford re-reveals Rorschach's notes. Redford turns pro-nuclear.

If the Mime's "sudden, dramatic turn" is a metaphor for anything we've seen in the Watchmen Universe, it's Redford's stance on both Veidt and nuclear weapons. And, for reasons we probably can't guess now, the Russian invasion of Poland looks like the second big ruse that the Watchmen Earth has had pulled on it. The evacuation of the cities looks like a big clue. Veidt and Rorschach believe that the nuclear bombs are going to fly in two hours. Redford, somehow, is going to consolidate his power more than mere reelection allows, by shipping the population out of the cities and permitting their destruction. And if you want a real-life historical analogue for that, it's what the Khmer Rouge did in Cambodia.

Obviously, from terms like "deplorable" and "collusion" as well as the golfing President and monopoly on news, Johns made a lot of this correspond to the current Trump Presidency, but he has noted in an interview that he wrote this issue over nine months ago, so watch carefully – he may end up being remarkably prophetic, whether by accident or because he sees the underlying pattern.

One puzzling piece of dialogue came from the TV monitors as soldiers stormed Veidt's Antarctic base. As many news networks signed off for the last time, the final words were taken, more or less verbatim, from the film Network. In that movie, a 1970s newsman has a mental breakdown on air and begins speaking his mind freely for the first time. This is, unexpectedly, a huge popular hit, so rather than fire him, the network keeps him on and he becomes a star, ranting and raving his opinions instead of delivering the news. This was, itself, wildly prophetic for our current era where opinion shows dominate many "news network" time slots. But what's confusing is this: Was the film Network being shown on one of Veidt's TVs? No. This is the rant from one of the now-obsolete news network's anchormen upon the American press being effectively eliminated, and it is a knowing reference to Network, which presumbly doesn't exist as a film in Johns' version of the Watchmen Universe.

As a minor erratum, note that it is night in Antarctica as the soldiers storm Veidt's compound. In late November, it is daylight everywhere in Antarctica. This is either an error or a sign that this is a different compound in the Arctic.

Two more important clues: The monitors on the wall show Veidt's cancer in the form of a brain tumor in what might be the superior parietal cortex, and it was already quite large and growing in February, nine months ago. Veidt's situation should be quite dire by now, and motor or sensory failures could be the prime symptoms. It's surely not accidental that the tumor is in his brain, which was where his super power truly resided.

The Calendar

One more note about the time: November 22, 1992 is exactly 25 years before the release date of Watchmen. The DCU has generally been perceived as existing during the real, current year, so this may mean that time and dimensional travel will be needed to connect these two storylines or that the Watchmen Universe is set 25 years behind ours and the DCU. Silver Age fans may recall that briefly, DC writers posited a 20-year gap between events on Earth One and Earth Two, to explain why one group of heroes debuted during World War Two and the next group debuted in the Sixties. (The classic Batman story To Kill A Legend supposed that some other world might develop its Batman precisely 20 years after Earth One.) Johns may be invoking a similar system here, with the calendar dates of the Watchmen Universe set precisely 25 years behind the DCU in certain respects.

Another glaring consequence of this is that the media is all television and telephone, with no World Wide Web yet in effect.

The Clock

A significant aspect of the hour-by-hour timeline of this issue is that Rorschach, at the prison, knows (or believes) that the prison will turn to ash in less than four hours, at least if they don't bring down Dr. Manhattan. The National News Network gave Russia a four-hour ultimatum, so obviously Rorschach (probably via Veidt) believes that the ultimatum is a ruse and that a nuclear war does not depend on any choices that Russia might make. (It is unclear if time for Russia's response to transpire, which would be more than 15 minutes but less than an hour, are included in his calculations.) He presumably left for the prison before the ultimatum was even announced, since a car trip out of New York is liable to take more than 25 minutes.

He began a meal at 11:15 am, so his whereabouts for the early afternoon are unaccounted for. The issue ends after 6pm, so the countdown is under two hours. Interestingly, Rorschach tells Marionette that he can't say how long the job will take. If they need to find Dr. Manhattan before the missiles launch, then the job must be quite short if it is to be successful. So the fact that Rorschach can't tell how long the job will take implies that Veidt and Rorschach expect for the missiles to launch and cause mass devastation. Maybe they expect Dr. Manhattan to undo a nuclear war after it happens. Maybe they don't consider a nuclear war to be the end for them.

