Mar 24, 2009


Mixing genres is the fundamental story technique of mainstream Hollywood moviemaking. If you want to play in that league, you need to master the technique. But be warned. If you don’t know what you’re doing, you end up with a big mess.

Watchmen left me with a strong sense of missed opportunity. This movie had the potential to be another deep exploration of the role of the savior in modern American life, with a shot at reaching the heights of the best of the form, The Dark Knight.

The challenge facing the writers was huge. They had to weave at least three stories, each from a different genre. First is the fantasy superhero story about who these characters are, why they formed their team, and why they disbanded it. Second is the detective story where Rorschach tries to uncover who is assassinating his old superhero pals. Third is the action story where someone is out to destroy the world.

In putting these three genres together, the writers have created a massive Rube Goldberg mechanism that lumbers along, puffing and wheezing, pushing forward, backing up, until it finally collapses at the finish line 2 hours and 43 minutes later.

Watchmen is a textbook example of how to write, and not write, a superhero origin story. The origin of a superhero is often the most fun aspect of the character and is a complete story unto itself. So the writer has to figure out how to combine a fairly long origin story with a full-blown crime or disaster tale, and make both lines seem like one.

Batman Begins gives us a model for how to execute this job properly. There the writers begin by crosscutting Bruce Wayne’s ghost as a youth (the bats and the death of his parents) with the training he receives from Henri Ducard of the League of Shadows. Then Bruce returns to Gotham to fight crime as Batman and eventually uncovers the plot to destroy the city, concocted by none other than his teacher, Henri Ducard.

But notice one huge advantage the Batman writers have in doing their adaptation: they have to detail the ghost of only one character. This difference is the source of all of Watchmen’s structural problems. The Watchmen’s writers tried to provide detailed ghosts for all nine of the Watchmen superheroes. They realized putting all of these origin stories together at the beginning would create its own movie and have little to do with the assassination/world destruction plot.

So they tried using an advanced story structure form (which I discuss in detail in the Advanced Screenwriting Class). In this form you set up a character with an intense desire line. Then at various intervals, you halt the narrative drive and you explore some dramatic issue or delve deep into character. This technique was used in both Forrest Gump and Lord of the Rings.

This advanced storytelling form has some great strengths but also grave dangers. If you don’t set up a strong enough desire line, the side trips eventually collapse the story. Similarly, if you go too often or spend too long in the side trips, your narrative drive stops. And if these side trips are about ghost – information about the past – then your narrative drive is really in trouble because you are literally going backwards.

All of these problems occur in Watchmen. The writers use a detective story for their desire line: Rorschach wants to find out who is killing the retired superheroes. This appears to be a good choice, since the detective form has one of the cleanest and most propulsive lines of any genre. It is also a form focused on finding out what happened in the past, usually having to do with who committed a murder. So the audience is more accepting in this form of looking backwards.

But the detective form has nowhere near the narrative drive needed to support this many backward looking journeys, for this many characters. And it cannot then flip to an action story line where a team defeats a supervillain who is trying to destroy the world.

The result is a film of three stories in which none is done well. Of the three, the most interesting by far is the story of the origin of this band of superheroes. Had the writers focused on this, they could have had a terrific film.

Of course all of this implies that the writers had a choice. All kinds of forces could have dictated that they somehow make the three-in-one story work. Faced with that task, you do the best job you can.

But whatever the reality of this film, Watchmen shows screenwriters that there are limits to how much you can hang on the narrative line. When mixing genres, the main rule is the pick one genre to be the primary one. Then be very careful how many other genre elements you hang on it. Or you’ll end up with some very nasty wreckage.