Watching the Watchmen

Watchmen – I actually read the graphic novel on which this film was based a few years back, but I don’t recall if I wrote about it at the time. I had to return it to the library before finishing it and then read the end at a bookstore, so my memories of the rest of it weren’t so great by that time. The movie refreshed my memory about a lot of it, though. The comic was sort of a deconstruction of the idea of superheroes, and while I liked it, I wasn’t quite sure what the message was supposed to be. Not that there has to be a message, but it was interesting how so many of the characters seemed to be nihilists. The Comedian is a jerky rapist who considers everything to be a joke, Rorschach someone who hates humanity and has a particular distaste for liberal philosophy, Dr. Manhattan separated from mankind by his super-powered brain (although he’s still human enough to leave his girlfriend for a younger woman), and Ozymandias thinks the way to help the world is to kill a bunch of people. I don’t know that it’s necessarily promoting a nihilistic worldview, but it didn’t appear to be totally against it either. Apparently writer Alan Moore identifies as an anarchist, as well as an anti-tonsorialist.

Although gritty superhero stories were certainly nothing new in the 1980s, there does seem to be a general sense of idealism to the genre, and Watchmen is largely but maybe not totally rejecting that. The movie was made more than twenty years after the comic had been finished, with a few different directors having given up on the idea of filming it. From what I remember of the graphic novel, the film was pretty faithful, with the biggest change being the ending. I think that might have actually made more sense in the movie, though, as it returned to the theme of impending nuclear war. I didn’t know most of the actors in the film, although I do remember Jackie Earle Haley as Freddy Krueger in the Nightmare on Elm Street remake, and totally misrepresenting the character as far as I’m concerned. I think he used pretty much exactly the same voice for Rorschach. Speaking of voices, Dr. Manhattan’s struck me as the kind someone might use when reading to a child. I seem to recall Richard Nixon having been elected for a third time as something that didn’t come up until later in the comic, while the movie mentioned it right away. Speaking of which, Back to the Future Part II had a newspaper from the altered version of 1985 mentioning Nixon running for a fourth term.

Not sure how Biff being rich would have had any impact on that, but I do wonder if it was an intentional Watchmen reference. Also, there was a clever joke at the end of the graphic novel about an actor with the initials RR preparing for a presidential run in 1988. This turned out to be Robert Redford, but the movie just flat-out mentioned Reagan, probably because the gag would have been harder to pull off in a different medium.

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2 Responses to Watching the Watchmen

  1. samuraifrog says:

    It’s worth noting, too, that Alan Moore originally wrote Watchmen using specific heroes: the characters that DC had recently acquired from Charlton Comics. (Nite Owl was Blue Beetle, the Comedian was the Shield, Doctor Manhattan was Captain Atom, Ozymandias was Thunderbolt, Rorschach was the Question, Silk Spectre was Nightshade). DC got cold feet about using them. So, initially, he was deconstructing actual comic book characters, which is a fascinating idea.

    The point of the comic book always seemed to me to be that people who set themselves apart from “the rest of” humanity are corrupted by the way they think of themselves as special and separate. Which is what really makes the presence of Richard Nixon work, I think. For all of Rorschach’s nihilistic ramblings about humanity, I think Alan Moore comes out on the side of the people. Really, none of the Watchmen are “right,” because they’re all making decisions about the future of the human race on its unknowing behalf, so everything they say comes from an unreliable source. The important part of the ending, for me anyway, is that Rorschach’s journal ends up in the hands of a tabloid. Whatever his cynicism, he at least gave people the information to make their own decisions about their destiny.

    • Nathan says:

      Yeah, I’d read that about Watchmen originally using already established superheroes, and about the main theme being that you couldn’t count on heroes. I don’t know that much about comic history, but wasn’t the Question one of Steve Ditko’s super-right-wing characters? That would help to explain why Rorschach seemed to hate liberal philosophy in particular.

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