Watchmen a.k.a. “Watchmen: The IMAX Experience,” “Cel ce vegheaza,” “Cuvari,” “Strázci—Watchmen,” “Watchmen—Die Wächter,” “Watchmen—O Filme”
Reviewed by: Michael Karounos
Sci-Fi, Mystery, Adventure, Action, Thriller, Drama
2 hr. 43 min.
Year of Release:
March 6, 2009 (wide—3,500 theaters)
About murder in the Bible
What is the Biblical perspective on war? Answer
NUDITY—Why are humans supposed to wear clothes? Answer
VIOLENCE—How does viewing violence in movies affect families? Answer
How can we know there’s a God? Answer
What if the cosmos is all that there is? Answer
If God made everything, who made God? Answer
What does God say? Answer
Why does God allow innocent people to suffer? Answer
Discover the good news that Jesus Christ offers
“Justice is coming to all of us. No matter what we do.”
For conservative Christian audiences, the prospect of seeing Zack Snyder’s “Watchmen” is a non-starter. There is male frontal nudity (albeit blue and animated); numerous instances of blasphemy; shots of women’s breasts; gory violence; and a nude love-making scene. I suspect that (with the exception of Dr. Manhattan’s nudity) such content is put in there for the fanboys, because it doesn’t contribute to the story or to the film as an aesthetic pleasure.
However, those caveats aside, let me state at the outset that “Watchmen” is a serious work of art. Calling the synthesis of comics and ideas “serious art” seems oxymoronic, but it is not. Alan Moore’s “Watchmen” is serious in a way that most comics are not, for the simple reason that it contains commentary on the Cold War, the Vietnam War, the prospect of nuclear destruction, quantum physics, the peace movement, social issues such as drugs and crime, and the philosophical significance of power and the use of violence. This seriousness is compelling, but, in its specifics, it is also the Achilles heel of the film, because all the references are so dated. This kind of newspaper topicality is what Robert Frost avoided in his poetry, saying, for example: “Eliot has written in the throes of getting religion and foreswearing a world gone bad with war. That seems deep.” That seems deep. The killing irony is that there is no news worse than old news. Who cares about World War I now? That is why Frost is read and enjoyed by more undergraduates than Eliot or Pound is. Frost’s depth is metaphysical, not political.
This is Watchmen’s great virtue as well. Although it is a relentlessly political commentary and anti-conservative, that is the weakest aspect of the work. The strongest aspect is the character of Dr. Manhattan who provides a profound metaphysical dimension around which the temporal issues orbit like planets around the sun. Arguably, without that character, “Watchmen” would be a very good comic book series, but not the classic that it is. The other problem with the movie, besides the topicality of faded 1960s issues, is the disjointed narrative style that it faithfully copies from the comic book. There are intermittent flashbacks that jump from 1940 to 1959 to 1965 to 1985 and points in between. This makes it difficult to follow, if you haven’t read the graphic novel. Preferably, twice.
For those not familiar with it, the novel charts the rise of heroes in the United States from the 1940s. These heroes are roughly analogous to American military power and the strengths of its civil society. Dr. Manhattan represents the advent of the nuclear age and the advantage the United States holds over the rest of the world. The retelling of the past (known as “alternate history” in genre terms) occurs in 1985, in the journal of Rorschach, one of the heroes. In addition to him and Dr. Manhattan, there is Nite Owl, the Comedian, the Silk Spectre II, and Ozymandias. The movie opens with the death of one of the characters and the suspicion that someone is out to kill all of them. This, as illustrator Dave Gibbons describes in numerous interviews, is the Hitchcockian “macguffin,” the pretense of the plot. But the movie is about character and ideas, not plot.
Rorschach takes us on a picturesque tour of history through his investigations in space and time. In 1977, the Keene Act outlawed the heroes, and those who didn’t go insane or weren’t killed were forced to retire. Nixon is into his third term, the United States won the Vietnam War, and the Soviets are threatening a nuclear war. That is the social background of the novel.
