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Superjunk: Watchmen
Goes Full-Frontal

Superjunk: Watchmen
Goes Full-Frontal


Gay guys who geek out for superheroes are about to get an eyeful. Watchmen director Zach Snyder puts Dr. Manhattan (a buff, CGI'd Billy Crudup) front and center, buck naked for minutes at a time.

It doesn't take a superhuman intellect to get why so many gay guys geek out for superheroes. For the nervously closeted adolescent comic book reader, there's pretty obvious appeal in all those stories about mild-mannered, unassuming characters with a spandex secret stashed away in the closet. That psychologically precarious balance between the maintenance of a double identity and fantastical powers waiting to be unleashed is potent enough; throw in sustained, worshipful attention to the male physique and you've got a compelling combination.

Ah, yes, the bodies. In the days before any conceivable type, scene, or activity was mere keystrokes away, we pre-internet preteens took our titillation where we found it -- and in the bulges and ripples of the masked avengers, we found it in spades. Not that these guys were naked, of course. They had their colored costumes. Except that, as Michael Chabon, author of The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier & Clay , has convincingly argued, they were really all color and no costume, their true purpose being "the depiction of the naked human form, unfettered, perfect, and free."

Consciously or unconsciously, we recognized the capes, belts, and trunks for the four-color fig leaves they were. Even so, for the mainstream comic book reader, a little imagination was still required -- until Watchmen .

Alan Moore and Dave Gibbons' 12-part miniseries, published from 1986 to 1987, was a bravura pastiche of superhero lore, highlighted by the costumes: Their fetishistic potential was explicitly acknowledged, there were jokes about how silly they looked on aging vigilantes, and it was an index of the gulf between mankind and the series' equivalent of Superman -- a bright blue, godlike character called Dr. Manhattan -- that, half the time, he didn't bother with a costume at all. Here he was, subtext made flesh: the funny books' first balls-out hero. To paraphrase one of the series' iconic lines, the superman exists, and he's hung. What gay reader wouldn't pinch himself?

Zack Snyder's feature adaptation of Watchmen is, in most respects, a devotedly faithful translation of Moore and Gibbons' series. As such, it often plays as a case study in the pitfalls of simply grafting a story from one medium to another. Things that were interesting or shocking in a comic book context, such as sex scenes, come across as banal or kitschy by big screen standards. Dr. Manhattan's nudity, however, is one loyally preserved aspect that totally retains its frisson: there he is, played by a CGI'd Billy Crudup, buck naked for minutes at a time, big blue superjunk swinging free. What gay viewer won't pinch himself?

Of course, it's far from the first superhero movie with serious mo-appreciation potential. Joel Schumacher's Batman Forever and Batman & Robin , although terrible films, could hardly have been more blatantly gay in their use of nipple-clad, butt-crack-flaunting costumes and single-entendre banter. The persecution of mutants in Bryan Singer's X-Men movies, meanwhile, could easily be parsed as analogous to homophobic (or indeed other kinds of) bigotry. Schumacher and Singer are both out gay men; Snyder might be a married father of six, but his appreciation for the heroically nude male form was amply illustrated in his last picture, 300 (not to mention widely spoofed). In fact, he seems to like a hot bod, even at the expense of the story: in Moore and Gibbons' comic, the Batman-like Nite Owl has some serious middle-age spread going on, but the character played by Patrick Wilson in the movie seems to find time to hit the gym, even if he can't always get it up.

The nudity in Watchmen is interesting not only for its quantity -- it's hard to think of any Hollywood studio movie with more male full-frontal content -- but for this quality of appreciation. Although in recent years there has been an upswing in the number of dick shots in mainstream and art-house films, they have tended to be featured either in straight sexually explicit scenes, such as those in Michael Winterbottom's 9 Songs, or as emblematic of male vulnerability, as in Jason Segel's trou-dropping turn in Forgetting Sarah Marshall. Dr Manhattan is certainly not vulnerable, and although he is featured in a sex scene, his genitalia aren't. Rather, his nude body is presented as both object of beauty and example of an impossible standard of buffness -- not that far, in other words, from a gay-porn aesthetic.

This, perhaps, is the only way in which Snyder's movie could be seen as more radical than its source material. The male body has been the primary fetish object of comic books from the start; Moore and Gibbons were just dropping the pretense. But movies have conventionally subjected the female form to the male gaze. Unabashedly placing peen front and center, Watchmen queers that pitch.

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Ben Walters