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America Is a Dangerous Vigilante, Heroes Are Sociopaths: The Not-So-Mythical World of 'Watchmen'

"Watchmen" depicts what happens when an individual or a nation assumes unwarranted and unlimited powers.

Watchmen -- the astonishing and reverent adaptation of Alan Moore's classic graphic novel -- brings to life a fascinating alternate world; a 1985 in which the Cold War between the United States and the Soviet Union is an omnipresent threat. The conflict is on the verge of going nuclear, and the Doomsday Clock inches inexorably towards midnight. Public fear is reaching a breaking point, and it appears that nothing and no one can prevent humanity's extinction

Not even our superheroes.

This is the brilliant conceit of Watchmen: The book and movie are set in a recognizable world, only one inhabited by actual superheroes.

It's a world vastly different from any previous depiction in comics. For one thing, anyone adopting the persona of a vigilante and dressing in costume to fight crime is a borderline personality. More significantly however, is that if a Superman did exist, and if he did in fact fight for "the American Way" -- the way Kal-El did in the Superman comics -- then this would profoundly distort the global balance of power.

In this alternate 1985, masked superheroes -- more accurately, vigilantes -- have been a fact of American life for more than a generation, having burst on the scene in 1939, only to be banned by the federal "Keene Act" in 1977 after large-scale strikes by the police led to anarchy.

However nominally it may be about these costumed vigilantes, Watchmen's most significant vigilante is actually the United States itself: having outlawed them domestically, America nonetheless reserves for itself the right to employ the godlike powers of one superhero and the psychopathic violence of another to "shock and awe" its foes in foreign wars and to topple Marxist governments.

Author Alan Moore and illustrator Dave Gibbons intended Watchmen as a meditation on power, and their relentless deconstruction of our notions of the heroic is closely tied to their views on the exercise of geopolitical power -- as one of the many books-within-a-book in the graphic novel put it, it's about the relationship between "Super-powers and the Superpowers."

The film's one all-powerful character is Jon Osterman (Billy Crudup), a physicist whose nuclear accident in 1959 transformed him into a super-being that the U.S. government (with the intention of intimidating other nations) dubs "Dr. Manhattan."

Living outside of linear time, able to teleport himself anywhere in the universe and to rearrange matter at will, Dr. Manhattan is objective to the point of indifference, and while he works for the government, he feels no moral foundation for his actions. Having him act for the U.S. military results in a Republican's wet dream: he annihilates the Viet Cong, leading to a victory in Vietnam (which in the novel eventually becomes the 51st state) and a series of re-elections for term-limitless President Richard Nixon.

The other Watchman working for the government is the Comedian (Jeffrey Dean Morgan), a sociopath and rapist who enjoys dealing out death and pain. He fought in Vietnam, and is shown to have been the "grassy knoll" gunman who assassinated President John F. Kennedy. As he goes on a rampage against a mob of demonstrators, another Watchman despairingly asks him, "What happened to the American Dream?" he replies, "It came true! You're looking at it!"

Between the omnipotent amorality of Dr. Manhattan and the immorality of the Comedian, the United States has achieved unquestioned global dominance. However, when the Comedian is killed in the opening scenes, and Dr. Manhattan later leaves Earth for Mars, America is suddenly stripped of its invulnerability. Nixon (Robert Wisden) and his generals retreat to an uncanny reproduction of the war room in the film Dr. Strangelove.

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