Equally compelling to the metaphysical and political elements are the emotional issues. The characters are fully fleshed-out in their relationships to one another, their histories together, their resentments and friendships, and in that sense the novel is epic in scope, traversing all boundaries. The affairs between the characters are convincing and felt: the pains are real, the pleasures are real, the human issues which separate them are real. Compared to “Watchmen,” the “X-Men” movies are adolescent exercises in adult conversation, and don’t get me started on the infantile level of “Star Wars.” “Watchmen” is a film for adult tastes and sensibilities.
Violence as an expression of power is central to the understanding of the movie and the characters. In an interview, Alan Moore stated, “And yes, Watchmen came to be about power. About power and about the idea of the superman manifest within society.” The idea of a Nitzschean “superman” is perfect for the conception of a superhero. Similarly, power and the “superman” is what “The Dark Knight” is about as well. In that film, power is wielded by criminal gangs, by the police, by Batman, and by the Joker. Each of them has a different ethic in their use of violence. The police are deontological, placing the law above all other considerations. The criminal gangs and corrupt police officers are utilitarians: whatever action benefits them the most is the best action. Batman operates on virtue theory: the action must be “right” because it is intrinsically the right thing to do, whether it is legal (deontological) in the eyes of the law or beneficial (utilitarian) to him doesn’t matter. The Joker is non-ethical. He is the supreme nihilist and doesn’t even recognize a value system with “good” or “bad” as descriptors. Seen from this perspective, societal conflict is a conflict of value systems and force.
“Watchmen” is similar to “The Dark Knight” in that way. There are power constituencies (the military, the police, the heroes, the Russians, etc.), all of whom use force in accordance with their ethics. Moore stated in another interview, “We tried to set up four or five radically opposing ways of seeing the world and let the readers figure it out for themselves; let them make a moral decision for once in their miserable lives!” It is important to know that Moore is a self-proclaimed anarchist. Anarchism as a system of thought is a radical left ideology which is anti-authoritarian. This is why in Moore’s “V for Vendetta” and in “Watchmen” there are characters who wish to recreate a new order by first destroying an existing order, as in the prison riot. Toward that end, Moore gives us moral “choices” on the philosophical use of violence.
Those moral choices are represented by the kind of “hero” we identify with. Rorschach is described as a psychopath, but in fact he is the movie’s legalist, the deontologist who adheres ruthlessly to the strict letter of the law. The Comedian is perhaps a hedonist, doing only that which gives him pleasure, though it may not be “good” for him. Nite Owl, like his doppelganger, Batman, is an aretaic; he wants to do the right thing in any given situation, as does Silk Specter, although that sometimes means crossing the law. Ozymandias is a utilitarian, willing to sacrifice some to save many. And Dr. Manhattan is the ultimate existential materialist: he exists in Time, not Space, and sees life itself as matter. At one point, he argues that a dead body has the same amount of matter as the living one, and he speculates what benefit life is to the universe.
Also, like “The Dark Knight,” the movie takes its violence seriously. Force exists as an ethical statement—punitive, pleasurable, beneficial, destructive—and not as a gratuitous exercise of force for the sake of force.
“Watchmen” is a long viewing. It is sometimes ponderous, grisly, and confusing, but for those who have read the book and have reasonable expectations of what can be done in cinematic form, it is an instant classic—a tour de force which asks universal questions through comic book characters. For Christians, Dr. Manhattan represents the seeker who questions the existence of God and the meaning of life. His questions are in part answered in the realization that life is a miracle, “gold from air,” unexplained by the processes of nature. When the movie is over, the character that viewers will be most interested in is Dr. Manhattan and his journey to another galaxy, a journey he wouldn’t make if he were just interested in matter.
Violence: Extreme / Profanity: Heavy / Sex/Nudity: Extreme
See list of Relevant Issues—questions-and-answers.