The Watchmen is one of the most popular graphic novels of all time. It was published in 1986-1987 as a series of comics written by Alan Moore, British author of V for Vendetta, The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen, Swamp Thing, and many others. In 2009, a film adaptation was released by director Zack Snyder (Dawn of the Dead, 300, Sucker Punch, Man of Steel).
Incidentally, I have found that the primary indication of the quality of a film is its director, followed by its writer. If you enjoyed any of the above, you will enjoy The Watchmen. The dialogue, imagery, and cinematography are excellent.
Cold War Alternate History
The Watchmen is set in the 1980s in an alternate history universe. Richard Nixon was elected president 5 times. The US and USSR sit on the brink of nuclear annihilation, and the world is more technologically advanced than present day earth.
Frustrated by increasing crime, corruption, and the ineffectiveness of the justice system, a group of vigilante cops formed a team of eight superheroes known as The Minutemen. The Nixon administration passes a law banning the wearing of costumes in public, designed to end the actions of the extrajudicial Minutemen and other superheroes.
All comply with the new law, except Rorschach. One by one, members of the Minutemen are murdered, and Rorschach sets out to warn the others and investigate the cause of the murders. The film opens with a monologue by Rorschach commenting on the depraved condition of society:
This city’s afraid of me. I’ve seen it’s true face, 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 accumlated filth of all their sex and murder will foam up around their waist. And all the whores and politicians will look up and shout “save us”. And I’ll whisper “no”
Rorschach is a principled idealist. He witnesses a brutal crime one day which turns him into a jaded extremist, who gives zero fucks about the law, political correctness, or nuance, and sees things in absolutes, right or wrong. He continues:
Now the whole world stands on the brink, staring down into bloody hell. All those liberals and intellecutals and smooth talkers. And all of a sudden no one can think of anything to say. Beneath me, this awful city, it screams like an abbatoir of retarted children and the night reeks of fornication and bad consciences.
Attempts To Revive The Vigilante Watchmen
Rorschach’s first visit is to the character Night Owl II, who declines to take up the life of crimefighting again. Night Owl tries to reason with Rorschach, pleading, “Nobody knows who you are. You can give it up. Try to have a normal life.” Rorschach’s response:
When you walk down the street in a city dying of rabies, past the human cockroaches talking about their heroin and their child pornography, do you really feel normal?
Rorschach is frustrated that others are content to live out their lives rejecting the red pill, taking the path of least resistance, and following the authority’s law, right or wrong. After failing to convince Night Owl, he mutters,
“First visit of evening fruitless. Feel slightly depressed. Soon there will be war. Millions will perish in sickness and misery. Why does one death matter against so many? Because there is good and evil. And evil must be punished. Even in the face of armageddon. I will not compromise in this.”
The death that Rorschach is investigating is that of The Comedian. The film begins with him at home in his apartment, in retirement, but with identity still unknown publicly, being brutally murdered. The Comedian is a twisted, sick individual, who caused the original Minutemen to fall apart. He abuses his power, and follows no guiding morals or principles, other than whatever The Comedian wants to do in this moment, he will do.
He reacts to the depraved world standing on the edge of destruction with spite and disgust, commenting, “What happened to the American Dream? It came true. You’re looking at it.” He enjoys violence and being a vigilante more than the principles behind it. He will attack and hurt innocent civilians without giving it a second thought.
While the two characters are incredibly different in their outlook and behavior, Rorschach can relate to the Comedian.
“[The Comedian] understood. Humans are savage in nature. No matter how much you try to dress it up to disguise it. [The Comedian] saw society’s true face, chose to be a parody of it, a joke. I heard a joke once. Man goes to doctor, says he’s depressed, life seems harsh, and cruel, says he feels all alone in threatening world. Doctor says treatment is simple. The great clown Pogliacci is in town. Go see him. Should cheer you up. Man bursts into tears. But doctor, he says. I am Pogliacci.
Dr. Manhattan is a difficult character to describe, and one of my favorites. He is an incredibly powerful superhuman who was altered by an accident with nuclear radiation. He is the only character with superpowers. He is almost god-like, possessing incredible wisdom and power.
He has a frame of steel, which is tested by Silk Spectre, to an entertaining and cool-as-ice resopnse. He grows increasingly detached and uninterested in humanity, bordering on apathetic as he sees the immorality and lack of logic in human actions. He, along with the Comedian, is one of two characters who cooperate with the American government, and Dr Manhattan is responsible for the highly advanced technology of the 1980s in the film, which is beyond that of today. As Manhattan states, “We’re all puppets. I’m just a puppet who can see the strings.”
He becomes a thoughtful philosopher, caring less and less about Earth and humanity, and more and more detached and unrelatable.
“They claim their labors are to build a heaven. Yet their heaven is populated with horrors. Perhaps the world is not made. Perhaps nothing is made. A clock without a craftsman. It’s too late. Always has been. Always will be. Too late.”
Rorschach directly confronts a member of the establishment, and spells out his utter disgust:
You’re fat. Wealthy. Liberal sensibilities. What you call compassion. Wanting to understand the guilty, this rotting society, what it calls rehabilitation, nothing short of compromise… You want to know about Rorschach? Once a man has seen society’s black underbelly, he can never turn his back on it, never pretend, like you do, that it doesn’t exist, no matter who orders him to look the other way. We don’t do this thing because we’re permitted. We do it because we have to. We do it because we’re compelled.
Eventually Rorschach is able to convince one of the other Watchmen that the only way to get results is through his more aggressive methods. You forgot how we do things. You’ve gone too soft. Too trusting. Especially with women.
Rorschach assembles a small team to fight back, and without giving too much away, those that cooperate with the corrupt establishment are not rewarded, but rather brutally punished for their cooperation in working for the side of evil by their masters, while others face retribution from the remaining members of the Watchmen.
The film is very much a classic tale of good vs. evil, right vs. wrong, but told in a complex manner, where there are no absolutes. There is plenty of sharp dialogue, black comedy, fight scenes and action, beautiful cinematography, lots of symbolism and visual details which make a rewatch enjoyable, and a three hour play length that never drags on (note: see the director’s cut for the full effect)
1. Means Vs. Ends
The ending of the film raises the powerful philosophical question of whether the ends justify the means. The belief of one character that
“Humanity’s savage nature will inevitably lead to global annihilation” seems logical, but the moral question remains of what to do with this problem.
2. Corruption Of Power
Another theme is the corrupting force of power. The US government greedily leverages The Comedian and Dr. Manhattan and uses them readily to benefit its political goals. This reminded me of Operation Paperclip and the co-opting of Nazi scientists in order to achieve nuclear and rocket dominance in furtherance of military goals.
There is the theme of man’s technology outpacing its moral, ethical, and spiritual means to understand and leverage technology. With different leadership, the world could have easily ended in the 1960s. Watchmen presents a world where this is an even more serious threat.
Absolutism vs practicality: Is complete dedication to an ideology courageous and bold, or futile and ineffective?
5. The Noble Lie
Finally, there is the theme of Aristotle’s noble lie. Is truth of utmost importance? Or are there times when a lie told for the greater good can be justified?
The film is very thought provoking, and has many parallels to the neomasculine movement. The ending is not a typical Hollywood happy ending, and will leave the viewer with many questions and conflicting ideas.