Libertarian History/Philosophy

Watching Watchmen

Zack Snyder's morally complex-and faithful-adaptation of the graphic novel

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The Watchmen are technically superheroes, but they are not clearly heroes. In their tragic, multigenerational tale, originally published as a serial graphic novel in 1986 and 1987, masks hide more than just the usual secret identities. They hide histories of sexual abuse, political duplicity, and certifiable insanity.

The Watchmen movie, set for release this weekend, is one of the most-anticipated films in recent memory. Zack Snyder is the director who gave us larger-than-life Spartans and demonic ancient Persians in another comic-book adaptation, 300. In doing so, he turned a complex historical struggle into a clear-cut cartoon of visceral good-vs.-evil. Now he brings that same visual flair to bear in depicting layers of moral complexity and neurosis in figures who look as if they should be icons of justice: the Batman-like Nite Owl, the atomic-powered Dr. Manhattan, the stealthy vigilante Rorschach, and others.

Synder convincingly mixes their story with visual elements from the tragic 20th century spanned by their often-sordid crimefighting careers. With a mixture of action-movie delight and news-footage repulsion, we see these ostensibly superheroic characters linked to some of the worst government-related horrors of recent decades: war, assassination, political repression, propaganda.  Fans—including some new to costumed do-gooders—will likely applaud Snyder thunderously for it. 

The Watchmen movie is a perfect adaptation of the original comic book written by Alan Moore and drawn by Dave Gibbons, but it's difficult to watch a movie so full of potent political themes, nerd-pleasing homages, and historical references and feel like your brain is in a single place on a single day, taking it all in.

If you're in one of the intersecting subsets of the population who care about comics or politics or genre films, watching Watchmen feels a bit more like your mind has become unmoored in time—like the character Dr. Manhattan from the film, experiencing all things simultaneously and attempting to process it by zigzagging back and forth across history, alighting on meaningful moments, like a sort of quantum Proust:

• It's July 1985, and I'm reading the DC Comics miniseries Crisis on Infinite Earths—a series that will incorporate into the DC Universe several characters DC purchased from defunct company Charlton Comics, characters who will in turn become the basis of the darker, grittier, more modern characters known as the Watchmen. One Charlton character, the moralistic hero known as the Question, was created by the Objectivist artist Steve Ditko (earlier a co-creator of Spider-Man) and will be the model for the embittered, right-anarchist vigilante Rorschach in Watchmen, a popular and influential comic that DC has kept in print ever since.  Also in 1985, Reagan begins his second term.

• It's the 1940s, and America's moral certainty is captured in its superheroes, a sort of democratic, traditionally-moralistic response to the amoral fascist ideal of the übermensch. There is something insane about people putting on costumes and fighting crime, and Watchmen will decades later pull at that thread until its main characters (superheroes of the year 1985) and its secondary characters (a prior generation of heroes from the naive 1940s) are revealed as a collection of pathological, politically-dangerous, sexually confused psych cases. 

• It's March 3, 2009, a few hours before seeing and reviewing Watchmen, a film whose existence I've anticipated for over twenty years, and I'm at a PETA event at a strip club on my lunch hour as the radical pro-animal group unveils a new anti-fur campaign. I return to my office, which happens to be directly across the street from the movie theatre that will show the Watchmen screening. I have one voicemail, from a friend who works for DC Comics (for whom I wrote a few Justice League stories myself). He says that outside the DC Comics offices, a few blocks north of Times Square on Broadway, Mayor Bloomberg is parading with members of U2, temporarily renaming a street after them. I am not convinced New York will be made better off by this display. 

• It's September 11, 2001, and the destruction of the World Trade Center has among its countless repercussions the delay in production of a Watchmen movie, since the climactic sequence involves a threat to Manhattan that would hit a bit too close to home. The delay, fortuitously, will lead to the film's long-serving President Nixon seeming to embody elements of Watergate (1972), Iran-Contra (1987), and the world after 9/11 (2001) simultaneously, with the film's true villain having just a dash of Obama (2008) about him. Surely the 9/11 conspiracy theorists and other radicals will embrace the movie, which leaves one feeling that paranoia is wise. 

