Book/Movie: Watchmen [SPOILERS]

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Book/Movie: Watchmen [SPOILERS]

Postby Lomax on May 2nd, 2017, 12:28 pm 

I. F. Stone said that history is a tragedy, not a morality tale. It's the confrontation between the Watchmen and the unfolding of history, coupled with this realisation, which frees them from the conventional narratives of the genre. Superman is a Good Guy fighting Evil Guys; all his writers can do to make it interesting is have him succumb to some weakness temporarily. Batman has to have his spine dislocated and be thrown into an inescapable pit, before escaping (after all) and returning to save the day. The same parabolic story structure pervades the genre. But the Watchmen are fatally flawed anomalies in a fatally flawed world, occupying those shades of colour which make moral questions interesting, merely following their inexorable natures to their inevitable and catastrophic conclusion. (Perhaps I should not say "conclusion" - more of that later.)

This moral complexity has everybody find a different hero, and hence a different story, between the covers of Watchmen, which assumes the form of a book-length Rorschach test. Rorschach himself is smart, tenacious and committed to exacting justice - but he is a petty and uncompromising psychopath, administering disproportionate justice with undue trial and without the assent of society. He exhibits a sort of violent deontology: Kant Plus Karate. While Rorscach is too uncompromising, his comrade Nite Owl II is too compromising - his just and merciful nature are second, or perhaps ancillary, to a kind of weak and hapless normality. He is simply too human to be superhuman. The Comedian decorates his immorality as amorality, but ultimately his ostentatious nihilism turns out to be affected and inconsistent, as nihilism always must. Ozymandias, who by virtue of being the smartest man alive is also the strongest, quickest and richest, straddles the line between human and superhuman, and in action is perhaps best seen as the embodiment of large-scale utilitarianism: Bentham Plus Bombs.

Meanwhile God exists, and he is American. Doctor Manhattan is the only true superhuman of the tale, having survived death in some kind of freak quantum physics experiment, and found himself probably immortal, telekinetic, and able to teleport as well as to see his own future - as Roger Ebert put it, "the forces of the universe [...] coil beneath his skin". His interest in humans begins to go the way of our interest in ants, and while the world relies on him to avert the impending nuclear war, it is not clear that he has the will or even, for all his power, the ability to do so. Alan Moore has said that the book was partly a critique of the dangerous overconfidence of Reaganism - and I think he must see Reagan in Ozymandias - but it can and should be read as a critique of inaction as much as of action. In Manhattan's brand of arrogance we see a dismissiveness of humankind's problems, and he is later blamed for having let things get as bad as they did. But even he is impotent in his own way: he sees the future but all the same he is powerless to change it. God cannot be both omniscient and omnipotent after all. What matter? As he says, a live body and a dead one have the same number of particles. "Structurally, there's no difference."

And this, as of the president and the general, is the central paradox of the superhero: how can somebody so far from ordinary be expected to act on behalf of the ordinary citizen? All of them are as detached from the quotidian and the democratic as Nixon and Kissinger are. Rorschach repeatedly has to fight justice rather than fight for it; Nite Owl II is solitary and reclusive; Silk Spectre II yearns to eschew her power and responsiblity; The Comedian brutalises protesters for sport; Manhattan goes to live on Mars; Ozymandias ends up alone, without a friend, having killed his colleagues and his pet in the pursuit of his goal, in his vast broken laboratory in the Antarctic. It's as hard to envy this talented rabble as it is to remember why we ever thought we could depend on them in the first place. This is the cleverness of the book's eponymous double entendre, presented to us in graffiti early on: Who Watches the Watchmen? (For their sake and ours.) They have only each other, at best.

Rorschach realises the strange mix of freedom and responsibility this offers. In the chapter The Abyss Gazes Also, he recounts to his psychiatrist his first act of murder and arson - retributive, of course:

Stood in firelight, sweltering. Bloodstain on chest like map of violent new continent. Felt cleansed. Felt dark planet turn under my feet and knew what cats know that makes them scream like babies in night.

Looked at sky through smoke heavy with human fat and God was not there. The cold, suffocating dark goes on forever and we are alone. Live our lives, lacking anything better to do. Devise reason later. Born from oblivion; bear children, hell-bound as ourselves, go into oblivion. There is nothing else. Existence is random. Has no pattern save what we imagine after staring at it for too long. No meaning save what we choose to impose. This rudderless world is not shaped by vague metaphysical forces. It is not God who kills the children. Not fate that butchers them or destiny that feeds them to the dogs. It’s us. Only us.

