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.