It is essential to note that the very phrase "Doomsday Clock" was coined by the Bulletin of Atomic Scientists, who tried to call attention to how close the world might have been to nuclear war. Johns' clock at the end of this issue gives us just eleven minutes to go, while Rorschach and other details here give us something closer to two hours, so the correspondence between them is certainly not literal.

Superman's Dream

The final pages of DC #1 show Superman and Lois in bed while Superman has a nightmare. This memory of the Kents' deaths in an auto accident on the night of Clark Kent's prom was first shown in Grant Morrison's Action Comics revamp of Superman. It is perhaps a remarkable coincidence, perhaps not, that Superman and Lois and the "innocence" of their relationship is mentioned in the final two pages of Watchmen #1! Passages in the final pages of Hollis Mason's book Under the Hood mention Superman, Clark, and Lois as fictional characters in the Watchmen Universe ­– perhaps a significant detail! Mason muses over the way that Clark and Lois were innocent sexually (the book was probably written in the 1970s and the chapter discusses much earlier years) as opposed to the Shadow and people in the Watchmen world. If Johns did not intend for this aspect of his issue to mirror their mention in Watchmen #1, it is a remarkable coincidence; he must have read and re-read Watchmen very carefully before starting his work here. If it is a knowing comment, perhaps putting them in bed together is a statement on how the DCU has shifted considerably from what it was when Moore decided to write Watchmen to comment upon it. If so, perhaps Johns is saying that Moore's criticism of superhero comics is invalidated by the way they have changed since 1985.

Perhaps most significant here is that highlighting the Kents' deaths, and reference to "God's plan" is going to open up the possibility that Dr. Manhattan's work in the DCU, as described by Wally West in DC Rebirth, either caused the Kents' deaths in the timeline we have now or could undo their deaths in the rest of this story.

In the final panel, Superman says that it is perhaps the first nightmare he has ever had. This is certainly not true over the long history of Superman comics: Doctor's Destiny's entire M.O. was based on giving the Justice League nightmares, and he also had nightmares in Alan Moore's Black Mercy story that Johns has riffed off of, in Doomsday: Hunter/Prey, and Kurt Busiek's Superman #666. The significance of it being his only nightmare is to indicate that something ominous, capable of affecting and hurting Superman, is on the way.

Page by Page

It's clear that Johns, to some extent, based the design of his issue upon Watchmen #1, but not copying it to the tiniest detail. Scenes and layouts and occasionally visual details are borrowed from the original, but selectively.

The man holding THE END IS NEAR sign is shot as the President's golf "hole in one" is mentioned. In Watchmen, the man with the sign is Rorschach and tremendously significant to the plot. In DC #1, we don't yet know who the man is or if he has any further significance.

The main characters introduced in each issue are in this order, as follows.

Watchmen #1: Comedian (in flashback), Rorschach, Nite Owl, Veidt, Dr. Manhattan and Silk Spectre.
DC #1: Veidt (in flashback), Rorschach, Nite Owl, Veidt, Superman and Lois Lane.

This is clearly similar, with substitutions. Perhaps most striking is the alignment of Dr. Manhattan with Superman, and the story will be about their differences and interplay.

We may notice that alignment between the two works is surely present, but not panel-by-panel. A memorable scene in Watchmen is when Rorschach breaks out of prison, and in DC #1, he breaks someone else out of prison, but in Watchmen that takes place in issue #8.

What's Coming?

The final words of Veidt, in reference to Dr. Manhattan, are, "Wherever he's retreated to." Using a Moore motif, Johns places this speech panel on the next scene, which is in Metropolis, which seemingly gives us the answer that DC Rebirth and The Button already promised, that Dr. Manhattan is in the DCU. Veidt and his allies need to contact Dr. Manhattan, and somehow they believe that the Marionette can help them find or reach him. Perhaps Veidt and his allies will appear in the DCU. If so, finding Dr. Manhattan may be variously easy or difficult (and the 25 year difference in date significant or insignificant), depending upon the deus ex machina of Veidt's scientific means.

