The Two Watchmen

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“Watchmen” is a graphic novel written in the mid-1980s, a complex work combining text and images to create an alternative reality, a world where “superheroes” really exist. What would a world be like where masked vigilantes roam the streets, and where an apparently all-powerful super being – nigh unto a god – rises from the ashes of an American physicist, a “living H-bomb” ominously named Dr. Manhattan by the American military? How would their continued presence affect culture, science, and American foreign policy and military capacity?

How would police react? Would they get tired of competition and go on strike, telling American citizens they have to choose between “Badges and Masks”? If Congress passed a bill that outlawed masked vigilantism, would the superheroes simply retire, or might one of them refuse to be told by authorities that he can no longer right wrongs and pursue injustice?

Moore’s world is one of increasing military tension, as a superhero-backed America wins in Vietnam, repeals the 22nd Amendment, and allows Nixon – in his 5th term as the story begins – to outlast FDR. This is a world of military overreach (the United States rather than Russia invades Afghanistan in the 1980s) and a world without Watergate (rookie investigative journalists Woodward and Bernstein are found dead in a garage before breaking their story; some suspect a masked vigilante, the Comedian, who continues to work as a government operative).

As the story starts, in late 1985, with all apparently looking well for the American empire but with the Bulletin of Atomic Scientists advancing the Doomsday Clock toward midnight, the Comedian is thrown through his 30th floor apartment window, dying in a pool of his own blood on the pavement below.

Thus begins a 420-page novel that has the literary texture and density of the works of Thomas Pynchon. An entire back history of masked adventurers is created, beginning in the late 1930s – the same time superheroes first appeared in comics in our world – some joining together to fight crime as a league, some assisting the Allies in fighting World War II.

As this group ages and dies, a new generation comes into existence, including the godlike Dr. Manhattan. Mixed in with the book’s blending of background history and murder mystery, one finds references – some clear, others oblique – to Martin Scorsese’s “Taxi Driver,” Orson Welles’ “Citizen Kane,” and the “cut up” technique of William Burroughs’ “Nova Express,” as well as various Egyptian, Roman, and Greek deities; the Bible; and works of 20th-century science fiction and music, just to scratch the surface.

The graphic novel format – which combines the advantages of books (you can easily go back and reassess passages) and movies (you can make points visually, not just textually) – is fully exploited. Philosophic issues of determinism vs. free will are evoked, and a major conflict of the novel can be posed as the choice between deontologic and teleologic ethics. The psychological drives of people who would choose to become superheroes are explored in depth.

“Watchmen” contains a comic-within-a-comic – “Tales of the Black Freighter” – similar to Hamlet’s play-within-a-play. “Black Freighter” tells the tale of a shipwrecked sailor, desperately trying to get off an island and reach his town prior to the arrival of a pirate death ship that will rape and pillage the community. It is a tale of moral ambiguity, the sailor pursuing what seems to be the right course throughout, but with a disastrous result. The pirate comic provides a subtext and allegory for the main story but is a fascinating read on its own.

With every indication of a deterioration in international political stability, with the Doomsday Clock ticking inexorably closer to midnight, one former masked adventurer, Adrian Veidt, honed to physical and intellectual perfection, has decided that the only way to stop World War III and the death of billions in a nuclear holocaust is to trick the two world powers into uniting and cooperating. To achieve this accord, he designs a “big lie” to convince the world that it has been invaded by an alien species, teleporting what appears to be a single giant alien scout into central Manhattan, and causing the death of half the city of New York.

Here is the moral dilemma of the novel: is it moral to kill over 3 million people in an effort to save over 6 billion? If your answer is an immediate “No,” ask yourself what you think of President Truman, who used this very justification to drop atomic weapons on the citizens of two peaceful Japanese cities in August 1945, in order to save lives.

Here is the political dilemma of the novel: how do you protect yourself from your protectors? Who watches the watchmen? Who guards the guardians? Quis custodiet ipsos custodes? How can you protect yourself when power tends to corrupt and superpowers corrupt absolutely?

The novel is a literary and artistic triumph. It is the only graphic novel to appear in Time’s list of the 100 most influential novels of the 20th century. It is still widely sold, read, referenced, quoted, and adored two decades after its original publication.

And, until recently, it was considered unfilmable. The book has justly been described as having a crystalline structure, multifaceted and densely connected, with an internal lattice linking each part to all the others. There’s simply too much to include in a movie, and yet nothing can be cut without a significant loss of integrity. A series of producers and directors has looked into the possibility of filming it, but all gave up. Until recently.

Director Zack Snyder, a “Watchmen” aficionado already familiar with transforming graphic novels to the silver screen from his work on “300,” offered to try. It was a courageous effort. But did it work, or did it turn out like the Batman wannabes seen at the beginning of “Dark Knight”: well-intentioned, wanting to imitate a noble hero, but just getting into trouble in the end?

