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The Patron Saint of Superheroes

Chris Gavaler Explores the Multiverse of Comics, Pop Culture, and Politics

Tag Archives: Louis Feuillade


The list of superhero movies made since the 1978 Superman continues to grow exponentially, but I try to give a quick visual nod to each while lecturing in my Superhero course. After class a student told me I made the same remark three times:

“I never saw this, but I hear it’s terrible.”

There’s nothing so pleasantly humbling as a student spotting my professorial shortcomings. I make no apology for not seeing EVERY superhero film in existence, but the three I dismissed—Supergirl (1984), Cat Woman (2004), and Elektra (2005)—all feature female protagonists. In fact, my student noted, they are the ONLY superhero films to feature female protagonists on my list. I could blame Hollywood (is it really that hard to make a Wonder Woman movie?), but as a belated apology, let me offer a corrective instead.

I have seen and thoroughly recommend cinemas’ first catwoman. Not Halle Berry or Michelle Pfeiffer—not even Lee Meriweather from the 1966 Batman spoof. The original bodysuited catburglar padded across screens a century ago. Silent age actress Musidora played the anti-heroine Irma Vep in Louis Feuillade’s seven-hour serial Les Vampires back in 1915.


Vep (her name’s an anagram) is not a vampire of the blood-sucking variety but the leading member of a crime syndicate terrorizing Paris. Technically Philipe Guérande, the “star reporter” investigating the Vampires, is the serial’s hero, but after debuting in the third episode, Vep dominates. She’s the Vampires’ second in command, out living each of the four Grand Vampires she works beside. They all have their nefarious skill sets—disguise, poisons, paralysis glove, hypnotic eyes, even a retractable cannon fired from an apartment window—but none are as memorable as Musidora in a black bodysuit. She has a bit of the shapeshifting Mystique in her too, since she assumes the identities of her aristocratic victims so seamlessly. She and her Vampires also push the limits of early twentieth century technology, recording a millionaire’s voice on a wax cylinder and playing it over a telephone to authenticate a forged check.

But they’re not thrill-seeking pranksters. Episode one opens with the report of a police inspector’s decapitated body found in a swamp. Thirty minutes later, Philipe is opening a box with the missing head. Vep and her crew later dispatch a businessman with a hair pin through the back of his skull then shuck his body from a moving train. They murder a ballerina because she’s rumored to be Philipe’s fiancé.  They also have a knack for lassoing nooses around people’s necks and yanking them from balconies.

But the image that most haunts me is the ball thrown by a baron for his niece—really the Grand Vampire and Vep in disguise. The Parisian aristocracy gathers for the baron’s midnight “surprise” to find the windows boarded and toxic gas flooding through the vents. Feuillade’s camera is more stationary than many silent film directors’, but he’s a master of deep focus, staging a cascade of background and foreground action within a continuous frame. The gowned and tuxedoed guest flail and wilt across furniture and floors in a tableau of slaughter—followed by the silhouetted Vampires entering through a pair of backlit doors in the distant wall to plunder their jewels. When the police tear the planks from the windows the next morning, the guests miraculously revive (contradicting the verb “asphyxiate” in the translated intertitles).


Despite the mayhem, Feuillade seems to be rooting for Vep. When Philipe and his comic sidekick capture Vep, she looks like a classic damsel-in-distress.  If you watched episode nine out of sequence, you would mistake her for the heroine, valiantly struggling against her kidnappers. In fact, Vep, more than all the plundered jewels and bank accounts, is the serial’s prize. The first and second Grand Vampires battle against the rival criminal Moreno not just for control of Paris but of Vep. Moreno falls for her, hypnotizes her into loving him, and next she’s gunning down her former boss. When the captured Moreno is executed between episodes (I suspect the actor was called away on war duty), the next Grand Vampire, Venomous, proposes.

vep and moreno

Philipe’s wedding (Feulliade, apparently filming on the fly, introduces his fiancé with equal haste) occurs between episodes, but the final, “The Terrible Wedding,” features the Vampires in rambunctious celebration (I rewound the bodysuited dance duet to watch twice). Again, if watched out of sequence, the gangs looks like a fun-loving pack of pals—until Philipe and the police break in and gun them down. Some scramble for the balcony, but Philipe has sawed the floor so they plunge to the cement below where they writhe and die. It’s a surprisingly brutal ending. Only Vep escapes, sneaking to the basement where the heroes’ captured brides are imprisoned. But Philipe has already lowered a gun to them, and his wife shoots Vep dead just before the heroes enter, embracing their wives before Vep’s corpse. The End.

