- 07 March 2009
- By Gerard Wood
Watchmen is a remarkable movie, and almost entirely for the right reasons. Zack Snyder has achieved what only Chris Nolan (Batman Begins, The Dark Knight) has managed before him: a thought-provoking, disturbing, hard hitting superhero extravaganza, unafraid of dealing with moral complexity and unflinching in the face of ugly truths.
This is all the more remarkable given the opinion of many that Alan Moore and Dave Gibbons' Hugo Award winning graphic novel Watchmen was pretty much unfilmable, due as much to its complexity as its contrary nature: the existence of superheroes is probably the start and end of any similarity between Watchmen and most anything else emerging from DC Comics and Marvel. Set against an otherwise familiar real world backdrop, Watchmen takes a sledge-hammer to the concept of the superhero and from the shattered pieces builds something plausible. But it’s not at all pretty. Moore and Gibbons have a grim and cynical view of things, and if at the end of the day (or the world for that matter) there is a sliver of hope for us, they seem to believe that it will only be achieved at a huge cost. In Batman Begins, and more so with The Dark Knight, Chris Nolan takes us a little way down a path that considers similar issues: what does it mean for an individual to assume the role of masked vigilante; what would it mean for the world at large if superheroes did exist? Watchmen, on the other hand, takes us all the way to the disillusioned end of the road, adding a cynical twist to these questions: what, for example, would it mean for the world at large if superheroes did exist and they could be exploited by powerful political forces?
In Watchmen’s alternate reality it is 1985 and President Nixon has achieved a fifth term in office thanks to an American public grateful for victory in Vietnam, a victory that was achieved through the willing assistance of superheroes; the world is in the grip of the Cold War and all that stops things from going nuclear is Dr Manhattan, who is the closest thing to god on earth. And he’s an American. The American Dream has come true, and it’s a bloody nightmare. Snyder’s movie kicks off in spectacular fashion with the murder of The Comedian, a brutal, burnt out and cynical member of the outlawed superhero organisation, the Watchmen. Fellow vigilante and socio-path, Rorschadt, takes up an investigation into the mysterious death.
If you’ve read the graphic novel, you know that this is heading inexorably toward Armageddon; if you haven’t read it, you really don’t want to know any more of the plot than this before seeing the film!
Throughout, Watchmen presents a bleak and sadly believable assessment of the human species as its own worst enemy. The sobering impression the movie leaves behind is that if we are to be saved from ourselves, salvation won’t come from enlightened self-interest, but through exploitation of our basest instincts: we might just stop destroying ourselves if we can unite against a common enemy. Moore, Gibbons and now Snyder seem to be saying that the only way we could be saved from ourselves is if we’re dragged to the brink of self-annihilation.
So, what of the superheroes themselves? To understand them we only have to look at the contrast between their masked and costumed selves and their “normal” alter-egos. Snyder has drawn some criticism for the uneven pacing of his movie, and it’s true that when the superheroes remove their masks and attempt to live “normal” lives, the momentum is lost. But this is heavy with irony. When the Watchmen remove their costumes, we discover social outcasts, men and women incapable of relating to others and barely able to relate to each other. Only when they are masked or costumed do they have any real substance. In fact, in most cases, unless they are actively and brutally kicking arse, they are only half alive.
And here the moral complexity of the material comes in to its own.
Standing up to be counted in the fight against Evil has dire consequences for these exceptional individuals. If they’re not already dysfunctional as a result of their upbringing, they become dysfunctional through their stand against Evil. By placing themselves in the frontline they come face to face with the worst in humanity, and over time they come only to see the worst in humanity. A little longer, and they only believe the worst of humanity. With few, if any exceptions, they become brutal, cynical and ruthless killers, with little or no compassion, as capable of acts of evil as the forces they confront. Over time it becomes hard to differentiate them from the very thing they exist to fight.
There are layers of significance to the term "Watchmen", mostly related to watching and watches, but the one that resonates most is an ironic twist to a classical idea given by Dr Manhattan. The beauty and precision of the clockwork watch implies the existence of a watchmaker, as such a complex creation is clearly not an accident. Theologians have extended this notion to imply the existence of a creator of the universe, God: the universe too has been perceived as a thing of clockwork precision and beauty, and it is surely not an accident, but rather the creation of a thinking mind.
So if the Watchmen watch over us, who watches over the Watchmen? These exceptional individuals are surely no accident. By the closing credits, I think we're left in no doubt: no one watches over. In Moore and Gibbons' universe, there is no maker, it is a universe of chance, devoid of moral guidance.
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