Watchmen in times of change

I’ve been a fan of Watchmen from the early ’90s, when Mark Pollard let me read his sacred twelve. I’ve since then purchased the graphic novel myself, read it several times (it requires several readings), and generally developed a love of the work. I approached Zack Snyder’s Watchmen with mixed feelings. I had heard we were going to get the real Watchmen – not some hosed-down version of Alan Moore and Dave Gibbon’s creation, but the whole beautiful, dark, gritty, brutal, angry, sad animal. I also knew that, even though the movie ran to 160 minutes, some stuff would have to go. Still, something inside me said that even a diminished version of Moore’s Watchmen could have a massive impact on the big screen.

I was impressed by the movie. I think that it has lots of flaws, but also some big ideas, and lots to say about how we should understand change.

The Watchmen, for those not in the know, are a loosely-affiliated group of costumed vigilantes who live in an alternative 1985. There is a Cold War backstory — a sort of hyped-up version of the real 1985, shown mainly in shots of Richard Nixon (in this universe in his third term), a poorly made-up Robert Wisden, suffering under a prosthetic nose, sweating while he calculates the fallout should America launch a preemptive strike on the Russkies. I’m not sure if the anxiety and dread of this backstory really permeates the rest of the movie — much of which seems to take place in a relative detachment — though it is obviously supposed to be reflected in the action of the characters, and turns out to be  important for the narrative. But we’ll come to Ozymandias his final solution in time.

I’d like to reflect on the characters of this movie in relation to how change figures in the arc of their stories. How are the Watchmen agents of change? How do they understand, anticipate, deal with, and rationalize change?

The idea of the mask, and what wearing costumes and masks can do to people, is a constant theme in the movie. The Watchmen are costumed vigilantes. The conceit of the story is that these (bar one exception) are ordinary people — with excellent training but without any genuine superpowers — who take it upon themselves to wear masks, go out on the street at night and beat up criminals. What kind of person would do this kind of thing? Moore provides us with the psychological profiles. There is the disturbed seeker of vengeance, Walter Kovacs, a.k.a. Rorschach. Rorschach is a cross between Sam Spade and Jason Voorhees. At the end of the movie, we are supposed to see him as a blinkered hero. Eddie Blake is the Comedian. The Comedian was a member of the original costumed vigilante group, The Minutemen. He soon became disillusioned with street work and started doing operations for the government (including acting as second gunman on the grassy knoll). The Comedian is murdered by a mystery assailant at the start of the movie.

Rorschach and the Comedian both use masks to establish secret identities. Rorschach discovers the Comedian’s secret identity soon after his murder. This sets him on the trail if the ‘mask killer’, whom he thinks he must track down and bring to justice — for ‘an attack on one is an attack on all’. Rorschach hates his life without his mask. It is the mask that makes him Rorschach, or enables to become Rorschach. When Roschach is captured by the police and his mask ripped off him, he screams: ‘Give me back my face!’

Moore’s narrative is a masterclass in the deconstruction of the superhero. The Watchmen, for the most part, are driven by weak and selfish motives — anger, resent, lack of self-esteem — or violent ends, which are ignoble even when they’re fueled by the desire for justice, or the desire to change the world.

This brings us to what I think is most interesting feature of the Watchmen movie. To appreciate this, we need to reflect on how Watchmen implicitly resonates with the climate crisis of today. (The following discussion contains what are commonly called ‘spoilers’, which means the revelation of important details of the plot of a movie, so those who have not yet seen Watchmen may wish to stop reading now). A lot has been made of how Watchmen recreates (or fails to recreate) the paranoid Cold War atmosphere of 1985. But the Cold War is over. Cinema audiences today no longer experience the mortal dread of nuclear annihilation that MAD left hanging above our heads from the ’50s to the ’80. Instead, the plot of Watchmen resonates with present day concerns over climate change. Adrian Veight, or Ozymandias, the ‘smartest man in the world’, is an environmentalist. He used to be a member of Watchmen. But after the Keene act of ’77, outlawing masks, he made a huge profit from exploiting his ex-superhero status. He is now a billionaire environmentalist, determined to free the world of its dependence on oil and coal through the production (with Dr Manhattan, a nuclear physicist transformed into a buff, glowing, blue man at an accident at the Gila Heights research facility in the 1950s) of clean energy reactors based on Manhattan’s superpowers. It turns out that Ozymandias is preparing to frame Dr Manhattan for the blitzkreig annihilation the great cities of the world, killing millions of people. The double twist is that his ideals are noble ones. Ozymandias, who models himself upon Alexander the Great, aims to unite the world to save it from impending nuclear war. He does this by convincing the world that it’s being attacked by the wrathful, God-like presence of a rogue Dr Manhattan. At the end of the movie, we are left to assume that Ozymandias’ massive act of murder has succeeded in uniting the world in peace. Some critics find the ending ‘saccharine’ — as if the world would take the bait? — but as the Comedian would say, this is all part of the joke.