But they cannot simply remove him from the DCU and have the story thereby abandon the DCU in issue #2. Perhaps Dr. Manhattan will refuse to go, and his purpose in the DCU will become part of the plot. Perhaps he will go and this will undo the changes he made to it. DC Rebirth and The Button seemingly promise us that a major change will take place, bringing, at the very least, the Justice Society back into continuity. By issue #12, this will happen. The question is whether we will have wild, temporary cosmic changes (a la the central issues of Johns' Infinite Crisis) or one big change at the end after a lot of metaphysical and philosophical conflict and contrast between Dr. Manhattan and Superman.

But also between Veidt and perhaps other characters. Rorschach vs. Batman? Or maybe we see Veidt's optimism (ugly though it be) mirror with Superman's. The copy of Walden Two on Superman's nightstand hints that fixing society and building a utopia is something that Veidt and Superman have in common.

Almost certainly, Johns is taking up here a conflict in tone with Alan Moore. Moore, as I've written earlier, was seemingly hell bent on destroying the superhero genre, either character by character, or as a genre, or in one unpublished apocalyptic epic. And so, I think it's quite possible that the shooting of the END IS HERE man represents the destruction of Alan Moore's gloom-and-doom take on the superhero genre. Thirty-one years later, we can certainly say that the genre did not end, and I think most readers here will agree that some part of the last three decades' work was quite worthwhile.

It's also worth noting that Grant Morrison has taken up quite similar efforts, with his Pax Americana issue of Multiversity giving his quite admirable and intricate take on Watchmen, and Final Crisis culminating with a showdown between Superman and a representative of gloom-and-doom called Mandrakk. While it would muddy Doomsday Clock quite a bit for Johns to grapple extensively with Morrison's own metatextual analyses, it will be interesting, as DC goes forward, to see how Johns, who is committed to a career with DC, takes up the same issues.

Monday, November 20, 2017

Justice League (2017)

At least as far back as 1979, someone wondered what would happen if you put Christopher Reeve, Adam West, and Lynda Carter – give or take some substitutions in the lineup – together in one production. Somehow, thirty-eight years went by before we got this year's Justice League, which doesn't seem to have benefited nearly as much as it should have from all that time and all the intervening lessons as to what works and what doesn't.

One should note, without doubt, there is more than one way to approach the genre. Christian Bale's Dark Knight and Reeve's Superman, to note just two, took paths that both worked, in their way, but were completely, irreconcilably different. It is at the creator's peril that one would try to blend two different approaches in one work; as the saying goes, a camel is a racehorse designed by committee, offering so many improvements to the idea of a horse, you end up with something that can't race.

Justice League, with its six superheroes, is a six-humped camel – eight or nine if you count the Amazons, Mera, and the villain Steppenwolf. It's inherently a tough assignment, with the same number of superheroes that Marvel's Avengers tossed together in 2012, but without the advantage of so many solo movies to introduce the lineup.

Luckily, the three new additions benefit from wonderful performers. Ray Fisher is pitch perfect as Cyborg in a movie that shows only 5% of him and falls even shorter in giving him adequate lines to relate his existential crisis as a superhero who would really rather not be what he's become. Jason Momoa was essential casting to lend gravitas to the Aquaman character who, historically, battles unintended laughs as much as he does underwater villains: The genetic bulk and fury of Momoa immediately defuses the threat that Aquaman would come across as a lightweight. And Ezra Miller's Flash is so likeable, so fun, that nary a fan has complained that his Barry Allen is so from the comics' version.

Justice League takes those strong performances, along with others by returners Cavill, Gadot, and even Affleck, and a dozen or more fan-pleasing moments and puts them together in almost the worst possible way. It looks as though four or so different good Justice League movies were made and then the pieces from them placed in a salad bowl and edited together without much concern. Indeed, and sadly, something like this did happen, as original director Zack Snyder was taken off the project due to a family tragedy with Joss Whedon picking up – and pasting together – the pieces. The result corrects, to its credit, the overly dark and destructive tone of the two previous Superman (and Batman) movies in the DC Extended Universe, which were seemingly hell-bent on showing collateral damage and a world that wasn't sure that having Superman was a good thing. Justice League fixes that, and undoubtedly has some fun. Most of that fun was, unfortunately, shown to us in the form of trailers over the last year, but buyer beware when it comes to watching trailers, I suppose.

