This first ran in the Chicago Reader a ways back.
Superpowers create more problems than they solve, and we’d probably be better off without them. That’s at least one message of the 80s comic book Watchmen—especially if we understand that writer Alan Moore and artist Dave Gibbons were thinking about geopolitical superpowers as much as masked guys in tights. The original 12-issue series, published in 1986 and ’87, takes place in an alternate universe where superheroes walk the U.S. of A. Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein have been killed by a vigilante called the Comedian, and as a result Richard Nixon is serving out his fifth term as president. Thanks to the superhero Dr. Manhattan, who can transmute elements, grow 50 feet high, and wander around buck naked (after all, who’s going to stop him?), the U.S. has won the Vietnam war and holds a decisive advantage over the Soviet Union. America is the world’s undisputed dominant power—which, to the two British creators, seems like a decidedly mixed blessing.
Of course, the cold war ended for real four years after the series concluded. We now know, more or less, what a world dominated by the U.S. looks like. Yet even after two decades, Watchmen doesn’t seem quaint or outdated; on the contrary, it seems more prescient with each passing year. In the comic, American dominance leads to paranoia. At home, fear of masked vigilantes has fueled McCarthyite rioting and forced most superheroes into retirement. Overseas, a cornered USSR walks the world up to the edge of nuclear holocaust.
The story focuses on six superheroes, one of whom—the Comedian—has been murdered. These characters are hardly laudatory examples of unfettered American power. For the most part they don’t like each other, and they certainly don’t work together. The Comedian was an amoral thug who reveled in his own brutality. Rorschach is a neofascist, homophobic nutcase who uses black-and-white morality to justify his extreme violence. Dr. Manhattan is so powerful that he’s become detached from humanity, alternating terror and beneficence with a chillingly casual disinterest. The wealthy philanthropist Adrian Veidt, aka superhero Ozymandias, is a liberal one-worlder whose compassion is so aggressive it’s indistinguishable from ruthlessness: his crazed plot to save the world involves killing half the people in New York City. For him and all the other heroes, saving the world is less about helping others than about indulging their own messianic delusions, sexual hang-ups, and self-aggrandizement. As the U.S. has demonstrated for the past eight years or so, when you add moral grandstanding to great power you get not great responsibility but a huge fucking mess.
Given the continuing relevance of Watchmen, I had some hope that the movie adaptation would serve as a corrective to the supposedly tough-minded but in fact mushily sentimental The Dark Knight. Alas, Watchmen the movie is itself nothing but sentiment. The pointed message of the comic is buried under a ritualized nostalgia for the source material. Director Zack Snyder tiptoes through the story with a deadening reverence, faithfully reproducing this bit of dialogue from Moore (“The superman is real—and he is American!”) or that bit of imagery from Gibbons (the Comedian crashing backward through a window amid a spray of shattered glass) but never pausing to develop a vision of his own. The result is oddly hollow and disjointed; the actors move like sleepwalkers from one overdetermined tableau to another.
One of the most telling characters is Rorschach. In the comic he’s repulsive and ludicrous—a tiny man with lifts in his shoes, he suffers from major sexual problems, and his disguise is a street person whose placard reads “The end is nigh.” The backstory makes him both more likable and less admirable; the moment in the comic when he threatens his landlady is uncomfortable, but the next panel, where he spares her because of her child, who reminds him of himself as a boy, is extremely poignant. Snyder alludes to some of this—we glimpse Rorschach in civvies, wandering around with his sign—but it never coheres. Viewers new to the story might not even realize this nutty doomsayer is the vigilante’s alter ego. All we’re left with is another cool-as-shit dark hero, kicking ass in glossy martial-arts sequences, doing the dirty work of justice.
Certainly Moore thought his vigilantes were cool as shit, but he was also ambivalent about their morals and the implications of their might. By contrast, Snyder issues a few bland caveats, but his veneration of the source material ultimately bleeds over into thoughtless justification of the heroes. This accounts for the main plot change. In the comic, Ozymandias unites the world by destroying New York City and making the catastrophe look like an alien invasion. But in the movie, Ozymandias (Matthew Goode) unites the world by fingering Dr. Manhattan (Billy Crudup) as the one who destroyed several American cities. The horrific spectacle of New York under attack—which, obviously, now has an eerie resonance—is rather cravenly skirted. And as in The Dark Knight, a superhero scapegoats himself to unite a sinful humanity. The super-Christ exists, and he’s American!
Snyder tips the story to validate the superheroes in other ways too. Moore was careful to include a number of civilians in the comic, most prominently a cranky white news vendor and a young black comics reader. In the movie, these two characters die in each other’s arms as they did on the page, but that’s the first and the last you see of them. They’re cannon fodder for the special effects, not characters you care about. As a result Watchmen focuses on the choices and sacrifices of the superpowered—the superman’s burden, if you will—rather than what those choices mean for everybody else.
Toward the end of the story, the philanthropist Veidt claims he’s made himself feel the death of everyone he’s murdered while trying to build a new utopia. In the comic, Moore forces the reader to experience these deaths and wonder if they’re justified by the possibility of world peace. When you take that question seriously, others come up as well. What makes Veidt so certain the human race is going to destroy itself? What right does he have to play God? Veidt sneers at Rorschach for his “schoolboy heroics,” but in the comic there isn’t much daylight between Rorschach’s fascist vigilante justice and Veidt’s evangelistic UN peacemaking. Both impulses fuel our heroic American fantasies, at home and abroad. As long as that holds true, Watchmen can’t be a simple exercise in 80s nostalgia, no matter how hard Zack Snyder tries to turn it into one.