It is interesting to reflect on Ozymandias as a psychological type of our times. I think  Ozymandias is a provocative and thought provoking figure. I imagine that a number of people may leave this movie thinking: ‘Isn’t that what we really need today? Perhaps Ozymandias is right: perhaps we need to find a way of forcibly convincing the world that massive social, cultural, political, and infrastructural changes are necessary?’ These are unsettling questions. But they are basic ethical questions for our time. I wouldn’t condone Ozymandias’ actions. But I’m not entirely sure I’d want to condemn them. Ozymandias is, after all, saving the world. Doesn’t that make him a hero? What do you think?

My personal feeling is that the moral weight has to lie with the negative case. A utilitarian response to the climate crisis, exterminating millions for the sake of saving the world, is morally untenable. If Watchmen makes it appear tenable, this is on account of the svelte charisma of Matthew Goode, who portrays Ozymandias. We must remember that fascism has many faces. Adrian Veight is as much a fascist as Rorschach or the Comedian. This, I think, is one of the most subtle and interesting points that Watchmen makes — and perhaps the movie makes it even better than the novel. It provides us with a new face to be afraid of. The friendly face of fascism.

If Ozymandias represents more than just a figure from an alternative 1985, but a genuinely disturbing figure for our times, then Watchmen may turn out to be more than just another Hollywood feature. It may be that rarest of things — a genuinely provocative, intelligent blockbuster.

Comments

  1. There are many reasonable grounds for direct condemnation of Ozymandias’ actions, but they’re all as thin as Socrates clouds. What I suggest (http://james-garrabrant.blogspot.com/2009/03/smartest-man.html) is that we look at ourselves and how we legitimize men like Adrian Veidt.

    • Do we legitimize men like Adrian Veight? I think that one of the things I like about the ending of Watchmen is that Adrian doesn’t get the legitimacy that he desires from Dr Manhattan. Dr Manhattan refuses to answer whether it was ‘worth it in the end’, says ‘Nothing ever ends’, goes back to Mars.

      My sense is that Watchmen doesn’t legitimize Veight, and neither should we.

  2. It’s not a matter of moral or ethical legitimacy. It’s about the state of the world as it is and has been, which Dr. Manhattan concludes makes the question of what was ultimately good or bad unintelligible. Once again: if Veight is not legitimized on Earth, how did he attain such wealth, power and influence over men?

  3. HI Tim,

    I am starting to get spooked out by how you write blogs about things I have been thinking about.

    I’ve gone back and forth in my head about this piece a few times.

    As with 300 (same director right?) there are some definite Fascist currents in the imagery and plot.

    The whole idea of an elite manipulating world events (ordinary people seem to exist in this movie only as possible death targets). The way this is presented as possible is an issue, as is the separate question of whether it is presented as good or bad.

    There is also an issue about women in these films that really bugs me. both 300 and Watchmen have one major female character. In both cases her key role is to get men to do things for her/other men. IN 300 she does this by fucking someone. In watchmen she does it by crying (the scene on mars).

    Of course in both cases there is the “Ironic” reading, or whatever, but I cannot help but feel that to push that reading is to give him too much credit. Think many would leave the cinema with the idea that the people around them are stupid and need to be managed and disciplined, not engaged with and understood.

    There seems to me to be a genuine love of power expressed in these films that makes me deeply uncomfortable. Maybe it is supposed to. Maybe, as I believe is the case with pornography and violent films (statistics back this up), this acts as a kind of substitution for the real world expression of these ideas, and gives us a chance to get our fascism out of our systems.

    I feel it might be something like the philosophy of Schmidt, who expressed the Nazi point of view, but in a way that would later prove useful for leftist analysis. While this usefulness should be noted – so should the usefulness of ideas for conservative reactionary causes.

    300 played right into the Clash of Civilizations narrative, and the Watchmen plays into the idea of a secretive and noble elite. Both are completely mythical constructions. I am just wondering if these mostly films help people realise or avoid that conclusion.

    • I wrote this post quickly a long time ago. It’s not one of my favs and I’m just a teensy bit embarrassed that it seems to have been rediscovered lately (it’s been hovering ominously in the stats).

      The film follows the graphic novel very closely. The only significant deviation is at the end. In the graphic novel, Ozymandias teleports a giant cloned squid creature on top of Manhattan and fries everyone’s brains in the process. The producers of the film obviously decided that that would not fly with cinema audiences so they made it an energy weapon attack. Can’t remember if Dr Manhattan is framed in the process – not sure it matters.

      In response to your point about fascism: yes, the whole story is about the covert appeal of fascist authority and how our love of the superhero mythos feeds off this. Alan Moore, who wrote Watchmen, also wrote V for Vendetta, which (in the graphic novel more than the film) offers a clear view of his anarchist sympathies. Dr Manhattan aside, the characters in Watchmen are all flawed individuals, drawn to the life of the masked vigilante for selfish reasons (malice, insecurity, primal thuggery, or the desire for domination). As for the role of women: there are actually two women, and one of them is raped. It’s not a pleasant story. It’s not supposed to be.

      In retrospect, I don’t think the movie was particularly successful as an adaptation. The graphic novel is much better, if that’s your thing.

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