• It's March 3, 2009, during the closing credits of the Watchmen. Rorschach reminds me a bit of Ron Paul, especially those embarrassing, disavowed newsletter rants about crime.  I cannot decide which Watchman I most sound like, or would want to sound like. I notice this is the first fictional film with two Leonard Cohen songs on the soundtrack I've seen since Natural Born Killers in 1994—the year I thought Republicans might shrink the government but instead spent much of their time condemning things like Natural Born Killers

• It's 1976, and Jackie Earle Haley plays a trouble-making member of the Bad News Bears—after having been the voice of Alex Keaton/Stewie Griffin-like conservative son Jamie Boyle on the pathbreaking primetime animated sitcom "Wait till Your Father Gets Home" two years earlier.  Neighbor Ralph on that show is a paranoid ultra-rightist keen to outfit the Boyle family car with machine guns and imprison hippies. Haley will end up sounding more than a little like Ralph when he plays Rorschach (brilliantly) three and a half decades later. Will history note these connections before it is too late?

• It's April 2006, and I'm leading an anarcho-capitalist counter-protest in front of the DC Comics office building against a group of left-anarchists who are denouncing the film V for Vendetta—which is based on a comic by the same writer as Watchmen—for not being anarchist enough. The leader of the left-anarchists is also a "freegan," which means he eats garbage from dumpsters. On principle.

• It's 2002 at a Turkish restaurant in Manhattan, and I hear professional manga salesman Ali Kokmen celebrate the first birthday of his daughter by reciting from Watchmen—the moving passage in which Dr. Manhattan sees that there is value in every individual life, each an amazing and improbable happenstance.  Yet Dr. Manhattan will end up complicit in murder—and audiences will be left genuinely perplexed about how to balance cold, utilitarian calculations with the kind of old-fashioned, pugnacious, even deranged adherence to basic right and wrong that keeps Rorschach fighting, enabling him to unravel the schemes of lowlifes and utopian planners alike. 

This degree of moral complexity is rare enough in "serious" films, let alone ones with men in owl costumes fighting crime and a man with blue skin living on Mars.  We should be grateful for these layers and for this ornate, clockwork-like film.

If it's the first Wednesday night of the month, Todd Seavey is hosting the Debates at Lolita Bar. If it's a typical weekday, he's editing HealthFactsAndFears.com

NEXT: Will Liberal Democrats Undo a Liberal Republican's Drug Sentences?

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  1. Ok.

    I’ve read the graphic novel, but what I want to know is how successful is the movie at conveying its points to someone unfamiliar with the themes of the story? Some reviews, one from the New Yorker as an example, I’ve read have made it clear that the point goes right over the head of some reviewers who complain that the movie is campy and too dark for a hero movie. Does this movie make it as apparent as the original work that this isn’t supposed to be a hero movie? That this is a story about destroying the myth of heroes?

    Anyway great piece, I’m really looking forward to seeing it.

  2. I’m sorry, but Todd Seavey did not write this. Cut it out, Cathy Young! You’re not fooling anyone but yourself!

  3. I’m going on Saturday. I haven’t read the graphic novel (I don’t like the graphic novel format) so I will be able to report on how it comes across to people unfamiliar with the story.

  4. Todd Seavey Watches Watchmen

    Well, that answers that.

    [tosses copy of Satire VI into garbage]

  5. Ebert give 4 stars . . .

  6. Do they use Emacs or vi in the movie? What about the book?

  7. I heard they even added an intermission with a Hostess Fruit Pie commercial!

  8. I’m ashamed to know this, but the graphic on the front page for this story is flipped left-right. The blood stain on the smiley face is supposed to be on the left side, at the position that the minute hand of the “doomsday clock” was in at the time Watchmen was written.

  9. I think we need more superhero movies that surprise the viewer by taking the material into darker, edgier territory. It’s been at least 10 minutes since the last darker, edgier exporation of superhero territory made hundreds of millions of dollars. And the borders of dark edginess are ever-expanding and ever-surprising. So it’s time to really show the dark and edgy side of superhero material. Whoever does that could really surprise viewers and make hundreds of millions of dark, edgy dollars. Don’t bring the kids!

  10. Edgy overload. Abort!

  11. I’m with Tim. I could go for a light, optimistic superhero movie on occasion.

  12. Also, Shakespeare has too many cliches.

  13. And his stuff was all remakes.

  14. “Ebert give 4 stars . . .”

    But he gave Pooty Tang a big, big thumbs down. Said it wasn’t funny.

    His opinions are shit.

  15. “I’m with Tim. I could go for a light, optimistic superhero movie on occasion.”

    Then you’re obviously craving Pooty Tang.

    http://www.imdb.com/title/tt0258038/

  16. Well, that answers that.

    [tosses copy of Satire VI into garbage]

    That made me choke on my orange juice.

    I’m going on Saturday. I haven’t read the graphic novel (I don’t like the graphic novel format) so I will be able to report on how it comes across to people unfamiliar with the story.

    I’m in the same boat.