Streets stank of fire. The void breathed hard on my heart, turning its illusions to ice, shattering them. Was reborn then, free to scrawl own design on this morally blank world. Was Rorschach.

It is his first act as Rorschach and his last act as Walter Kovacs. In the intervening moments between this event and his description of it, he is captured and his identity uncovered; he screams not "give me back my mask" but "give me back my face". After months of trying to treat Rorschach, his psychiatrist begins to be haunted by the fear that maybe he knows, deep down, that Rorschach is right. Never mind the Watchmen: nobody's really watching the rest of us.

Unleashed in this way, human nature - the one thing Dr. Manhattan cannot change - is brutal as well as atomistic. Having known each other for the duration of the story, two characters finally find some common ground, discovering they are namesakes. "Not that big a deal", Bernard scolds Bernard, "lots of people are called Bernard". Yet when the wave of destruction approaches a moment later, they embrace.

In short, the only way to unite humanity is to present to it a common threat. Ozymandias alone recognises this and follows it to its conclusion - proving himself smarter, tougher and, ultimately, wiser than any of his peers. Like his hero Alexander of Macedonia, he conquers by unweaving the Gordian Knot. His victory is a triumph of ends over means. But the thing about the Gordian knot was that it had no end, and nor does the human condition. He asks Dr. Manhattan, perhaps somewhat belatedly: "Did I do the right thing, in the end?" To which Manhattan, at one with space and time, replies: "Nothing ever ends." Ozymandias was the alternate name of megalomaniac Egyptian pharaoh Rameses II, whose hubris prevented him from seeing that his mighty achievements would not last. Rorschach's journal is about to be discovered by the Better Dead Than Red press, and more horrors will have to be committed to protect the progress made by the first. New York is a charnel metropolis, half the Watchmen are dead, and human nature is - will always be - still the same. Violence is a mask that eats into the face. Nonetheless it must be admitted that the "schoolboy heroics" (as Ozymandias puts it) of the other Watchmen are all rendered worthless - all the children Nite Owl II and Silk Spectre II saved from the flames (for example) are now dead, and would have been before long anyway. Alan Moore's real subversion of the comic book hero is in showing not their defeat, or their imperfection, but their unimportance.

A word for Zak Snyder: his adjustment to the ending (which, in the book, is taken from a episode of Outer Limits, which in turn plays on a television set after the movie's climax) is perfect. Dr. Manhattan has died and been reborn; he is all-powerful and possesses a divine wisdom. How appropriate that this God-figure is the one who has the blame for our sins laid upon him, and suffers so that humanity may begin again. He does what it really takes to save the world - what Batman can only temporarily do - and takes responsibility for others; he bears the cross. Thus Watchmen does not just deconstruct the superhero but reconstructs it too, offering us in place of vengeance and petty pugilism a new (to the primitive genre) conception of heroism. It is worth reading the book for Rorscach's abysmal and persuasively unsettling philosophy, and for Manhattan's grandiose monologue on the innate tragedies of the human race, both of which Snyder truncates. But this is not to take anything away from the movie, which of course had to answer to time constraints, and has the added perk of the most exhilirating fight choreography. He is frequently criticised for having favoured style over substance, but I think that is unfair: the movie is still ripe with meaning - and what's so bad about style, anyway? As Dave Gibbons, the illustrator of the novel, said: "Watchmen became much more about the telling than the tale itself".

And the telling really is extraordinary. Stories within stories are layered and continuous and inter-referential; themes and ideas bubble repeatedly to the surface. Just as the first page of the chapter Fearful Symmetry looks almost identical to the last, and the second looks almost identical to the second-from-last, and so on, so the overall story begins and ends with Rorschach's journal, with insecurity about the future, with a red-stained smiley face. (The Galle crater on the red planet, where Manhattan exiles himself, also looks like a smiley face when seen from outer space.) Moore always resists the easy moral, and intricately layers plot upon plot, theme upon theme, philosopy upon philosophy. He wanted to show us the possibilities with which the comic book format, as well as the superhero genre, was pregnant, and in the end he inspired a generation of fiction which offers nothing new, but instead tries to give us Watchmen all over again. The old, eccentric, occultist bibliophile Alan Moore has changed the game - and it will take somebody of his brilliance to change it again.
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