Feulliade may have been shooting for gritty realism (Paris had recently suffered the reign of the very real Bonnot Gang), but the accumulative effect is surrealism. He also established a host of action tropes still being duplicated— a chase atop a moving train, a hero yelling “Follow that cab!” as he leaps into a backseat, a bad guy swallowing a hidden cyanide capsule, and (since the capsule only induced a temporary comma) a prison break.

Feulliade had ventured into crime serials with Fantomos the year before, but Les Vampires inspired him further, shooting with the same cast for Judex and The New Mission of Judex. The effect is further dizzying, since it’s Musidora, not the titular hero, in the opening scene. Despite the name change, Vep is back, plotting more impersonations and seducing Santanas, the second Grand Vampire—only now he’s some evil banker. Philipe’s been demoted to the hero’s extraneous brother, but his comic sidekick is front and center as a bumbling detective, the proto-Clouseau. It’s like watching the latest Joss Whedon production, waiting to see witch Buffy or Firefly or Dollhouse actor is going to appear next.

Despite hiring a playwright to give Judex relative continuity, Feulliade repeats a few of his Vampire tricks—like throwing a sack over a good guy’s head so when he switches bodies and escapes the bad guys murder one of their own. Sadly when Musidora’s body washes ashore in the final episode, Feulliade doesn’t reprise her for the sequel—so maybe it’s just as well all the prints are lost. The closest we have to a Les Vampires remake is fellow French director Olivier Assayas’ 1996 Irma Vep—a meta-film about the making of a remake (which I also recommend). So pay attention Hollywood. Cinema’s original supervillainess is waiting for her reboot.


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“Both the Joker and Hannibal Lecter were much more fascinating than the good guys,” says Talking Heads singer David Byrne. “Everybody sort of roots for the bad guys in movies.” Byrne was explaining why he wrote “Psycho Killer,” the opening song from their Jonathan Demme concert movie, Stop Making Sense. Demme also filmed The Silence of the Lambs, but that’s almost two decades after Byrne wrote his song, so the origin story doesn’t make much sense either.

Byrne is also a fan of Dadaism and adapted a Hugo Ball poem for the Talking Heads. “I Zimbra” is a string of nonsense syllables, reflecting Ball’s Dada Manifesto: “to dispense with conventional language” and “get rid of everything that smacks of journalism, worms, everything nice and right, blinkered, moralistic, europeanised, enervated.” Similar new wave beats were sweeping through Paris in the early teens where Ball’s avant-garde cousins were rooting for France’s pulp fiction psycho killer, Fantômas.


I’m no expert in French surrealism, but I’ve stood mesmerized in front of more than one Magritte painting. He, like Jean Cocteau and Guillaume Apollinaire and André Breton, were mesmerized by the figure of a “masked man in impeccable evening clothes, dagger in hand, looming over Paris like a somber Gulliver.” That’s John Ashbery’s description of the iconic cover art for Pierre Souvestre and Marcel Allain’s 1911 Fantômas, the first in a series of 38 novels featuring the empereur du crime.

The bigger mystery is how a Pulitzer-winning poet came to write the introduction to a reissued translation. Maybe it’s because Ashbery is, according to Ashbery, “sometimes considered a harebrained, homegrown surrealist whose poetry defies even the rules and logic of surrealism,” a description that could also suit Souvestre (a failed aristocrat-lawyer turned automotive journalist) and Allain (Souvestre’s secretary, ghostwriter, and later husband to Souvestre’s flu-widowed wife). Ashbery calls them both “hacks,” their prose “hackneyed,” and their narratives “crude.” Yet Ashbery’s harebrained forefathers declared Fantômas “extraordinary,” its lyricism “magnificent,” and the serial a “modern Aeneid.”