In tallying Justice League's other successes, I must compliment it on melding the Amazon and Atlantean traditions, which is a bit of sense the comics rarely touched upon. And to skip ahead to the ending, it worked for me – and I think, the franchise – to have the superficial ending that the big, bad villain is beaten simply because Superman is stronger than him. People like Superman when he is strong, and here he is, and if that's too simple an ending then Superman is too simple for you.

And some subplots pull it off. When Batman tells an intimidated Flash to save just one hostage, it gives Miller's speedster the chance to gain confidence and show us the master manipulator Batman at work. When an enraged Superman manages to track an increasingly terrified Flash, we get a perfect moment where the characters and their powers interact to make a moment powerful.

And there are elements that seem like subtle nods to past comics. I would comment how like a Lazarus Pit is Superman's revival scene, and reminiscent of the Bad Batman Clone who rose from one in Grant Morrison's Batman and Robin. The need of the villain to bring together three artifacts hearkens back, whether knowingly or accidentally, to the demons Abnegazar, Rath, and Ghast who are empowered by a bell, wheel, and jar, from a JLA story way back in 1962. And the opening scene with Batman taking down a Parademon is, certainly knowingly, right out of the DCnU's premier issue of Justice League in 2011.

But here's the basic failure of Justice League: Plots and subplots work when there is a complication, a climax, and a resolution. These things need some time and investment to work for the viewer. The complication has to mean something. The resolution has to make sense. Over and over, Justice League gives us a mini-plot complete with a complication, climax, and resolution in less time than we can care about – or even understand – the situation. How does someone spend years working in the film industry without a much better sense of what is required to make a subplot pay off? It's unclear where the blame lies: screenwriter Chris Terrio (who won an Oscar for Argo), Snyder, Whedon, higher-up consultants, or some medley of all of them. Maybe too many cooks ruined the soup even though we know from Avengers that six superheroes aren’t too many for a movie.

And so, we know that Amy Adams can act the hell out of a role, but when she's given just five scenes to show Lois Lane's dark night of the soul (one each for her personal complication, climax, and resolution), there's not enough in the script for her to shine. Amber Heard looks and sounds as good as you could hope, but the rapid-fire dialogue in she and Jason Momoa serve up exposition of their characters' history and mommy issues shortchanges the matter to the point that one must ask why bother? Inescapably, I have to conclude that Justice League began with the outline of a potentially great three (or four) hour movie and the creators collectively decided to streamline, ruinously, several of the subplots while eliminating not enough of them.

And so, we have civilians who need to be rescued right before Superman deals with Steppenwolf, including a Russian family who earn more screen time than Diane Lane's Martha Kent while adding nothing but a rationale for Superman and Flash to race. And so, we have Batman knowingly insult the memory of Steve Trevor in order to shock Wonder Woman into becoming a leader in battle. And so, we have Alfred mysteriously conclude from audio alone that Batman being upset by the lack of a plan that somehow the team dynamic is working effectively. (It's not. The subsequent arrival of Superman is the only thing that prevents Steppenwolf from winning.) And so, we have Batman determined that the risk of Superman being resurrected as a monster was worth it after an entire movie was based on the premise that Batman wasn't sure if normal Superman was something we could trust. And so, the drama in many viewers' minds whether a Green Lantern would show up was executed to no payoff by showing extraterrestrial Green Lanterns during a flashback. And so, we have a villain like Steppenwolf, who lacked the slightest bit of interest in his personality.

And we have plot holes galore. Seemingly every viewer realized that Steppenwolf should have stolen the Mother Boxes before Superman came to Earth instead of waiting for his arrival and death. And that the Justice League should have guarded the Mother Box after using it to revive Superman.

If the final result of waiting thirty-eight years for a Justice League movie could come off this flawed, there was no reason for DC to wait this long – they could have squeezed Adam West and Lynda Carter into Superman III and fared little worse. But what's truly frustrating is that they didn't take a little more caution – a thirty-ninth year if it would have helped – and put all of these strong performances together to make a movie that everyone involved could be proud of.