The movie captures well the moral bleakness of the novel:

  • The implacability of Rorschach, the lone masked vigilante who refuses to stop fighting crime after passage of the Keene Act, outlawing masks: “We do not do this because it is permitted … We do this because we are compelled.”
  • The gradual distancing from human concerns by Dr. Manhattan, a god who more and more seeks to be free of people and their petty squabbles: “Don’t you see the futility of asking me to save a world that I no longer have any stake in?”
  • The railing impotence, physical and existential, of being unable to control events, a feeling that vanishes for Nite Owl once he puts on the mask: “No matter how black it got, when I looked through these goggles … everything was clear as day.”

Snyder renders the scenes from the novel with devotional detail, recreating many scenes directly. The surface of the crystal looks amazingly realistic, capturing the novel as a glove does a hand, a mask does a face. But when we look more deeply, the lattice is incomplete, the connections less clear, the motivations underdeveloped. Questions remain unresolved:

  • Why does the Comedian confide in Moloch, an arch-enemy? His motives are clear in the novel but not in the movie. -Why does Dr. Manhattan agree to go along with Veidt? It is clear in the novel but less so in the movie.
  • What is (and what is the point of) the New Frontiersman office at the movie’s end, where Rorschach drops off his journal? It is a clever ending in the book but a confusing deus ex machina in the movie.

To pack so dense a novel into less than three hours, a few things had to go. Snyder modified the ending – no giant alien creature is transported into New York – though millions still die and the moral dilemma of killing millions to save billions remains; lost, also, are the crystalline linkages of the novel. No fake giant alien means no island of scientists and writers creating a giant alien. The movie never explains how the Comedian comes across this information (chancing on the island is how the Comedian discovered Ozymandias’ plot to kill half of New York), making the scene between him and Moloch unmoored, or should I say unMoored.

Other modifications are meant, I suspect, to satisfy Hollywood’s concerns about morality. The movie mysteriously ages the original Silk Spectre two years (from 65 to 67) and ages Blake, the Comedian, six years (born in 1918 rather. than 1924). Why? I can only imagine it’s because Hollywood is more comfortable with a 22-year-old man attempting to rape a 22-year-old woman than a scene in which a 16-year-old boy tries to rape a 20-year-old woman.

The movie shines most when it adds touches not in the book but consistent with the mythos Moore created. This is most striking in the opening montage, which creates some clever vignettes not· found in the novel. For example, while “The Times, They Are A-Changin'” plays in the background, there’s a six-second scene of the 1930s, with the original Nite Owl in his prime stopping a gun-toting petty criminal in an alleyway. Behind Nite Owl, on a wall, are posters of Batman. These posters represent the cover of “Detective #27,” which contained the first appearance of the Batman. Along the left side of the screen are two well-dressed men and a woman with a pearl necklace. No doubt most moviegoers fail to get it, but they represent Dr. Thomas Wayne; his wife, Martha; and their butler/driver Alfred. Nite Owl (a Batman archetype) is stopping the killing of Bruce Wayne’s parents, preventing the very act that turns Wayne into Batman. It’s a very clever riff for the comic geek crowd. The movie is full of stuff like this, suggesting good sales of the Blu-Ray DVD, which fans will study frame by frame.

The “Watchmen” movie closely adheres to the novel’s theme and plot, much more than the movie “V for Vendetta” did to Moore’s other famous graphic novel. A significant amount of Moore’s felicitous prose is retained in the movie, a major plus. But the movie often feels hollow, like a shelled-out crystal, unable to hold the weight of the plot. It would have been better as a two-part movie, much like “Kill Bill,” Volumes 1 and 2, with the second movie released a few months after the first.

Snyder has something similar in mind. Remember that comic-within-a-comic? “Tales of the Black Freighter” doesn’t appear in this movie, but it will be coming out in late March as a DVDiTunes download. It will be done in animation, and I expect it will be a fairly literal translation of Moore’s pirate tale. Later in the year, an expanded DVD will be released with scenes cut from the movie, adding and interweaving the pirate story.

Who watches the Watchmen? It’s a question Hollywood and political philosophers have long asked. One week after its debut, the movie is doing very well among the initiated (a niche audience). It is doing less well with the general public. It is more cerebral than many want in a “superhero” movie, yet less thoughtful than it could have been. At 2 hours, 43 minutes, it is longer than most movie viewers prefer, yet shorter than true fans would have preferred. The desired political answer to the question of who watches the Watchmen – all of us – is sadly not going to be the response this well-intentioned attempt at the possibly impossible will receive.

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