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by Dave Gibbons, but it's difficult to watch a movie so full of potent political themes, nerd-pleasing homages, and historical references and feel like your brain is in a single place on a single day, taking it all in.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.