Apollinaire did throw in a “lamely written,” so the surrealists’ praise isn’t entirely surreal, but it doesn’t begin to explain the character’s Gulliver-sized impact on French culture. Ashbery adds to the mystery by listing Fantômas’s many and superior ancestors, including Manfred and Les Miserables. He also mentions the popularity of Nick Carter in France at the time, but he misses how much Souvestre and Allain pilfered from the American pulp. The authors allude to “Cartouche and Vidocq and Rocambole,” but their psycho killer’s most immediate predecessor is Nick Carter’s arch-nemesis, Dr. Quartz.

Carter’s “hack,” Frederic Van Rensselaer Day, introduced the psychopathic genius twenty years earlier. Quartz “wished to defy the police; to defy mankind, because he believed himself to be so much smarter than all other men combined.” He is Nietzsche’s superman, indifferent to “rightdoing and wrongdoing, as we define the two terms” and to “anything human, animal, moral, legal, save only his own inclination.” If you like the scene in Silence of the Lambs where Dr. Lecter displays his gutted guard like an abstract art installation, you’ll just love “Dr. Quartz II, at Bay” when the doctor embalms a railroad car of victims and arranges them like waxworks playing a game of cars.  Or if you like Alan Moore’ Killing Joke when the Joker rigs a funhouse ride to project photos of Commissioner Gordon’s raped and crippled daughter, wait till you see how Fantômas can pose a corpse at the reins of a runaway coach or inside a clock bell so blood rains down with the clanging of the hour.

It would be easy to call them all “evil.” It’s the term we like to use for Adolf Hitler and Osama bin Laden. But the word is meaningless. It pretends to define what it merely describes. The real horror, the thing that should keep you awake at night, is the absolute absence of evil in the motives of those who commit it. Adolf and Osama were trying to make the world a better place. They thought they were the good guys. David Byrne finds the Joker and Hannibal Lechter fascinating because they’re make-believe. They don’t make sense because they can’t. There’s no root cause to their actions. There’s no mystery to solve, just endless installments.

Nick Carter, le roi des détectives arrived in Paris cinemas in 1908 to rain down multiple sequels and knock-offs, including Louis Feuillade’s Fantômas film adaptation. So Feuillade’s equally acclaimed follow-ups, Les Vampires and Judex, are knock-offs of a knock-off, with scripts improvised around the same actors, costumes, plots, and character types. Souvestre and Allain hand-cranked their prose just as sloppily. Though they exist solely in “conventional language,” their novels may somehow still answer Bell’s directive to “get rid of all the filth that clings to this accursed language . . . the word outside your domain, your stuffiness, this laughable impotence, your stupendous smugness, outside all the parrotry of your self-evident limitedness.” Replace “Dada” with “Fantômas” and Bell’s Manifesto reads:

“How does one achieve eternal bliss? By saying Fantômas. How does one become famous? By saying Fantômas. With a noble gesture and delicate propriety. Till one goes crazy. Till one loses consciousness. How can one get rid of everything that smacks of journalism, worms, everything nice and right, blinkered, moralistic, europeanised, enervated? By saying Fantômas. Fantômas is the world soul, Fantômas is the pawnshop. Fantômas is the world’s best lily-milk soap. Fantômas Johann Fuchsgang Goethe. Fantômas Stendhal. Fantômas Dalai Lama, Buddha, Bible, and Nietzsche. Fantômas m’Fantômas.”

Ultimately Ashbery declares Fantômas a Cubist charade (Picasso and Gris were fans too), and yet one whose “popularity cut across social and cultural strata.” Like a dagger’s blade, you could say. The best monsters are never slain, never contained, but are always plotting new and paradoxically comforting horrors between episodes. A story’s meaning only emerges when it’s over, and so Fantômas was meaningless to the generation who embraced him. He made everything stop making sense.

Ball calls for new words, for an invented language of nonsense—which is what I hear when David Byrne sings his chorus:  “Psycho killer, kiss kiss say.” I obviously don’t know French. But no one, not even the French, knows Fantômas.

talking heads psycho killer

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Who created the Joker?

Standard answers boil down to some combination of Bob Kane and his assistants, writer Bill Finger and artist Jerry Robinson. According to Kane though, Robinson “had absolutely nothing to do with it” because Robinson’s contribution—the Joker playing card used in Batman No. 1—was added after Kane and Finger already thought up the character. Robinson, however, claimed “the concept was mine,” including both the playing card and the “outline of the persona and what should happen in the first story.”

