Spoilers ahead: I’ve only seen the movie, not read the book.
The movie is too long, too disjointed, and has too much weak acting in places to recommend. It isn’t a complete failure: there are scenes of genuine horror, and you do end up rooting for one character who most doggedly pursues truth and justice. But $10? I mean, I’m going to raise the questions that matter here, and read the graphic novel at the soonest possible opportunity.
The central thesis of the movie is that something about heroism has changed. Let us say America won WW2 because it had heroes – superheroes even – that fought for ideals. Many have talked about the opening montage setting the movie up, an original group of “Watchmen,” recapping that “history” beautifully and tragically – I highly recommend any discussion of the themes of this movie start with Daniel Carlson’s take in Pajiba, where he rightly points out the power of that beginning.
The original group seems to have come undone because of a lack of moderation: the primary virtue they were trumpeting was freedom. For example, it led one to madness (Mothman), another to a then-shameful promiscuity that got her killed (Silhouette), still another to some sort of lust for nostalgia (Sally Jupiter/Silk Spectre I). That last character is a key link between the original group – and herein lies one of the key weaknesses of the movie, there isn’t enough back story in the film for me to really know what I’m talking about – and the new group.
The new group, composed of Nite Owl II (a Bruce Wayne type) and Silk Spectre II (daughter of Silk Spectre I), the Comedian, Rorschach, Dr. Manhattan and Ozymandias, is actually linked to the old one in two important ways. The Comedian was a holdover from the original group who almost raped the original Silk Spectre. Somehow, she forgave him, and bore his child, who is Silk Spectre II, and who knows the Comedian almost raped her mother but doesn’t know her true father.
So in addition to the moral decay of America – can heroes really exist in a time where brother fights brother while the threat of nuclear annihilation hovers overhead – the heroes have questions about their own existence stemming from their very being.
The movie, as it develops, has us see heroes exist for different reasons. Silk Spectre II and Nite Owl II literally are only able to have sex with each other after doing some act of heroism complete with an adrenaline rush. Justice and saving people do get blood pumping in all areas. The Comedian and Rorschach are the interesting pairing: there is only a story because the Comedian is murdered, and Rorschach wants the truth of why he was killed for the sake of justice. Silk Spectre II is most obviously able to live in ignorance as a heroine. Nite Owl II has questions about his past, but his past as Nite Owl: he is asking questions of the retired Nite Owl when the movie begins, and confesses not understanding his father’s legacy as a corporate banker exactly.
The Comedian comes across horribly in the movie: he tries to rape, he murders a pregnant woman, his only redeemable aspect is shooting some hippies in front of Nite Owl who is in full “pansy” mode as riots break loose. He’s quite obviously too symbolic – the joke about being a hero is that you have to do things that are quite obviously unheroic, like beat the living hell out of people, and you have to be pumped about doing those things in order to be effective. Because you get judged after the fact, that appetite for violence means those of us who make the judgment may always be covering for you, excusing what is really inexcusable.
Rorschach is a welcome relief as he tries to figure out how it is exactly a hero confronts and engages humanity’s ugliness in his quest for the truth. He does kill and put people in situations where excessive harm is caused, but he’s deliberate. His brand of reason is the closest thing to what I’d call philosophic.
But the narrative is loaded with two other characters who use another brand of reasoning. Dr. Manhattan, who has true superpowers, is the complete scientific power of the Atomic Age: he wants to give the world energy, believing that the conflict between the US and USSR is over energy and not pride or ideology. Of course a scientist would be stupid enough to think that, so we have Ozymandias (Adrian Veidt), a corporate head who is really a political scientist, using a social science logic to determine what incident would cause peace between the superpowers. He decides the only way nations will know peace is through the horror of the Atomic Age: if they experience how awful it is firsthand, but can only blame something that approaches an abstraction, their martial energies are diverted away from each other.
The weaknesses in the narrative are apparent, and yes, they tick me off: we have a woman who accepts a potential rapist into her life, because she mourns her loss of being a heroine so much. We also have philosophy staying subordinate to the theoretical and practical import of science – after New York and other major cities are destroyed by Veidt using powers like Dr. Manhattan so as to frame Dr. Manhattan, and the two superpowers come to terms, Dr. Manhattan has to murder Rorschach who wants the world to know the truth.
The primary weakness of the narrative is the idea that science eclipses our intuitive notions of heroism. It is true that the logic behind heroism can go to excess: Dr. Manhattan and Veidt want to solve all the world’s problems, nothing less. But you know what? I know people who are heroes, and they know full well they can’t solve everyone’s problems. You learn real fast – you learn by nature – that there are limits, and you work within those limits.
If one wants to contend that scientific and industrial know-how are America’s true heroism, and have this higher conflict that shapes the more basic notions of truth and justice, fine. That does end the age of heroes, sure, but it leaves us like Rorschach, dead, only an bloodstain where there was an inkblot. And honestly, it doesn’t take a narrative that is so layered and complex to say that, because it isn’t really a contention. It’s an extreme that those of us who are more thoughtful invoke to deliberate higher issues about whether peace is really mere security, or heroes are those who wield theses about how people act effectively.
Of course, Rorschach ends up a martyr, while the two lovebirds conceive a new generation, and the two who would be gods isolate themselves entirely. It can be said the narrative is leading up to philosophy, but that’s just what’s so maddening for me. It’s like any question worth a damn was thrown away by the movie, and I realize why now: it took every bit of nutcase radical Leftist stupidity and called that history. Wars against fascists and communists were obvious and America could handle that, but hahaha Americans were so stupid and couldn’t handle civil rights and couldn’t see that the poor North Vietnamese were really nice people. So we elected Nixon, who everyone knows was an evil warmonger who didn’t seek detente or open up China to the world, and who uses Dr. Manhattan (by extension, nuclear weapons) to win in Vietnam. This leads America to abandon the Constitution, elect Nixon near President for life, and that militant mean world is the world Alan Moore is working with, not the one where anarchists and radicals started riots at the Democratic Convention because they could.
I’m not saying I have all the history right, but I am saying this: Plato and Aristotle and Thucydides spend lots of time trying to get the details right, and trying to articulate exactly why they feel a certain way about their age. What is striking today about many of my political opponents – and I have to say this because to challenge me outright is borderline insanity at this point – is how little they care to reconstruct the narrative properly, and this includes Alan Moore, whose “The Killing Joke” is one of the finest graphic novels written. Sometimes, like Children of Men, you can take extreme positions from both Left and Right and add it all up, because in that movie they’re doing justice to the truth, and asking whose concerns are ultimately going to be more pressing, while going back and forth between the issues raised.
Here, the foundation is faulty: the quick and dirty answer is that the age of heroes died because America was always in love with imperialism. That’s just not true: my friends aren’t taking bullets for Empire, and certainly not their private satisfaction. We never needed science to tell us what was truly good, to the degree it mattered.