Sunday, March 15, 2009

Who watches the Watchmen

To be honest, I didn't know what to expect going into Watchmen. I had heard a lot of hype about this movie long before it even came out. The original screenplay was written by David Hayter (the voice of Solid Snake and screenwriter of the first two X-Men movies) and garnered the praise of Alan Moore (writer of the celebrated 1986 graphic novel) as being "as close as I could imagine anyone getting to Watchmen." The trailers certainly had an epic feel. But after the film's release I had heard mixed reviews about the movie - many claimed it was underwhelming.

They were wrong. The Watchmen is a breathtaking and harsh take on the superhero genre. The characters each reflect different aspects of our human nature and society, portraying life in its pure, unvarnished grit. It treads ground that no other superhero story dares tread, and in the process demands thought.


The Watchmen takes place in an alternate version of the 1980's. Richard Nixon is president of the United States and the Cold War is in full effect. Decades in the past, a band of extraordinary citizens donned costumes in order to fight crime. They masked their identities in imitation of criminals, who were doing the same thing - dressing up and hiding their identities when committing their felonies. In their vigilantism, they acted outside the law to deal with those who the law could not. The heroes became known as the Minutemen.

Succeeding the Minutemen came the Watchmen: The Comedian, Doctor Manhattan, Nite Owl, Ozymandias, Silk Spectre, and Rorschach. Yet times change, and as public opinion rallied against superheroes, Congress passed a bill outlawing masked vigilantism. The Watchmen disbanded and went their separate ways. The near-omnipotent Doctor Manhattan and his lover, Silk Spectre, turned to the government as scientific researchers. Ozymandias, the world's smartest man (and possessing super strength and speed), revealed his identity to the world, and started a multi-billion dollar corporation. The idealistic Nite Owl turned in his cape and strove to live a normal life. The Comedian became a covert government operative. And Rorschach, a paranoid, eccentric, yet unyielding character, continued to live a life of vigilantism despite the strength of law being against him.

The movie begins with the nighttime slaying of the Comedian in the safety of his own home. Rorschach, suspecting a conspiracy to murder masked heroes, attempts to rally the Watchmen once more. All the while, the threat of nuclear armageddon hovers over the world. Yet as these brutally real and grippingly flawed characters struggle with what to do and how to live, the pieces of an immensely complex puzzle are swirling all around them.


The driving question in the movie is this: What does it take to be a hero?

All of the Watchmen were accepted heroes to the world and kin to each other. Yet each Watchman is drastically different from the others.

Nite Owl represents the classic hero. He is driven by principle and morality. He is reasonable, kind, and generally law abiding. He is soft-spoken and shy, but strong and capable. With his country-side demeanour, he has the small town charm of Clark Kent. With his expensive gadgetry, martial arts, pointy ears and cape, he is reminiscent of Batman. This comes together with the thirst for adventure and school-boy morality of Peter Parker. Like I said, the classic hero.

The Comedian represents the career soldier. As such, he carries all the same triumphs and all the same disgraces. He is a brave, buff, all-American hero who fights for his country however duty should call. Yet at the same time he is a jaded, callous, cynical character who distrusts human nature and the world. Having been through war and terror, he has committed horrific acts such as the murdering of women and children, (at least attempted) rape, and political assassinations. Oh yes... and he revels in violence. We hear similar stories coming from the battlefields of Afghanistan and Iraq. Soldiers we respect and trust - how could we not respect those risking their lives for our well being? But such abused individuals oft have the capacity pass on abuse. The Comedian, like our soldiers, is not evil. He still has principles, and is still moved to tears by the prospect of mass murder. He is part hero, part beast - fully believable.

Rorschach is perhaps the most perplexing character of all. He is a paranoid, eccentric, and brusque character. He has deeply conservative moral values and applies them to his judgemental and profoundly cynical world view. At the same time, he believes in justice and is absolutely unyielding in his pursuit of it. Considering the intense emotional and psychological scars he carries from childhood, it is in fact quite astounding that he developed as principled as he is.

At one point in the movie, Rorschach describes when his alter ego (or secret identity) died, leaving only the vigilante behind. He was pursuing a kidnapper who had abducted a four-year old little girl. He arrived at the felon's home to discover the tortured and mutilated remains of the child. Disgusted and deeply affected, any innocence and mercy left in Rorschach died. When the villain returned home, Rorschach ambushed him. The perpetrator's attitude went from coy (denying the act), to smug (haughtily accepting arrest), to repentant (excusing himself), to fear as it became clear that Rorschach had not the law in mind. As Rorschach bludgeoned the kidnapper to death with his own bladed instrument of torture (a butcher knife), he pronounces, "Men go to jail. Dogs are put down."

What is a hero? Why do we dream them into existence? Classic heroes, like Nite Owl, play on our idealism. They epitomize our moral aspirations; and they embody the allure of persons stronger, faster, and (usually) more beautiful than ourselves.

But if Nite Owl is a hero of ideal, then Rorschach is a hero of the real world. He is principled but savage; unyielding but disdainful. The real world has real psychos. We hear about incredible atrocities every day - men who rape little girls, children who kill their own parents, murderers who eviscerate their victims, and torturers with no remorse. These go beyond the calculating plots of comic book villains and into the domain of repugnance.

When we hear about such deliberate suffering, our hearts beat faster and our fists clench. It's as though hearing about such inhuman acts eats away at part of our humanity. God is not there, striking evildoers down with lightning bolts. It feels unfair that such villains might not receive justice in this life. They deserve punishment, we say to ourselves. What kind of hero would it take to deal with such felons? One almost as unreserved as the criminals themselves.

The problem with this, of course, is who are we as humans to enact such judgement? While our souls ache to be satisfied by justice dealt to these torturing and merciless bastards, there are dangers in putting such power within the hands of individuals. What will individuals do, given such moral licence? It is a perilous and slippery slope for we as imperfect human beings to claim authority to carry out judgement and ultimate punishment. It is a flip-side well addressed by the film. Our heroes are human. They are jaded, traumatized individuals who are deficient in many ways... yet they have extraordinary power. The trailer tagline reads: "They watch over us... but who watches them?"

As the movie draws to a close, one more burning question arises. What do we value? Virtue...? Results...? If the means to an end are repugnant, are we obliged to fight those means? Once the deed is done, should it be undone in the name of justice even though this means undoing the good that resulted? Is there a point where morality concedes to the greater good? While we might feel we know the answers to these questions... while we might not be able to envision a scenario where black is not black and white is not white... Watchmen presents these issues provocatively and with finesse. Be ready.


Watchmen was a cinematic masterpiece. It was beautiful and exciting, though by no means an action film in the classic sense. It was thoughtful and reflective, tapping into reality, darkness, and moral ambiguity in ways that few comic books dare. It takes us into the unrealistic world of superheroes, but in those same heroes portrays the world in intricate realism.

If I had one complaint, it is the gratuitous overabundance of unsheathed blue penis... but I guess that's Doctor Manhattan for you.

P.S. the actresses for the Silk Spectre, Laurie Jupiter (Malin Akerman), and her mother Sally Jupiter (Carla Gugino) are only 7 years apart in age (1978 vs. 1971). The advent of makeup and movie effects seem to have, in effect, eliminated the need for old people. Shocking.

1 comment:

coffee said...

I had a nagging feeling throughout the movie that the they chose the wrong girl for the (younger) Silk Spectre; all the other character choices were perfect tho