I have read many Watchmen reviews in the weeks since I saw the film (in a matinee showing on opening day, the only lady in a sea of doughy middle-aged men who awesomely clapped at the end), and I’ve noticed there are basically two postures—condescending or reverent—its reviewers tend to assume. Which is appropriate, really, since those are also the two attitudes that people seem to have towards comic books in general.
But the weird thing was that all of these critics wrote with a certain gravitas and reticence, which I thought was strange until I started writing about it myself and discovered that I felt the same way. I read Watchmen when I was 19, but it wasn’t the same touchstone for me as it was for so many people—a stance that allowed me to approach the film with unadulterated excitement instead of the deep dread that readers feel when Hollywood is about to shit all over something they cherished through their formative years. So what’s up with that?
Well, I’m the kind of person who almost always feels nervous about everything (or, rather, nothing), so that explains that. But why did everyone else seem nervous? I have given it some thought and have decided that it is probably due to Watchmen creator Alan Moore’s one-two punch of being a genius who looks like he lives under a bridge. Famously, he’s this rabid Lorax figure who has loudly denounced all of the (admittedly inferior) film adaptations of his work. It is only natural that we, members of the dunderheaded pop culture that made those productions possible, feel intimidated, threatened and, worse, judged by this intimidating figure with his air of vague menace.
Anyway, I think the movie was okay—no better, no worse—and worth watching. Any admirer of the graphic novel can’t deny the director’s loving gaze, which perfectly captured the comic’s aesthetic, if not its tone. Some details were spot-on, including Jeffrey Dean Morgan’s powerful performance as that charming psychopath, the Comedian, and Jackie Earle Haley’s spot-on portrayal of that less charming psychopath, Rorschach. Other details—the soundtrack among them—smacked of that special laziness that is the mark of a big ole budget.
Apart from the soundtrack and a few relatively minor details, the movie was about as good as it could have been. No matter how deftly the source material was handled, how can anyone expect the medium of film to capture the sheer power of Watchmen’s pithy panels, which say one thing and show another with an irony unparalleled in comics? Moore created an epic yet insular world in which images and dialogue echo and resonate across its pages, and the best argument for the special power of the comic genre is that this movie, which stole almost all of its images and words verbatim from its source, failed to replicate, much less recreate, the poetry of the original.
Adapting postmodern literature is difficult under any circumstances, but it is almost impossible in Hollywood movies, which require a coherent perspective or voice. Watchmen the graphic novel is postmodern at the macro and micro levels: there are stories within stories within stories that bounce around in our brains as they admire, parody, and critique history, pop culture, and the very conventions of the comic book medium, among other ideas and institutions. In Watchmen, aged superheroes are washed-up celebrities with tell-all memoirs and sappy scrapbooks that are appended to each chapter of traditionally paneled action, with shifts in tone that are somehow blatant and imperceptible at the same time—the true mark of awesome writing.
Herein lies my main problem with the movie: its one-note tone. Like the comic, the movie is narrated by Rorschach, a deliberately clichéd character in everything from his detective costume (trench coat, sporty scarf) to the hardboiled prose of his journal (e.g., “The dusk reeks of fornication and bad consciences”). The film captures Rorschach’s voice rather well, but it omits the story’s many other voices—and the beauty of Watchmen is in that cacophony.
Contrast this observation in Hollis Mason’s autobiography:
It’s funny, but certain faces seem to go in and out of style. You look at old photographs and everybody has a certain look to them, almost as if they’re related. Look at pictures from ten years later and you can see that there’s a new kind of face starting to predominate, and that the old faces are fading away and vanishing, never to be seen again.
with a representative entry from Rorschach’s journal:
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 accumulated filth of all their sex and murder will foam up about their waists…
and you’ll begin to understand what is missing from the film.
But all that is really symptomatic of a larger problem, which is that Watchmen has been consistently misread as a cynical, pessimistic work when it is, in fact, rather the opposite.
It’s easy to see why the Watchmen have been perceived as such a surly lot—snide touches abound in the comic, the most prominent being our guide through a world that “stands on the brink, staring down into bloody hell,” Rorschach, whose very identity mocks our most self-involved science, psychology. His mask is forever forming new symbols, but they ultimately converge into a single stereotype with a fatally inflexible worldview.
