the ugliness of the Watchmen

March 18, 2009
I watches the Watchmen - and lives to tell

I watches the Watchmen - and lives to tell

Two nights ago I saw Watchmen. For those unfamiliar with Alan Moore’s seminal graphic novel, it’s a Cold War mystery story touched off by the murder of the Comedian, a member of the defunct superhero group the Watchmen. The story documents the lives of the remaining Watchmen as some of them search for the killer and in doing so stumble onto the devious plot to end all devious plots.

I know Watchmen is a nerd touchstone but frankly, I always had a hard time following the plot. It’s quite possible I was too young and naive for it. Some of the visuals made a strong impression, in particular a 50-foot-tall Dr. Manhattan (the bald blue guy) looming over the North Vietnamese countryside setting off explosions with a wave of his arm; and the Comedian being brutalized: thrown through a high rise window by the mystery killer in the opening scene; cheek slashed open by a broken bottle in a subsequent flashback. 

Seeing the movie made the plot a lot clearer to me. I’ll get to that shortly. A Wired reviewer makes the usual fanboy point that the movie doesn’t do justice to the comic. This io9 review rightly says the Cold War paranoia comes across as alien to our ears, as a manifestation of something insane. I’m more interested in what the characters say about the story’s theme. I see it as basically defeatist but with a potentially key twist.

Now let the spoilers commence. 

Watchmen is set in a fictional 1985 where Nixon is in his fifth term as president. Cold War brinksmanship is alive and well. Dr. Manhattan secured U.S. victory in Vietnam and now keeps the Russians at bay, but maybe not for long. It’s like Dr. Strangelove but with superheroes.

And not only that but dirty, self-absorbed superheroes. The Watchmen have disbanded because the government outlawed masked adventuring. The Comedian continued freelancing as a paid political assassin. We learn that while he was fighting alongside Manhattan in Vietnam, he shot a Vietnamese woman for slashing his face – as alluded to above – after she got pissed that he knocked her up and was going to skip town.

But the story’s lead psychopath is Rorschach,  a misogynist who doesn’t think twice about breaking a crook’s fingers to get information; who is so disgusted by the depravity he sees in the world around him that when he’s not out in costume – a white mask covered in a shifting Rorschach blog image – his alter ego is a bum on the street carrying a protest sign.

Then there’s Nite Owl – rich like Bruce Wayne but lacking Wayne’s confidence – who spends the first half of the movie acting like a sulky kid who’s been grounded and so doesn’t get to take out his owl-shaped flying vehicle anymore, which admittedly is a sweet ride with the flame thrower and all. Mr. Owl gets swept up in Rorschach’s hunt for the Comedian’s murderer.

Miss Jupiter too comes out of retirement and helps Owl bust Rorschach out of prison. She’s looking for kicks after she got tired of her boyfriend splitting into three bodies so two of them could pleasure her while the third worked on his game-changing nuclear reactor.

Said boyfriend is of course Dr. Manhattan. Vaporized by an “intrinsic field” experiment gone awry, his consciousness lived on and reassembled itself into a Cerenkov-blue, muscle-bound form – mister universe, right? – who walks around most of the time with his schlong out.

Despite the threat of Manhattan’s blue junk, he and the others prove impotent against Adrian Veidt, formerly Ozymandias, the story’s secret protagonist. Although the movie Veidt looks like the superhero alter ego of Kenneth from 30 Rock, he’s called the smartest man alive and has amassed a titanic fortune as a seemingly legitimate businessman. If Manhattan is of the universe, Veidt is emphatically of this world. He’s got no problem catching bullets in mid-air or manipulating the world according to his designs.

Veidt’s solution to the Cold War is to blow up more than a dozen of the world’s major cities and pin it on Manhattan, thereby shocking the superpowers into making peace with one another. (I’m not sure how that makes sense but whatever. The plot twist in the comic is actually weirder and more brazen.) The brilliance of the story is that Veidt succeeds.

His biggest obstacle, Dr. Manhattan, has proved relatively easy to fool. The blue dude inhabits a Many Worlds-style multiverse, such that he can see all of his possible futures. Veidt blocks Manhattan’s future vision using a device that generates tachyons, particles that go backward in time. The trick works because Manhattan has so little faith in humanity, he rationalizes his inability to see his future as evidence that humanity is about to off itself in a nuclear war. And he ends up being conned into building the reactor Veidt uses to nuke the world’s cities.

Everybody’s a jerk in this story. Rorschach and Veidt in an obvious way. Nite Owl and Jupiter are no better. They’re ineffectual yuppies who get off on their own power – expressed in the form of high kicks and Blade-style beat downs. (Although visually stunning, the movie is too B-grade cheesy to merit comparison to Matrix.)

Manhattan comes off as a self-absorbed cry baby. He stands by while the Comedian shoots the pregnant Vietnamese woman. I forget if he gives a justification for his inaction in the comic; if he does it’s presumably in the name of not interfering with the Comedian’s “free will.” But he has no metaphysical qualms vaporizing the Viet Cong in the name of the greater good.

And that’s why Manhattan doesn’t try to punish Veidt or set the record straight after the deed is done. The world thinks Manhattan is responsible for the destruction because the nuke reactor left his energy signature on the blasts. If Manhattan revealed the truth, everybody would go apeshit. Rorschach, who uncovered the plot but is unable to stop it, refuses to live a lie. He forces Manhattan to splatterize him. But Rorschach doesn’t give a shit about anyone but himself. All he wants is not to get any moral “dirt” on his mask. Manhattan then splits for a less judge-y galaxy.

I probably wouldn’t have seen the movie if not for my friend James, who called me wanting to talk about its depressing political themes. The emphases in my plot summary are his, and I find them meaningful, but I’m not sure what they say about the fundamental viewpoint of this story in particular or Alan Moore’s viewpoint in general.

I was prepared to label Watchmen authoritarian after reading this essay by Michael Moorcock, who catagorizes science fiction in terms of authoritarianism versus libertarianism. The authoritarian believes people are essentially a big mob; in the end they will cave to an existential threat so they have to submit to authority to survive. The libertarian believes that individuals can and must struggle to determine their own fates. Prometheus was a libertarian. He knew fire could burn but he wanted people to have it.

Moore detests movie adaptations of his work, and he played no role in bringing Watchmen to film. “I find film in its modern form to be quite bullying,” he said in 2008. “It spoon-feeds us, which has the effect of watering down our collective cultural imagination.”  And from an interview in the March Wired:

Most films that I see it seems that the level of criticism that they are expecting is on the level of a fireworks display. It’s ooh and ah. Those seem to be the only responses that are appropriate to most modern films. I think we’re in for a period of cultural revaluation. I certainly hope that’s true, because I think if we’re not, we’re in for a period of cultural damnation. I think that we’re fairly evidently heading to hell in a hand basket, and we have got to change our priorities. We’ve got to rethink this entire thing, and I think that rethinking our culture may be a part of that. I certainly hope so.

Watchmen’s final scene could be interpreted as hopeful. Rorschach kept a journal, and before he went off to confront Veidt, he sent it to a New York newspaper. With the world at peace, it’s a slow news day and a schlubby, nerdy-looking paper staffer finally has a chance to examine the book. Maybe it’s equivalent to the end of the Matrix trilogy – a wait and see.

In the end, I think Moore is libertarian. He gave readers a way to exorcise their feelings of fear and insanity at the Cold War. Whether or not we let ourselves get carried away at such thoughts is our choice.

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