Everyone seems to think that Christopher Nolan's The Dark Knight
is the best superhero movie. I respectfully disagree, of course, because I'm a film snob. I won't say that Watchmen
is any better a film (it's worse), but the source material is infinitely better. In some ways that makes the film version of Watchmen
worse (from what heights it fell!), but in other ways we can argue that it's all Zach Snyder's fault. Anyway.
Many seemed to enjoy The Dark Knight
because they thought it was about realistic moral conflict: Order versus Chaos, Life versus Death, an Immovable Object versus an Unstoppable Force. But in reality, The Dark Knight
is about a psychotic clown who kills a few people and the man-bat who decides to take him down. It's no more realistic than Superman
or Iron Man
or any other superhero story. That goes for Watchmen
too. But does Watchmen
pretend to be realistic? I doubt it—the squid is proof enough of that. It becomes clear, then, that Watchmen
is in some ways a primarily thematic work.
One of Watchmen
's central motifs is struggle between truth, knowledge and ideology. In other words, we're given a set of truths (people die, Richard Nixon is still President, superheroes are outlawed) which are interpreted by various characters to create worldviews (Ozymandias is utilitarian, Rorschach is a surprisingly conscience-addled truth-seeker, Nite Owl II is a pacifist); these characters are the filter by which truth is distorted into ideology.
Oon the surface, Watchmen
is about a guy who dies and the people who try to solve the murder. But instead of a Sherlock Holmes or a Frank and Joe Hardy, we're given two anti-heroes as protagonists:Nite Owl II
Sure, Nite Owl II is a pacifist, but he's more accurately a depressed realist. He faces the same struggles the average human does (weight gain, 'grown-up' sexuality, growing disillusion with the state of the world), and in a way he represents the everyman. In the story, he begins the transformation into Superhero (the outfit, the prison break, getting the girl, the showdown with 'evil'). But before he can become the archetype, everything grinds to a halt. In the aftermath, a conflict is set up (that's all I'll say due to spoilers), one from which he walks away, while other characters choose to confront it directly. Nite Owl arguably experiences no significant character development during the course of the graphic novel. Sure, he gets the domestic life he'd been missing, but by that point he's abandoned the very premises that convinced him to don the mask in the first place. What has he learned from his superhero experiment?Rorschach
Rorschach, like Batman, has his own set of rules, most of which are ultaimtely designed to lead to the 'truth', or whatever that might be. (If you read the Black Freighter passages, you'll find that the truth is not as easy to pin down as you'd like. As a result, knowledge and ideology become even more skewed.) Indeed, Rorschach devotes his entire life to this mission, as the last panels show. And while we may be tempted to think that this choice is admirable, in reality Rorschach is a violent criminal who has little regard for life. He's abstracted his values to the n
th degree—concerned about ideology but not the people who are responsible for those ideologies, Rorschach acts very differently than does Nite Owl II in the end. But are his actions any more justified? Sure, he fought for 'good', but in the end his brutal morality was no more capable of stopping evil than was Nite Owl II's pacifism.
(Interestingly enough, by the end of the story, only the written word has the power to save. Worth mentioning on a site like Goodreads.)
And so knowledge colours truth, and humans map knowledge to skewed ideologies. Even Dr. Manhattan, who is arguably exempt from such decidedly human inventions as ideologies, struggles with what to do. He surely knows what is 'right' and 'wrong' (if such concepts exist in his world), but when he chooses a side, it hardly seems the morally correct one. Now this is as much Alan Moore making a claim about monotheistic religions as a plot device, but let's focus on the latter for the purpose of this review, as it raises an important question: do people deserve to know the truth at any cost?
(Interestingly enough, this is the very same conflict Batman faces in The Dark Knight
: whether to lie about Harvey Dent in order to give Gotham a "white knight". See how derivative Nolan's screenplay can be?) The Comedian died trying to make this decision. And that leads us to perhaps the most interesting character in Watchmen
We see his body framed in the smashed windowframe at the beginning. Some would call it justice for the 'crimes' he committed (homicide, abortion-by-murder and rape are a few), but in reality it's a sad reminder of chaos. The Comedian figured out the punchline long before the other 'superheroes' did. The sad irony of the story is that the Comedian's death is due to entropy—the decay of society to the point of murder—but when the others investigate his death, they set in motion a chain of events leading to an entropic catastrophe of even greater magnitude. There seems to be no escape from the doom that envelops us all.Concluding thoughts
But Rorschach (and perhaps, by extension, Alan Moore himself) is dead wrong about one thing. In Watchmen
's first panels, we read an entry from Rorschach's journal. He writes:
The streets are extended gutters and the gutters are full of blood and when the drains finally scab over, all the vermin will drown. The accumulated filth of all their sex and murder will foam up about their waists and all the whores and politicians will look up and shout "Save us!"... and I'll look down and whisper "No."
If there exists a God, I'm sure he might be tempted to say the same thing to all of us, but he doesn't. Life is bleak only when we consider exclusively the meaninglessness of human existence. There is another dimension we must consider, one that Moore parodies and mocks with his fake god, Dr. Manhattan. If he exists, the true God is looking down at all the whores and politicians and whispering:
It's up to you...