Is Watching the Watchmen Worth It?

Editor’s Note: This post was written by Guest Writer, Joel A. Moroney. Be sure to check out his regular blog, Pop Culture Christ, where you can find an issue-by-issue writeup of each of the original issues of the Watchmen graphic novel series.

I’m writing this the day after I’ve seen Watchmen. I’ve waited just over 10 years to see this movie. Ever since I first picked up the book, I’ve wanted to see what it would look like on the screen. Like many, I was fearful that it was impossible and that anyone who tried would be doomed to failure. The trailers for Zack Snyder’s epic brought new hope. Here was a man who appeared to get it. The expectations began to rise. If this was good, then there would be much rejoicing. If it was a tragedy? There would be blood. Oh yes, there would be blood.

It’s the next day. Am I ecstatic or are my hands stained with human bean juice? Neither.

The world of Watchmen is a world where men and women donned masks in the 40’s to fight crime and a science accident in the 50’s turned one man into a superman. These changes have had a significant impact on politics, culture and science. It’s 1985 and the world is on the brink of nuclear war. People are uneasy and unsure of the future. Amongst this backdrop, a masked vigilante is killed.

Watchmen begins as a murder mystery involving costumed heroes, but by the end of the movie it is so much more. It explores the nature of heroism, pulls apart the psyche of the “superhero”, and asks the question “What would you do to save the world?” There are many layers to Watchmen.If you’re going in expecting a beat-’em-up involving guys in costumes, you’re either going to be very disappointed, or you are about to have your brain exploded. This is not your typical block buster action movie. While it has the visual trappings of an expensive superhero movie, at times it feels like an art-house film with intricate character moments and inner monologues. The very subdued colour palette contributes to this. The use of colour produces a tone that is somber and serious. The filmakers want us to focus on the characters and the plot, not to be dazzled by bright lights.

This movie is rated MA. In Australia, that means you can’t go see it unless you are over 15 or you have a parent watching it with you. The thing that gets me is that it doesn’t need to be MA. It could easily be M. There are some scenes of over the top violence, with very gory imagery. There are some sex scenes. And there is full frontal male nudity. All of these could be down-played or removed without ruining the story. And the argument that these scenes are there to honour the original are nonsense. For example: one of the most brutal fight scenes involves Dan (aka Nite Owl) and Laurie (aka Silk Spectre) beating up some would be muggers. Bones are broken; heads and necks are stabbed. It is very much an MA rated fight scene. However, none of these over the top moments are in the book. They were added and amplified.

A similar case is found with the nudity. In the book, Jon (Doctor Manhattan) is mostly seen sans clothes. It is an important part of his character. But it is meaningless unless you get the gradual removal of clothing seen in the book. Jon starts out fully clothed at the start of his hero career. As he becomes more and more detached from humanity, he wears gradually less and less until, in 1985, he is mostly naked. We don’t get this progression in the movie. In the past he’s wearing speedos and in the present he’s naked. Without the thematic stripping away of his humanity, what we are left with is gratuitous blue penis. I can name many more examples, but I think you get the point. This movie has earned its MA rating. Which is a shame because it didn’t need to be that way.

The biggest issue about the movie, which has left me feeling ambivalent about Watchmen, is that the ending didn’t work for me. I’m not talking about the changes they made to the master-mind’s plan. For me, when the catastrophic events occurred, I found myself feeling nothing. It just happened. It didn’t mean anything to me. ***Potential spoilers*** When millions of lives are lost, it had no significance. We see New York destroyed and it didn’t mean a thing. After the first half hour or so in the movie, we spend so much time with the main characters, that we don’t even see much of New York. If we had only gotten to know the city as a character, met the civilians that lived there, patrolled its streets, the ending would have a much greater impact. At the start of the movie, we get a montage of how this world was different. We saw Silk Spectre replacing Betty Page on WWII planes. We saw Doctor Manhattan shaking hands with JFK. We saw Andy Warhol painting Nite Owl. We saw Ozymandias out the front of Studio 54. We got the feeling that this was a real world. That these heroes had made an impact. I just wish that the filmmakers had not dropped this ball and had made me care as much about this world at the end of the movie as I did at the start.

There are two main themes of this movie that I feel are worth exploring. The first is that of heroism. What makes a hero? Does putting on a mask and fighting criminals make you a hero? Or does it make you one of the bad guys? The more I think about Watchmenthe more I believe that none of the men and women who put on costumes in this movie are heroes. They break the law to fight criminals. It is illegal to be a vigilante. Either they don’t submit to those in authority over them, or if they do, they commit great acts of violence. Those who claim they are acting for the greater good turn out to be monsters inside (this applies to more than one of the characters). These are not men and women we should look up to. As Christians, who are we to look up to? Who are we to emulate? Who are the real heroes in this world? For me, the great heroes are those who lead by example. Who show us how to live a life worthy of God, even if it means great difficulty or persecution. Those who preach God’s word and who do not compromise when it comes to worldliness. The “heroes” of Watchmen don’t even come close.

The second theme is that of truth. What is the price that needs to be paid for saving the world? Ultimately, there are many prices to be paid, and one of them is truth. At the end of the day truth is slaughtered for “the greater good”. Pragmatism is more important than truth. Which is not surprising when you consider that the movie is about people who conceal their true identities. On the other hand, as Christians, we believe that we are to be people of truth. Our actions are to be godly and open. The ends never justifies the means, as the means is every bit as important as the ends.

