Watchmen is a film that pushes the boundaries of the taxing question, how far do you go in judging a book by what’s inside the cover. Of course, the book is such a book as well. It may sound decidedly odd to say that a work can fall victim to such a question, but once you evoke something more than a passing effort at philosophic exposition, you cannot then complain when logic negates your work… or at least takes shots at it.
Watchmen, based on the graphic novel by Alan Moore and Dave Gibbons, is a story that takes place in an alternate timeline. A timeline that has a few key differences when compared to our own. At some point in the not too distant past, certain events led to a group of people with wonderful intentions (sort of) taking to the streets as vigilantes and/or “heros” (because they don’t really have any superpowers). This leads us into the story’s present, which is a thoroughly rotten version of 1985. Petty thugs seem to rule the streets, the U.S. and U.S.S.R. are on the very brink of nuclear war, and generally all is dark and ugly.
The story does give us one actual superperson however. Known as Dr. Manhattan, Jon Osterman was involved in a freak accident which ultimately left him a glowing blue entity with an ability checklist that rivals God’s. He can control matter with his thoughts, teleport himself and anything else, see “his” future, and is indestructible… and that’s really just the short list. In some sense on the side of the U.S., Jon is preventing the imminent annihilation of the human race only because the Russians aren’t going to attack with him standing there. But, the movie is quick to point out, they are getting dangerously close to having a go anyway.
We enter this world when The Comedian, one of our masked avengers is thrown threw a window to his death. Now in his late 60s, and more or less forced into retirement by the outlawing of masked do-gooders, his death is not the noteworthy affair we might expect. It isn’t widely known that this dead person was The Comedian, he wasn’t in the papers recently anyway, and we’re in a world where a splattered body on the sidewalk is mostly notable in terms of not getting blood on your shoes.
Enter Rorschach. Another member of our masked crew, Rorschach did not accept his pink slip, and has been dealing out justice wherever possible. He also does not accept the idea that The Comedian’s death was anything simple, and he suspects a plot to do away with the Watchmen. He visits Nite Owl II, Dan Dreiberg, who like everyone but Rorschach has also hung up his gear and settled into a more ordinary existence. Rorschach spells out his suspicions, and Dan finds himself uncomfortable with the return of his past. Dan, who might compare to Batman, because he has such “wonderful toys,” misses the ride of fighting crime, but mostly misses his alter-ego in purer terms.
Following the investigation and warning pattern, we meet up with Dr. Manhattan, who is living with Silk Spectre II, Laurie Jupiter, at a government research facility. Finally, we meet the last of our remaining crew, Ozymandias, Adrian Veidt, whose “superpower” is “being the world’s smartest man.” Adrian has not only revealed his secret identity, but has capitalized on it by creating a line of toys. He is now also, through that and other ventures, probably the world’s wealthiest man as well.
Through varying methods, and to varying degrees, the Watchmen now meander toward ferreting out whatever plot there may be, and more generally struggle with the fate of the world as nuclear war approaches with increasing apparent inevitability. As we follow, we become more thoroughly acquainted with the Watchmen through a series of flashbacks. We learn the particular stirrings that go into creating hero and villain “products of society”, and we are overexposed to the idea that perhaps sometimes (as with the case of The Comedian) the protectors are hard to choose over whatever evil they purport to protect us from.
The question of Watchmen (and the fact that it is not titled “The Watchmen” cannot be stressed enough) is about the balance of principle. What cost is acceptable for peace? How much benefit to a particular person, or all people, do we need in order to abandon what we believe is “right?” The Watchmen are all different philosophic viewpoints on the issue. For Rorschach (and Socrates), any cost is too high. No benefit is enough. For the others, a little evil in service to the greater good might be acceptable. Some might even deny the coherence of the questions. Where do we draw the line? Are we just fooling ourselves into believing there are lines?
The film is painstakingly crafted, and if nothing else is a feast for the senses. Images and sound meld together, and the creation of mood is one of the better efforts of recent memory. In keeping with the themes inherent in the work, the beauty is beautiful, but the grotesque is fairly beautiful as well. Discussion in cinematic terms can open the door, odd as it sounds, for understanding the underlying themes. If you can understand watching a scene involving hacking at someone with a cleaver, and saying (in any sense) that it is a beautiful scene, you are on your way to conversing with the film’s text.
Watchmen is a dark, disturbing, supremely violent film, but that’s the game we’re playing. Exploring human nature using a vehicle that withholds savagery is to play at a childish and pointless form of ego (and elsewhere) stroking. The film is also, in the eyes of many no doubt, nearly (if not actually) pornographic. In something like Nietzschian style, Watchmen scoffs at the idea of solving a problem while denying the existence of many its facets. Being human is a problem, and it is an ugly one. But much of that ugliness produces great beauty, and much of what we experience is more a result of our lens than anything about the objective reality beyond that lens.
In a film almost bursting with gore and violence, there are two sexually-charged scenes. Both of them might be seen as disgusting and perverted, or (let’s say “eventually” for one) beautiful and magical, and the only difference is what mask you have on.
Are You Screening?
It should be noted that (as with the book, even though the movie changes things) the plot, in the end, makes no sense logically. Pretty good acknowledgement of this fact is evident in the film’s quick attempts to make a case for Dr. Manhattan not being able to stop nuclear war… which is nevertheless nonsense. This really should not be held against the movie however. The film does not include the story within a story we find in the book, and the fact makes clear how important that part of the overall work really is. With that other story included, the illogic is clearly irrelevant, and because the book does not try to diffuse the logical problem, it only comes up at the very end. That other story, though somewhat simple and obvious in its ultimate result, points the reader at the purpose of Watchmen as an overall effort. It isn’t remotely about the plot, so it doesn’t matter if things do not hold fast in every particular. It is also not strictly about what we are likely to take away from the story on its own (as we have with the film). It is more importantly about what we do with what the world does to us, and who we let ourselves become. The Watchmen were all shaped like clay by the hands of the events they found themselves in, and they are all extremes of how you can, and should not, let the world mold you. Well, except two of them… maybe.
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