By Stacey Harrison
For the uninitiated, it might be tough to see how a grisly animated tale of survival at sea would tie into a deconstructionist superhero epic like Watchmen. Well, unless you’ve read the source material, the new Watchmen: Tales of the Black Freighter probably isn’t going to make it any clearer.
There are very few references to the story detailed in the blockbuster movie, which presents a view of what 1985 might have looked like if costumed vigilantes had been a part of our real world. We do get a dark Smiley Face reflected in the water, along with a blotted sail that conjures images of Rorshach’s mask, but beyond that the links are all thematic, and certainly not apparent to the casual fan.
However you come at it, this nasty little tale is a dark delight. It tells of a mariner whose ship is attacked by a ghostly pirate vessel filled with souls from hell’s darkest depths. He washes up on a lonely island, and the remains of his crew soon join him. Desperate to get back to his home before the Black Freighter arrives and claims his family, he assembles a raft, using the gas-bloated bodies of his former crewmen to keep him afloat.
Yeah, not a happy story. And it only gets worse. Gerard Butler’s booming voice is the perfect narration, bringing Alan Moore’s spin on EC Comics to life. It’ll be difficult reading the graphic novel from now on and not hear his Scottish baritone.
For those looking to enhance or — in some cases — salvage their Watchmen experience, Black Freighter is a sweet treat. There is talk of it being included in a future version of the film, interspersed within the narrative as it is in the graphic novel, but I can’t imagine that being anything but jarring. An extended cut of the film, which director Zack Snyder has promised, would be better spent fleshing out Ozymandias’ character. But that’s a critique for another day.
For a more direct correlation with Watchmen, check out Under the Hood. While opinions on the film have been wildly varied, most seem to heap praise on its opening montage, which traces the development of costumed vigilantes throughout the 20th century. This featurette expands on that back story, focusing on the group that preceded the heroes we follow in the film, tracing their rise and fall into irrelevance and, ultimately, illegitimacy.
It’s presented as a segment on a faux 60 Minutes-style show called The Culpeper Report. In this particular episode, the show looks back on a 1975 story it did on Hollis Mason, the New York cop who became Nite Owl. As part of the Minutemen, he fought alongside heroes like Silk Spectre, the Comedian, Hooded Justice, Dollar Bill, Captain Metropolis and Mothman. After he hung up the tights, Mason wrote a tell-all autobiography about his experiences, and Under the Hood became a sensation.
The many attempts at verisimilitude — which include several commercials done in 1980s style, and news footage made to look worn out — are commendable, but ultimately not very convincing. Too many interviews end with pregnant pauses and subjects contemplating what they’ve just said. Yawn. Still, it’s nice to see some characters who are given scant time in the film, and Watchmen scholars will rejoice at some extra bits with peripheral characters recognizable from the book.
Photos: Courtesy of Warner Premiere. WATCHMEN and All Related Characters and Elements Are Trademarks of and © DC Comics
WATCHMEN: TALES OF THE BLACK FREIGHTER: *** out of ****
Voice of: Gerard Butler; Directed by Mike Smith, Daniel DelPurgitorio; Rated R for violent and grisly images; Runtime: 24 minutes; Available on VOD; Title may not be available on all VOD systems, so check your cable VOD lineup for further details.
WATCHMEN: UNDER THE HOOD: **½ out of ****
Starring: Stephen McHattie, Carla Gugino, Jeffrey Dean Morgan, Matt Frewer; Directed by Eric Matthies; Rated PG for mild thematic elements, brief violent and suggestive images and smoking; Runtime: 35 minutes; Available on VOD; Title may not be available on all VOD systems, so check your cable VOD lineup for further details.