More explicit than other superhero movies is the idea that the world is never permanently saved. As Laurie says “Nothing ends. Nothing ever ends.” The day may be saved, but it will need saving again tomorrow. There is a corruption in the heart of mankind that leads towards disaster. You can fix the symptoms, but at the end of the day, what needs fixing is the human heart. What we need is a real saviour. Rorschach can’t save you. Doctor Manhattan can’t save you. Only Jesus can save you. His death and resurrection have saved us from sin. Jesus is the only “hero” worth following.

So, after all that, what did I think about the movie? I think I liked it. I’m not sure if that’s because I love the book or because its a good film. But it is a visually stunning film. It does make you think. And I never once looked at my watch to see how long I had til the end. If you’re under 15 or you think the violence, nudity and sex will be too much, then don’t watch this movie. If you want an intelligent, visually different, action movie, then give Watchmen a shot. I will definitely be getting the extended director’s cut on DVD when it comes out. And I’m thinking this is one of those movies that I will come to love more and more each time I watch it.

  • http://electexiles.wordpress.com Drew

    Thank you for writing this article–I want to see the movie but was unsure if I should–I found this very helpful.

    I think I enjoyed the graphic novel so much because it made me so mad! I don’t know if that makes sense, but given your article here, I think you probably follow me.

    The theme of the graphic novel seems to me to be what you mentioned–pragmatism is more important than truth!

    I think the novel gets some things right though–if you are going to give up on God, then it follows that pragmatism is king and depravity runs wild, even in the hearts of professed “heroes.”

    In the end I was disgusted with the world of Watchmen, if the movie leave you the same, then it would seem to be a success and I would get just as mad at the movie as I did at the graphic novel!

    Drews last blog post..The Danger of Living in the Facebook Generation

  • http://www.christandpopculture.com/ Richard Clark

    Drew, I would contend that you’ll be mad at the movie for more than that. As time passes, I get angrier and angrier at Zack Snyder for what he’s done to Watchmen. It’s kind of weird.

    As for, “The theme of the graphic novel seems to me to be what you mentioned–pragmatism is more important than truth!”

    I’m pretty sure the graphic novel is actually just asking questions about the validity of all positions involved. Hence, at the end Ozymandius’ plan is actually foiled by Rorschach’s diary in a random, unpredictable way. Thereby pointing out one of the biggest criticisms of the pragmatic viewpoint: “Sure, if you knew it would work, maybe we could talk. But you DON’T.”

    What I love so much about the graphic novel, and what the movie dilutes, is the fact that it forces us to come to terms with these choices without making the decision for us.

  • http://nowheresville.us The Dane

    Actually, the book isn’t so much about pragmatism (or even the evaluation of the ideology) as it is about subversion of the superhero fantasy. Moore doesn’t ever question the validity of these positions, but instead flatout represents them as distasteful. Still, those ideologies are only the smallest part of his package and not what Watchmen would be said to be about.

    Moore’s chief concern is to represent superheroes and superhero justice (i.e. vigilante justice) as primarily fascist in its basic form. Correlary to this, he presents America and Britain—a perspective he hones further in V for Vendetta—as international fascist states.

    His idea is that there is no room for concepts of democracy or liberty in super-heroism. The whole point of the title, seeing as how there is no actual team called the Watchmen, is that these are judges who cannot be judged—and so they stand wholly apart from justice. While there may be protagonists in Watchmen, there are no good guys.

    These are all sad, debilitated psychopaths and fetishists. We are not meant to sympathize with their ideologies. And the conclusions they come to are meant to disturb us. The allegory, if there is one, is that just as we are to find these masked adventurers motivations and conclusions disturbing, so are we to find the role of our self-righteous, self-serving governments internationally to be just as disturbing.

    Moore’s concept isn’t just to demythologize the hero; it’s to destroy the myth of the hero utterly.

    The Danes last blog post..20081119.ChurchLies

  • Alan Noble

    @Dane,
    Destroy the myth of hero, or superhero?

  • http://nowheresville.us The Dane

    I think that from Moore’s ideological frame, there’s little difference. Only one of degree. Since a hero is someone who stands up for right in the face of a society that will not act for the hero’s perception of right, and the only real difference between that and a superhero is the costume and the ability, I feel safe in thinking Moore would likewise object to The Hero as well as The Superhero.

    Both act on personal initiative and are concerned with personal conception of what is right. This, to Moore’s Watchmen framework, is fascist and not really all that laudable. And despite what pop culture tries to tell us, policemen and firemen are not heroes insofar as they fulfill their society appointed roles. Instead, they may be better than heroes. They may be good.

    The Danes last blog post..20081119.ChurchLies

  • http://www.joelamoroney.com Joel A Moroney

    It’s interesting to see how Moore’s view of superheroes in Watchmen differs from the one in Miracleman (or Marvelman depending on your point of view). In Watchmen, the “heroes” try to make a better world, only to find that they don’t have a place in the world and maybe the world doesn’t want saving anyway. In Miracleman, the heroes force the world to change and it works. They bring about a utopia. All the world needed was someone with enough power to step back, take a look at things and say “now for something completely different”. In Miracleman, what the world needs is not a hero but a saviour. Sound familiar?

    Joel A Moroneys last blog post..Book Review: Now That You Are Back

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  • Pat

    There’s a world of difference between the righteous brutality of say, Steven Segal’s films, and the self righteous brutality of say, KKK that is an important distinction between good and evil to define heroism.

    Films don’t always portray that distinction well but could, and should. To suggest that the Godfather films don’t portray it well is an understatement.

    Finding the ones that do would make a great hit list though for male morality, and male action films that satisfy the moral conscience.

    As many men know, there is often a need for violence, but how it is used as a tool is enormously important for both men and women, and always critical for children in their perception of social justice.


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