“…a bit of the old ultra-violence.”
-A Clockwork Orange
Watchmen is a universe unto itself, an alternative history of the 20th century, and an exploration of “human nature” that slices to the bone.
This is not your typical superhero film, and it seeks to be a radical departure from standard comic book fare. Based on the comic books and best-selling graphic novel of the same name, the story of the Watchmen is significant and worth commenting on.
The Watchmen are highly developed characters who fit into the story like precise parts of a well-designed machine. They also explore some very creative territory, with Dr. Manhattan being the most striking, most powerful and most visually stunning member of the team.
But, they aren’t really a team, and they end up opposing one another in a complex scheme which only the “smartest man in the world,” a Watchman named Ozymandias understands. Ozymandias has crafted a solution to the imminent escalation toward nuclear war by the U.S. and the Soviets.
The time period is 1985. Richard Nixon remains in power. The Watchmen have been outlawed from wearing masks. The conflagration in Afghanistan is the flashpoint. America has gone to the dogs (under Nixonian control?). Dr. Manhattan, bankrolled by Ozymandias, seeks to create a free and unlimited energy supply, supposedly to take away the motivation for war between the superpowers. The stakes are infinitely high.
I’d like to quibble, just slightly, on the orginal author’s interpretation of the Afghan conflict. Some dramatic license was taken, although at the time of the comic’s writing (1986) the truth may not have been understood by the western public. My concern is that it is still not well understood by the public, and may never be, even though the United States military remains in Afghanistan to this day.
Afghanistan, far from being a place worth ending the world over, was used by the Carter and Reagan regimes as a trap to weaken the Soviets — to give the Russians their own Viet Nam type quagmire. The Afghan war was a game to Washington, who started the conflict by funding, arming and training the Mujahadeen “terrorists” and “insurgents”, whom Washington called “Freedom Fighters” at the time. This plan was crafted by Zbigniew Brzezinski who was a National Security Advisor to both Carter and Reagan.
Watchmen is an alternative history through and through, and so altering the real world scenarios is no problem, as long as people can tell the difference. I’m not sure if many viewers today can discern fake history from the real, and so there is some danger of misinformation taking off. Erroneous preconceptions and reinforcement of those should be considered.
In the case of Afghanistan, the Watchmen scenario presumes that the U.S. wanted to keep the Russian military out of Afghanistan. The real history suggests the direct opposite: they wanted to lure the Russian military into Afghanistan and keep them “bleeding” there for as long as possible. How this was accomplished, through proxy armies and covert sponsorship through Pakistan’s intelligence service, remains a huge real world issue today. This issue is not understood by most people, and yet is crucial to ending war and bringing peace to the world, or at least to that region.
What is the price of peace? That question is a theme of the film, always in the background. The main plotline is a scheme by Ozymandias to avert WW3 and to usher in a new age of peace by uniting the world, including both superpowers, against the threat of Dr. Manhattan and his near infinite power.
Peace is a goal shared by most of the Watchmen, but what it means and how it is achieved are hotly disputed.
Human nature is shown as the ultimate barrier to peace. Even Dr. Manhattan, with his limitless power to alter matter is powerless to alter human nature and man’s proclivity to wage war. This intractable problem is what Ozymandias and his plot seeks to overcome.
TRUTH VS. PEACE?
Rorschach is a fantastic character, though not what I’d call likable. He’s a reflection of the degradation and corruption of the society, which he rails against constantly. His methods, including torture to get information, are reprehensible. He is as violent as any villain, and he prides himself on his vigilante skills.
Rorschach’s unwillingness to compromise in any capacity sets up the final conflict. He alone stands against the lie which will bring peace and save mankind from extinction by nuclear war. Rorschach would sacrifice the world to maintain his philosophy and his ideology. Or, at least that’s the way that Ozymandias and Dr. Manhattan see it.
I was quite blown away by that scenario, I must admit. Is the answer that we must live a lie? Are we indeed living the Big Lie right now? Is our fictional world better than the alternative? There are so many implications to ponder by the end of Watchmen, you’ll probably want to see it again.
I actually found Watchmen better than The Dark Knight, its story genuinely hitting home. While we were pulled into the world of the Watchmen, the audience was kept at a voyeuristic distance from Batman in The Dark Knight. Additionally, The Dark Knight seemed so much more contrived, and the Batman character not very interesting.
Even the first Christian Bale Batman, Batman Begins (script pdf ) , was more interesting and better developed than the second installment. The origin story was unpredictable and alluring. It answered our questions about how Batman came to be. The murder of Bruce Wayne’s parents earned sympathy for Batman that had no real parallel in the second film. Batman was already hard, aloof and distant by the time his would-be girlfriend gets killed by the Joker. In my book, it was too late by then.
While The Joker, one of Heath Ledger’s best performances of his life, kept The Dark Knight somewhat entertaining, in the end I found the film lightweight, just another rehash of previous material.
Something about the Watchmen connects, unlike many superheroes who seem not so human. The Watchmen are flawed, vulnerable, and very human. Even the blue, glowing Dr. Manhattan, who can travel to other worlds and create magic from atoms, has a history and a personality.
The love story between the geeky Nite Owl (II) and the very tempting Silk Specter (II) is a bit on the exploitative side, and played for laughs at times. Make no mistake, this is sexual and violent pulp. But it’s in the service of a very provocative exploration of human nature. Watchmen stands apart, and it isn’t going to be confused with some other franchise (such as Fantastic Four or X-Men), by anyone who’s seen it. The ideas resonate, and the questions posed will remain with us indefinitely.
Written by David Hayter & Alex Tse
Previously: AVATAR (2009)