The other characters have their own problems. The backstory alone is rife with failure and dysfunction: the first Nite Owl runs an auto repair shop, the first Silk Spectre is a “bloated aging whore,” and Mothman is in the bin. Their contemporary counterparts are impotent (Nite Owl II), egomaniacal (Ozymandias), and totally annoying (Silk Spectre II). Their impulse to save the world is described as a perversion, their morality is ambiguous, and they generally seem sort of bad at life.
Everyone talks about the ways in which Alan Moore reflected and magnified the anxieties of his milieu by reimagining the American hero as a figure driven by personality problems and a deeply flawed society. His take on the archetype caused a paradigm shift within the world of comics, where the series was among the first to unflinchingly explore the dark consequences of violence in an imagined world that seemed a lot like our real one. More importantly, Moore’s “heroes” resonated with readers still reeling from our losses in Vietnam and the pressure cooker atmosphere of the Cold War.
All of those things are true.
But what if we examine Watchmen as a different sort of cultural artifact? I think you can deconstruct the graphic novel’s notoriously bleak reputation to uncover a surprisingly rosy take on modernity—maybe even the most optimistic account of warfare in the twentieth-century canon. Despite its gritty trappings, within the seemingly cynical Watchmen universe there exists a powerful, if disguised, strain of hope.
To me, the real power of Watchmen is in how Moore channeled an entire generation’s worst fear into the glowing figure of Dr. Manhattan. Moore’s achievement is not just that he wrote a comic that humanized superheroes; he also humanized the abstract idea of annihilation, recasting it as a sympathetic (if not empathetic) force.
It’s pretty clear from his handle alone that Dr. Manhattan, who is also referred to in the comic as the “H-bomb” and “a man to end worlds,” personifies nuclear power. Moore took something that was on everyone’s mind—weapons of mass destruction—and remade it into a hero. Consider the following passage that describes Dr. Manhattan:
Our entire culture has had to contort itself to accommodate the presence of something more than human, and we have all felt the results of this. The evidence surrounds us, in our everyday lives and on the front pages of the newspapers we read. One single being has been allowed to change the entire world, pushing it closer to its eventual destruction in the process.
and the parallels are obvious.
It’s interesting to me that he is also the most emotionally complex character. At first, he just seems like another postmodern protagonist who is mourning his own detachment from the world. But I think Dr. Manhattan is totally emo, probably the most unlikely emo character ever in the worlds of fiction and film. I’d go so far as to say he’s the beating heart of Watchmen.
Consider his self-imposed exile, when he moped on Mars like a teenager who has locked himself in his room. “Watchmaker,” the most emotionally charged chapter of the graphic novel, showcases Moore’s masterful use of irony. He takes this character that talks like a pretentious fortune cookie and sends him to Mars—a planet with layered cultural associations of emotional bankruptcy (war, men, aliens, etc.)—and uses technical devices like repetition and quasi-quantum gobbledegook to sustain a powerful nostalgic tone as he explores themes like love and its inevitable decline.
By the end of all that, we realize that Dr. Manhattan and his lifeless Mars are not bankrupt; they are bereft. And then Laurie’s visit to Mars helps him realize that people are pretty neat, after all, so he resolves to save the world. And while that doesn’t work out, exactly, by the end of the story the threat has been defused, and so blood on a button becomes ketchup on a shirt.
Nuclear weapons are usually perceived as a threat—a boogieman—for obvious reasons, but in Watchmen, they are recast as a melancholy and benevolent superhero. The movie, to its credit, takes this thought a step further with its revised (and, to my mind, much improved) ending, in which nuclear destruction (instead of fake psychic alien squid) is also a plot device that brings about world peace.
Whatever you think of Dr. Manhattan, there is a certain romance to annihilation in Watchmen. By the time New York is blown to bits towards the end—those stark panels in which the needy newsman and his aloof young customer embrace before they vaporize—you get the sense that Moore believes that the threat of mutually assured destruction is actually a fine opportunity to hold hands and sing "Kumbaya." And I think that is a very interesting take on the Cold War specifically and the idea of hope in general.
As ever, in the final analysis, my gaze turns on myself. Part of me steps back from this argument and says WTF? Dr. Manhattan is emo? Watchmen is secretly optimistic? Do these ideas reflect my own misanthropy instead of what’s actually there on the page and the screen?
But then Future Me, gazing down serenely from her Star Trek throne, says, “Who has time for this self-analysis shit? I have some Battlestar Galactica to watch.”