They were both wrong.

The Joker was Finger’s idea, and I know because he stole it.

Kane and Robinson agree that Finger handed Kane a photograph of Conrad Veidt from the 1928 film adaptation of Victor Hugo’s The Man Who Laughs which Kane used to draw the Joker. A clown-faced ad for a Coney Island attraction has gotten some credit too. But Finger’s kept his primary source hidden.

The Joker’s first appearance begins with a death threat: “Tonight at precisely twelve o’clock midnight I will kill Henry Claridge…”

Henry Claridge, frantic with fear, calls the police.

CLARIDGE: “You’ve got to protect me!”

POLICE CHIEF: “Don’t worry, Mr. Claridge.”

Time drags on—seconds minutes then the fatal hour twelve o’clock.

CLARIDGE: “I’m still alive! I’m not dead! I’m safe! I’m SAAAAGH! Aaghh!”

The Joker has fulfilled his threat. Claridge is dead!! Slowly the facial muscles pull the  dead man’s mouth into a repellent ghastly grin. The sign of death from the Joker!

CHIEF: “It’s—it’s horrible!”

OFFICER: “Grotesque! The Joker brings death to his victims with a smile!”

The Joker repeats the pattern a page later: “At ten o’clock that fiend will kill Jay Wilde!”

The toll of time—the fatal hour!


WILDE: “Ten! It’s going to happen now! The clock is ticking my life away!”

A strangled scream—death!

JOKER: “Are you so happy that you smile for joy, eh? I’m glad I have brought you so much cheer!”

My son was ten the first time he flipped through my Batman Chronicles reprint, half the age of students in my superhero class who looked equally disturbed. It struck a nerve in 1940 too. Kane’s DC editors rescued the Joker from death to keep a recurring character—one who would become the most famous supervillain in comic books.

But he wasn’t new to pulp fiction. His first joke was published a quarter century earlier:

Cocantin had just noticed that Favraux held in his hands a yellow envelope similar to the one that contained Judex’s earlier message.

The banker unsealed it. Scanning every word, he read it aloud:

If before the stroke of ten tonight, you don’t relinquish half of your ill-gotten fortune to the Public Assistance, it will be too late. You will be punished mercilessly.”

And it was signed: JUDEX!

“The joke continues,” emphasized Cocantin with a humorous smile.

“It has lasted for too long,” scolded the banker while raising his eyebrows.

“Don’t be upset, Monsieur Favraux,” implored Cocantin. “. . . .This sinister joke will soon collapse due to my efforts. . . . I reassure you, Monsieur. I will look after you!”

. . . The monumental clock on one of the room’s panels displayed two minutes before ten o’clock. . . . Instinctively, his eyes sought the clock. The hands had almost reached the time foretold by Judex. . . .  Fear shook his mortal frame. . . .

The clock struck ten o’clock. Favraux’s face contracted in a hideous convulsion. . . . As a frightful moan escaped his throat, he collapsed. He had been struck down!

Judex had kept his word!

In the commotion, guests ran to Favraux’s side. . . . The facial features of the gilded banker were frozen in a grotesque grimace of superhuman fright.

Swap a few names–“the Joker” and “Judex,”“Favraux” and “Claridge” or “Wilde,” “Cocantin” and the Police Chief—and the scene is the same as the ones in Batman No. 1. Except it was written in 1916 when Bill Finger was only two years old. It’s by Arthur Bernéde from his novelization of director Louis Feuillade’s film serial Judex. The French magazine Le Petit Parisien published installments with the theatrical release of each weekly chapter.

Feuillade’s previous serial had brought the villain Fantomas to screen, but the title character of Judex—often cited as an influence on the cloaked and slouch-hatted Shadow who in turn influenced Batman—is the hero, a “judge” taking revenge on a corrupt banker (who, we later learn, isn’t really dead). When Finger supplied his boss with the Veidt photo, he was filling in details for “the joker” of Bernéde’s text.

It’s possible Robinson drew his playing card independently—stranger coincidences happen. It’s a greater leap to think Robinson handed it to Finger first, triggering Finger’s memory of the “joke” in Judex. Either way, Bernéde’s contribution outweighs all others. Kane even drew him with Judex’s hat and white face of the 1916 magazine illustration.


