Homo homini rodentius est

Aggressive Imagination: Thoughts on Watchmen


A month following it’s release, it looks like Watchmen – while hardly a smash hit – has done respectably. At this writing, BoxOfficeMojo [estimates] that it has earned about $178MM, which means it will likely make back its costs (estimated somewhere between $120MM and $150MM), plus a modest profit. Still, that’s pretty impressive — considering it’s an R-rated movie, targeted to hard-core fans of a dark and violent story populated by not-very-nice characters, that was almost universally panned by critics. What impresses me most of all is that the movie was even made. I’m tempted to call it an act of love on the part of Hollywood – except we’re talking about Hollywood here. More likely, a few people who loved the graphic novel upon which the film is based managed to slip one by the suits. I’m glad they did. I’ve seen the movie twice and have been thinking about the value of comic dramas in general and this one in particular.

Many reviewers make the mistake of judging films taken from comic novels against the standards of a storytelling tradition that stretches back into the history of Western literature. In that context, the truer a movie stays to its comic origins the weaker it looks as a work of art: characters seem one-dimensional, plots are simplistic and the treatment of character motivation and emotions is clumsy. But, to me, comic novels stand outside of the literary canon. They’re more like Kabuki: representing the world through a brightly-hued prism that hardens edges and reduces subtlety. While there may be some conventional literary references (e.g., the tag line “Who watches the Watchmen”, taken from the Roman poet Juvenal) and appropriation of historical facts, comics are sui generis – designed for an audience that has not yet consumed the great works of literature. I suppose their success could be considered an indictment of a culture that cannot reliably transmit to its youth the collected genius of its classic literature, but it’s also evidence of an ingenious adaptation – reassuring us that even amid a cultural breakdown the important questions and challenges that humans must address (“What does it mean to be human? What is the nature of justice? What good is love?”) will be addressed anew by artists with aggressive imaginations. Their starkly drawn characters stand in for ideas that are contested on fields of epic proportion – those still standing at the end of the battle win. And make no mistake, the ideas that Watchmen takes up and the characters that represent them are big.

Dr. Manhattan
God exists and he’s American: Dr. Manhattan re-writes the Vietnam War

The story presents an alternate history of the United States in the latter half of the 20th century where (super) power is not merely political but literal. It’s 1985 and Richard Nixon is serving his fourth term as president, having won the Vietnam war (and, apparently, vanquished the 22nd amendment…) with the help of a superhero/weapon named Dr. Manhattan (pictured above) – a nuclear scientist turned “quantum being” who can reorganize matter, time and space effortlessly. This alternate world is structured as a hierarchy of power: at the bottom are the corrupt masses, rampaging through the streets and barely controlled by a strong-arm state that jealously guards its power from “citizen heroes”, as the Watchmen – a self-invented band of vigilantes, now outlawed – see themselves, but which is itself guarded by a deity-like creature with the power to prevent or cause utter destruction.

A potential disturbance in this uneasy power structure is set off by the brutal murder of a former Watchman – a cynical proto-fascist warrior known as The Comedian. His death reunites the disparate band of former heroes, among them a paranoid sociopath named Rorschach, who enlists his former comrades in an investigation of the murder that eventually exposes a world-changing conspiracy. I won’t say more about the plot in case anyone hasn’t seen it yet and, besides, it can be found [easily enough]. I’m more interested in what the characters represent and two of them in particular: Rorschach and Dr. Manhattan.

What is man, that Thou art mindful of him?

Watchmen is credited with being, along with The Dark Knight, one of the first efforts to deconstruct the comic superhero genre. Sure enough, there’s very little heroic about these superheroes – who exhibit plenty of human frailty and venality. What sets each apart is a native distinguishing quality (ruthlessness, intelligence, empathy) and the commitment to act. Watchmen is, in many ways, a long meditation on what motivates one to commit to virtuous action in a world that is corrupt, dissolute and beyond saving. The action of the story is largely driven by the conflicts of the dangerously violent Rorschach and the divinely detached Dr. Manhattan and the attempts they make to resolve those conflicts. Rorschach, the most tragic character in the story, is twisted beyond human recognition by his exposure to the worst of humanity. He represents Justice as vengeance with a white hot rage that burns away any claims of intellect. He is Old Testament to the core. Upon discovering a criminal who butchers children, Rorschach metes out justice swiftly, directly, graphically and repeatedly… with an axe. We’re repulsed by the brutality of the character, while viscerally responding to the purity of his motivation.

For Dr. Manhattan, who is progressively losing his identity as a man and becoming more and more a disinterested observer of the human condition, the challenge is to transcend intellect and find a reason to engage in moral action at all. Though he has the ability to intercede in a pending nuclear Armageddon on Earth, he chooses to retreat to Mars to contemplate the perfection of inanimate matter. If you have ever wondered why God would bother with humanity – well, Watchmen wonders about that, too. The method the writers use to forge his commitment could be called “love”. But it’s no corny gimmick.

All my life I’ve been handed “love” as the resolution to any number of dramatic conflicts in books and movies and every time it felt false. Not this time. During a scene in which his former lover entreats Dr. Manhattan to assist humanity a fact is disclosed about her origin that points up the incredibly random nature of existence – the mathematical improbability of any particular person existing, at all. Seen this way, every living thing is nothing less than a miracle — an invaluable rarity that deserves to be preserved. It’s a simple but profound idea, presented tenderly and surprisingly subtly for such an operatic blockbuster, that elicits powerful emotion from a purely intellectual exercise.

It is not surprising that the story of Watchmen culminates in a confrontation in the icy wasteland of Antarctica between Rorschach and Dr. Manhattan. Being at heart a morality play, Watchmen has to resolve, finally, the conflict between these two characters who represent such different approaches to action, the nature of justice and the value of truth. It’s a brief scene, but, in my opinion, it elevates the story and the film to the level of art. With a simple gesture of his hand the almost-omnipotent Dr. Manhattan brings resolution decisively and in a way that makes perfect sense for the story. But then, in the last scene of the film, the writers give Rorschach the last word and we leave the theater wondering.

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