  17. For those interested in the hidden Easter eggs in Watchmen, check out my blog:

    http://web.me.com/rlevatter/V_is_the_Veidt%3A_A_Watchmen_Guide/Watchmen_Guide_Welcome.html

  18. Do they use Emacs or vi in the movie? What about the book?

    TofuSushi wins the thread.

    ‘Tis a sad day for Hit & Run indeed.

  19. Funny is the word
    9/10
    Author: rogerio_prudente from Sao Paulo, Brazil

    First time I saw a scene of it on cable here in Brazil I could understand a single word! Then I start to pay attention on them and also on the translation. It was doubled funny to me! The words in English are completely crazy and in Portuguese even craziest! I could barely see the rest of the movie because I could not stop laughing!!

  20. I’m in the same boat.

    But will you be ripped on Percocet and tramadol too?

  21. Ebert gave it four out of four stars…
    http://rogerebert.suntimes.com/apps/pbcs.dll/article?AID=/20090304/REVIEWS/903049997

    I’m going sometime this week during the day (I hate crowds at movie theaters, commoners, yuck!).

    “I don’t like the graphic novel format”

    What?!?

    And here we were getting along so well as of late…

    😉

  22. All kinds of religious inferences, 15 November 2004

    Author: messiercat from Oregon:

    Pootie Tang actually can be looked at as a parable, an allegory of a messianic figure. How’s that for making a purse out of a sow’s ear? Consider: A powerful figure roaming around doing good deeds, speaking in a puzzling language that only believers understand, attended to by his apostles, befriending prostitutes. Suffering from inner demons he retreats to the wilderness (the farm) and experiences an epiphany through the physical manifestation of his creators, going back and finally confronting and conquering the demons. (Dirty D = Dirty Devil)Along the way he even awakens the dead (the knife wielder at the club), banishes a horde of false prophets (all the fake Pooties), and can bring people to rapture through sheer silence alone. Whew. Heady stuff. Sa Da Tay!

  23. The blood stain on the smiley face is supposed to be on the left side, at the position that the minute hand of the “doomsday clock” was in at the time Watchmen was written.

    No doubt this is correct, but isn’t one minute past midnight even more chilling?

  24. ” I could go for a light, optimistic superhero movie on occasion.”

    Yeah – what we need is a new movie based on the old TV series version of “Batman”.

    POW! SOCK! BIFF!

  25. It looks like last call, not 12:01.

    Chilling.

  26. This movie may not be a critical success, or even a mainstream financial one, but it had to be made.

  27. But will you be ripped on Percocet and tramadol too?

    Nah. I’m goin’ smokeless.

  28. “I think we need more superhero movies that surprise the viewer by taking the material into darker, edgier territory. It’s been at least 10 minutes since the last darker, edgier exporation of superhero territory made hundreds of millions of dollars.”

    Watchmen, for what it’s worth, is pretty much from where all of that “darker, edgier” superhero stuff originates. The degree to which everything with superhero comics was different — and by no means entirely for the better — after Watchmen can barely be overstated.

  29. I could go for a light, optimistic superhero movie on occasion.

    Iron Man?

  30. The degree to which everything with superhero comics was different — and by no means entirely for the better — after Watchmen can barely be overstated.

    This on the other hand somewhat understates what an impact the Comics code had. The original Batman stuff for example was in fact a ‘darker edgier’ counterpart to that goody two shoes Superman. But it, along with everything else that was similar was washed away in the fifties. It wasn’t until around the time that ‘Watchmen’ came out where ‘adult themes’ could be re-introduced.

  31. I agree with Kolohe, the Comics Code, like most forms of censorship, had an awful powerful and negative effect on the art forms they were aimed at.

    Can I mention that these were non-govermental industry ‘self-censorship’ projects that were so harmful (hey, I admit they were all prompted by the threat of government action) so I can relate a comics thread to my oft-repeated point that non-governmental actors can have seriously bad effects on our lives too therefore demonstrating that libertarianism is at best an incomplete philosophy?

    It’s just a minor point…

  32. For those who are tired of dark and edgy superhero works, I’d take note that in his later career Moore has been working on re-creating the superhero.

    I could see Tom Strong or Top 5 being a pretty good movie.

    That said, big difference between Watchmen and, say, Spawn or one of those other “ooooh, violent and edgy!” works.

  33. Everytime I start to think that Tim isn’t a jackass, he cures me of that idea. Thank you, Tim.

  34. Pro Libertate | March 5, 2009, 4:16pm | #

    I’m with Tim. I could go for a light, optimistic superhero movie on occasion.

    Speaking of light and optimistic, I am surprised that no one has mentioned this.