I have no idea if Bill Finger ever saw Judex, but according to Robinson he was a voracious reader “who spent lots of time doing research.” Robinson also called him his “cultural mentor,” describing him as “extremely well read” and a “student of pulps and radio drama” as well as “Dumas and Shakespeare.”

Bernéde and Feuillade, avid researchers themselves, read Alexander Dumas too. Judex’s destruction of Favraux’s ill-gotten fortune as well as imprisoning him until he acknowledges his wrong-doing—that’s the  Cliff Notes version of The Count of Monte Cristo, the fate suffered by one of the three men who falsely imprisoned Dantès before he assumed the guise of the vengeance-seeking Count.

But neither Dumas nor Feuillade originated Bernéde’s joker scene. The silent picture includes little of the banker and the detective’s dialogue (neither of the “joke” references) and when Favraux collapses on screen, Feuillade supplies no close-up.  The “grotesque grimace” exists only in Bernéde’s novelization, the version of Judex Finger could have easily accessed.

Bernéde figures in Batman’s origin too. When Kane needed an explanation for his hero’s “lone battle against the evil forces of society,” Bill Finger retconned a pair of murdered parents and a vow of vengeance. “I swear by the spirits of my parents,” cries the kneeling Bruce Wayne, “to avenge their death by spending my life warring on criminals.” The young Judex kneels before his own father’s body, as his surviving mother demands the same vow: “your father was murdered by a crook named Favraux. Swear before him that you will avenge his death . . . .”

This isn’t the first time Finger borrowed heavily from another writer. Will Murray details Finger’s use of Theodore Tinsley’s 1936 Shadow novella, Partners of Peril, for Bat-man’s first adventure in Detective Comics No. 27. “Finger did not simply draw inspiration from this thunderous tale,” writes Murray, “he adapted it outright! It’s the same story . . . . Only the character names have been changed.”

The Joker’s real name is Arthur Bernéde.

Arthur Bernéde

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Is anyone else tired of superhero movies?

According New York Times reviewer A. O. Scott, superheroes peaked with The Dark Knight in 2008. Since then, “the genre, though it is still in a period of commercial ascendancy, has also entered a phase of imaginative decadence.” Scott said that back in 2012, before the release of Amazing Spider-Man, Iron Man 3, The Wolverine, Man of Steel, Kick-Ass 2, Dark Knight Rises, and Thor: The Dark World —much less the still future releases of X-Men: Days of Future Past, Amazing Spider-Man 2, Captain America: The Winter Soldier, Guardians of the Galaxy, The Avengers: Age of Ultron, Fantastic Four, and Batman vs. Superman.

Which is to say, he’s got a real point. All those masks and capes and inevitable act three slugfests—could we maybe call a moratorium while the screenwriters guild brainstorms new action tropes? I’m probably too optimistic that Edgar Wright’s 2015 Ant-Man will provide a much needed counterpunch to all the BAM! and POW!—the same way his 2004 Shaun of the Dead enlivened the weary corpse of the zombie movie (another genre still in decadent ascendance).

But instead of looking forward, maybe we should be looking backwards. If, like me, you crave a beer chaser for all those syrupy shots of Hollywood superheroism, tell your online bartender to stream some mid-twentieth century French avant-garde instead.


Georges Franju’s 1963 Judex has to be the least superheroic superhero movie ever made. Well into its third act, the title character (think Batman with a hat instead of pointy ears) bursts through a window to assail his enemies—only to allow one to step around him, pluck a conveniently placed brick from the floor, and sock him unconscious from behind. It’s not even a fight sequence. Everyone but the brick basher moves in a languid shuffle. The scene is one of many reasons critics label the film “dream-like,” “surreal,”“anti-logical,” “drowsy”—terms opposed to the adrenaline-thumping norms of the genre.

MovieCovers-198854-198855-JUDEX (1916)

The original 1916 Judex, a silent serial by fellow French director Louis Feuillade, largely invented movie superheroes. The black cloaked “Judge” swears to avenge his dead father, leading to dozens of similarly cloaked avengers swooping in and out of the 20s and 30s. Judex had barely exited American theaters before film star Douglass Fairbanks was skimming issues of All-Story for his own pulp hero to adapt. A year later, the Judex-inspired Zorro was an international icon.

