Watchmen: Tales of the Black Freighter / Under the Hood

Watchmen: Tales of the Black Freighter / Under the Hood

These two special features collected on DVD are due in stores March 24.

Tales of the Black Freighter

26 minutes. Rated R for “violent and grisly images”. (That’s fun to say.) Those images consist of various body parts floating around the ocean, and bodies exploding from decay, and the protagonist building a raft of bodies. Anyone who’s read the graphic novel or seen the movie won’t be terribly shocked by all this, I fear. (And if you haven’t, why would you be interested?)

Watchmen: Tales of the Black Freighter / Under the Hood

It’s a cartoon about the horror of survival after a shipwreck. It explores one man’s descent into madness after facing an overwhelming force that destroys his crew and, he fears, his home and family.

The animation is limited, reminiscent of a segment of the Heavy Metal movie, or maybe one of the Joe Orlando horror comics of the 70s. There’s a ponderous voiceover about how significant it all is, voice provided by Gerard Butler. Full of horrific imagery, I was left feeling “this is quite unpleasant.”

Taken out of the context of the bigger story, the “pirate comic” seems to lose much of its point. It feels like an animated Twilight Zone episode, and you lose the character arc analogy and counterpoint. (Not that I thought it was necessary in the first place.) Instead, it seems like grotesquery for its own sake.

Black Freighter

The end credits air with “Pirate Jenny”, a Berthold Brecht/Kurt Weill song from The Threepenny Opera performed by Nina Simone, playing over them. (Note that, based on the lyrics, Alan Moore uses a similar story in the upcoming League of Extraordinary Gentlemen Century #1: 1910.) That’s where the Black Freighter name came from, as they explain later in one of the special features (see below).

Under the Hood

38 minutes. Rated PG for “mild thematic elements, brief violent and suggestive images, and smoking”. This dramatization of the Watchmen text pieces takes the format of a 1985 talk show — one guy, in chair, on black set with projected images over his shoulder — showing a 1975 “rerun” of an interview with Hollis Mason (Stephen McHattie), the author of the book Under the Hood. (All this reminded me just how old the book was, that they had to play with decades that way.)

Hollis Mason in Under the Hood

Hollis Mason in Under the Hood

Fake newspapers, staged photographs, and impressive created artifacts make it feel real. (Except for how the host looks older in 1975 than he does in 1985.) I found this segment much more watchable than the first because it has a sense of fun, playing with the premise and content, plus it contributes to the world-building of the movie. They also tie in real history, like mentioning Action Comics #1 as a big influence. (Although they show the cover of Superman #1, bad DVD! KC says that makes it more realistic, since comic mentions in the media in the 1970s tended to get the details wrong.)

Sally Jupiter in Under the Hood

Sally Jupiter in Under the Hood

There’s a lengthy sequence interviewing Sally Jupiter (Carla Gugino) with lots of images mocking pinup photos of the era. And Max Headroom (Matt Frewer) is Moloch! Plus, a fake ad for Veidt’s perfume Nostalgia, and period ads for Sani-Flush and Seiko digital watches. Overall, the whole project is immensely self-indulgent, but seeing the old-style newsreels showing the early heroes is enjoyable, and I appreciated how much effort went into it.

Special Features

The disc also includes the first chapter of the Watchmen motion comic, the trailer for the upcoming Green Lantern animated movie, and the 25-minute “Story Within a Story: The Books of Watchmen”.

This featurette includes Dave Gibbons (co-creator and illustrator of the original graphic novel), Jeffrey Dean Morgan (The Comedian), and the filmmakers talking about the two main features and how they connect to the theatrical film. Also contributing are the usual suspects from DC Comics (Levitz and the over-used, boring Noveck), joined by Len Wein (original project editor), Richard Bruning (creative director and KC’s former boss), and Jenette Kahn (former publisher). Some of it is telling us what we just saw, but I suppose that’s inevitable, and what passes for commentary these days. (I want to hear writers, actors, illustrators, and directors talking, not Hollywood property owners, producers, and money men who have nothing creative to do with the work.)

The Overall Package

Both of the main segments will be excellent bonus features on the eventual special edition DVD release, but asking fans to pay this much (list price: $28) for promotional material, even if it does serve as an ad for the movie, is annoying. A key question for potential customers: even if you want to see it, would you ever watch it more than once? It will make a lot more sense interspersed in the director’s cut.

I think the true purpose is summed up by Gregory Noveck, Senior VP, Creative Affairs, DC Comics. (What does he do besides DVD commentaries?)

So if you go and see the Watchmen movie, and then you go get Under the Hood and the Black Freighter, and then you go and you look at those, and then all of a sudden that informs how you see the movie, and you go back and look at the movie again, and then something you see in the movie tells you oh, I better look at Black Freighter again, then that’s exactly how the guys wanted you to experience the comic book in the first place.

I somehow don’t believe that Alan Moore, uncredited in all this by his own wishes, intended for his story to be experienced in three separate cross-media pieces. (A complimentary copy for this review was provided by the studio.)


  • I agree with your points about self-congratulatory executives weighing in instead of actual creators, and yeah, 28 bucks is crazy overpriced for the material.

    That said, I enjoyed the Tales of the Black Freighter far more than I did the actual movie.

    Kudos to Len Wein for actually mentioning Alan Moore by name in his interview, instead of pretending the book sprang forth from the bowels of DC by some corporate act of parthenogenesis.

  • What did you enjoy about Black Freighter? Or is that more of a comment about not enjoying the Watchmen movie? :)

  • I liked the animation quite a bit; it was pretty clearly anime-influenced and captured the gruesome tone of the original story pretty well. But as you suggest, it definitely had a lot to do with my ambivalence for the parent movie. If I have to watch one again, I would definitely choose the cartoon. But no way in hell would I pay 28 dollars for the Black Freighter DVD, that is insane. Especially since, as you say, it’ll probably be on the special edition version of the DVD eventually.

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