    It has Batman in it!

  35. Most of the reviews i’ve read think its pretty thin, but hey.

    but still, it is fun to read someone gushing over the idea of *soon* seeing a movie. pre-review homage.

  36. MNG,

    Of course libertarianism is an incomplete philosophy. It doesn’t tell you what color socks to wear either, so what?

    In any case, your parenthetical comment pretty much swallows up your purported argument. Do you seriously believe that the Comics Code would have gone into effect if a libertarian government had been in power at the time?

  37. To be more precise, while there are harmful non-governmental actors out there, a free society provides means of, at worst, minimizing their impact, and indeed discouraging such behavior to begin with. If DC Comics had unilaterally, without pressure from the govt, instituted a Comics Code, they would have been eaten alive on the market.

  38. I suppose libertarianism is an incomplete philosophy, because it’s a political philosophy. Politics is not all of life. It should not even be most of it. The nice thing about libertarianism is that it is not a political philosophy that seeks to encompass every aspect of life.

  39. Fanboys.

  40. Pootie Tang is awesome. You can’t say the nay no to that.

  41. Yeah, Tim, _Watchmen_ pretty much invented the dark and gritty in recent decades’ superhero stories, so implying it’s redundant is a bit like saying “This ‘Hamlet’ thing is just recycling famous quotations!”

    And blaming the Comics Code on the market isn’t fair — it’s a classic case of an industry being badgered by congressional hearings into “self-policing” to avoid the very real implied threat of governmental action.

    (And that was over three decades _before_ the quasi-heroes started raping each other, of course.)

  42. It’s April 2006, and I’m leading an anarcho-capitalist counter-protest in front of the DC Comics office building against a group of left-anarchists who are denouncing the film V for Vendetta-which is based on a comic by the same writer as Watchmen-for not being anarchist enough. The leader of the left-anarchists is also a “freegan,” which means he eats garbage from dumpsters. On principle.

    See, this is why the semi-organized, semi-competent would-be rulers will always rule. The rest of us are a bunch of dysfunctional geeks. Sometimes I think this Internet thing wasn’t such a good idea after all, for otherwise I wouldn’t have even seen this…

  43. Yes, it is exactly like saying Hamlet is just recycling famous quotations.

    I am, ahem and harrumph, long familiar with the way Watchmen collapsed the enriched pile of dark edgy matter into a fissionable mass that continues to light up our skies with darkness.

    But I did think a crowd of contrarians like this one would give the palm to Moore’s Miracle Man, or even Frank Miller’s Dark Knight.

    The movie seems to be proving what I suspected all along! Dave Gibbons, not Moore, is the real genius behind Watchmen.

  44. The Watchmen movie, set for release this weekend, is one of the most-anticipated films in recent memory.

    Anticipated by whom? Most people (myself included) have never heard of the Watchmen.

  45. “It’s April 2006, and I’m leading an anarcho-capitalist counter-protest in front of the DC Comics office building against a group of left-anarchists who are denouncing the film V for Vendetta-which is based on a comic by the same writer as Watchmen-for not being anarchist enough. The leader of the left-anarchists is also a “freegan,” which means he eats garbage from dumpsters. On principle.”

    …What??

  46. Tim,

    Sorry, but as great as Dave G. is, he ain’t the genius behind Watchmen. Writers & artists of the comic genre have different ways of determining who tells the story in which way — for instance, if you are dealing with a really season pro drawer, you might want to give him as much leeway as possibe in determining how to “tell the story in pictures” — however, Moore, or at least Moore in Watchmen, mapped EVERYTHING out for Gibbons re how he would artistically “tell the story.” Were Watchmen drawn by any other artists (if they listened to Moore) you would have seen it “laid out” the same way. Moore literally “directed” the Watchmen comic as well as writing it.

  47. That said, just having seen the movie, I have to give it two not three cheers. Watchmen is the Magnum Opus of graphic novels and one day will be part of the Western Canon. However, the genius of the book needs to be fully appreciated in the graphic novel format.

    This, it seems to me, is to be expected. For instance, was the “movie” of “Crime and Punishment” as good as the book? In one hundred years the book will still be part of the Western Canon. Will the movie? Are there any books/movies that have been as groundbreakingly genius and acclaimed in both genres?

  48. I see the anti-Gibbonsians are at their old game again! It’s the last acceptable prejudice.

  49. The movie sucked. Nifty special effects. The plot sucked. The premise was stupid. A pretentious, pseudo-intellectual pulp fiction dime novel–with pictures!. Reason contributors jack off to this sort of stuff? What does that say about your magazine?

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