But Georges Franju was no Judex fan. He preferred Feuillade’s Fantomas, one of the most influential serials in screen and pulp history, and the reason Feuillade dreamed up his crime-fighter in the first place. Fantomas was a supervillain, as was Irma Vep in Feuillade’s equally popular Les Vampires, and French critics had grown weary of glorified crime. Fifty years later, Franju was still glorifying it, making one of France’s first horror films, Eyes Without a Face.

Feuillade’s grandson, Jacques Champreux, was a Franju fan—though he really should have checked the director’s other references before asking him to shoot a remake of the superhero ur-film. When the French government commissioned a documentary celebrating industrial modernization, Franju had focused on the filth spewing from French factories. When the slow-to-learn government commissioned a tribute to their War Museum, Franju used it as an opportunity to denounce militarism. Little wonder his Judex is a testament against the glorification of superheroism.

But Champreux bares some of the unintended credit too. Franju admitted to not having “the story writing gift,” but few of Feuillade’s gifts passed to Champreux either. Much of the remake’s surrealism is a result of inexplicable scripting. Champreux and fellow adapter Francis Lacassin boiled down the original five-hour serial to under a hundred minutes. While the streamlining is initially effective (opening with the corrupt banker reading Judex’s threatening letter is great), it soon creates much of that surreal illogic critics so praise:

Why is the detective so incompetent? (Because this is his first job after inheriting the detective agency.)

Why is the banker suddenly in love with his granddaughter’s governess? (Feuillade’s opening scene establishes her plot to seduce him and steal his money.)

Why set up the daughter’s engagement if her fiancé exits after one scene? (Because he originally returned as a villain in league with the governess.)

How does the detective’s never-before-mentioned girlfriend happen to find him just as she’s needed to aid Judex? (Feuillade introduced her well before, and the two were already walking together when Judex allows himself to be captured.)

How is Judex able to pose as the banker’s most trusted employee? (He took a job as a bank clerk years earlier and worked his way into the top position.)

Why is Judex even doing any of this? (His father committed suicide after the banker destroyed the family fortune and his mother made him vow to avenge his death.)

Some of Franju’s most pleasantly peculiar moments— the travelling circus that wanders past the bad guys’ hideout, the dog that appears from nowhere and sets his paw protectively on the fallen damsel’s body—are orphans from Feuillade’s plundered subplots. The remake is a highlight reel. Though, to be fair, not all of the surrealism is the result of the glitchy script.

Masque of the Avian Flu

By moving Judex’s death threat to midnight and shooting the engagement banquet as a masked ball, Franju offers the best Poe adaptation I’ve ever seen—even if all the bird costumes make it more of a Masque of the Avian Flu. And the Franju’s one fight scene isn’t derived from Feuillade at all. Originally the detective’s girlfriend attempts to save the governess who drowns while trying to escape, but Franju costumes the two women in opposite, if equally skintight attire—a proto-Catwoman vs. a white leotarded acrobat—before sending them to the roof to leg wrestle.


Instead of washing ashore in the epilogue, the governess falls to her death in a bed of flowers. Meanwhile, what’s Judex up to? Not only is the nominal hero not present for the vanquishing of the villainess, but by the end of the film he’s devolved into Douglass Fairbanks’ Don Diego, Zorro’s mild-mannered alter ego. While Franju was imitating the style of early cinema (yes, his version opens with a classic iris-out, a fun gimmick even though Feuillade avoided it in his own Judex), he also grafted Fairbanks’ goofy handkerchief magic into Judex’s less-than-superheroic repertoire. The tricks were cute in The Mark of Zorro, but once again inexplicable in the contemporary context.

And I mean that as praise. A Judex redux is exactly what the genre needs right now. I would love to watch Emma Stone toss the Lizard from a skyscraper while Spider-Man practices his web sculpting—or Natalie Portman shove a Dark Elf through a magic portal while Thor perfects a hammer juggling trick. Superhero films feature plenty of glitchy illogic, but it’s time for drowsy surrealism too. Why hasn’t Marvel or DC handed any directing reins to David Lynch yet? Or David Cronenberg? Terry Gilliam dodged The Watchmen back in the late 80s—but surely his version would have been more memorable than Zack Snyder’s. Isn’t there someone out there who can prove A. O. Scott wrong?

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