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


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.

It is now up to the film's remaining characters -- despite their lack of actual superpowers -- to solve the mystery of The Comedian's murder and prevent the end of the world.

Leading the investigation is the implacable Rorschach (Jackie Earle Hailey), a mentally disturbed vigilante once known as Walter Kovacs, who has spent years facing down the criminal underworld. He is joined by his onetime partner Dan Dreiberg, the Night Owl (Patrick Wilson), a Batman-esque scientist with an array of high-tech gadgets and vehicles, as well as Laurie Jupiter, the Silk Specter (Malin Akerman), a companion to Dr. Manhattan. The most powerful of them all is Adrian Veidt, aka Ozymandias (Matthew Goode), a tremendously fit and intelligent multimillionaire.

Moore (who has disassociated himself from the film and removed his name from the credits) and Gibbons used these characters to thoroughly deconstruct the traditional superhero. These "masks" are either deeply flawed, mentally disturbed or morally dubious. They have, with no real justification or authority, laid claim to powers not available to their fellow citizens. For all their presumption, however, they are collectively unable to succeed, either as crime fighters or saviors.

Grady Hendrix, writing at Slate, observes:

Watchmen made the point that superheroes, realistic or otherwise, were beside the point. Its costumed do-gooders are retired, impotent or insane, and they generally do more harm than good. Their adversaries are virtually nonexistent, and when we do see them, they look more like Vegas magicians than world-class threats. When the villain's master plan is finally revealed, the heroes are helpless to prevent it from coming to fruition ...

The film simplifies the multilayered complexity of Moore's and Gibbons' vision, but is remarkably faithful to it, even to the point of lovingly re-creating its imagery. While it sanitizes the notoriously gory climax of the novel, it does however amplify to a sometimes shocking degree the rest of its violence.

As well, we see our "heroes" variously shoot, stab, cleave, deep-fry, torture and disintegrate their suspects and assailants. While set ostensibly a generation ago, the film's depiction of extrajudicial violence seems right at home in the era of Abu Ghraib.

Yet Watchmen's several lingering views of the Twin Towers of the World Trade Center underscore just how far removed its brutal cynicism about heroism is from the role heroism has played in our post-9/11 political and media cultures.

Eager to promote an unquestioning patriotic meta-narrative, our politicians and news media have made a regular national ceremony out of dubbing ordinary people doing admirable and dangerous work as heroes. Susan Faludi, in her recent book, The Terror Dream, showed how this cult of heroism not only fueled regressive gender politics but helped to thwart asking the real questions about how the federal government had failed to protect the country before the 9/11 attacks and the rescue workers in the weeks and months afterward.

Since then, the practice of hero worship has become so prevalent, the Los Angeles Times' Rosa Brooks recently pointed out, that the overuse of "hero" actually leads to the devaluation of genuine acts of heroism.

At the same time -- and more ominously -- it all too easily accommodates a drift toward totalitarianism. Umberto Eco, in his influential 1995 essay, "14 Ways of Looking at a Blackshirt," confirms this relationship, stating that in an "Ur-fascist" society, everyone is educated to become a hero.

The consequences of this hero culture and self-idolatry, according to Chris Hedges (author of War is a Force That Gives Us Meaning), are distorted domestic politics and a "culture of atrocity" when America goes to war:

We make our [soldier] heroes out of clay. We laud their gallant deeds. We give them uniforms with colored ribbons for the acts of violence committed or endured. They are our false repositories of glory and honor, of power, of self-righteousness, of patriotism and self-worship, all that we want to believe about ourselves. They are our plaster saints, the icons we cheer to defend us and make us and our nation great. They are the props of our demented civic religion, our love of power and force, our belief in our right as a chosen nation to wield this force against the weak. This is our nation's idolatry of itself.

Watchmen warns us of the dangers that lurk within the ideology of heroism. The film's villain has, under the mantle of heroism and with all noble intentions to meet the greater good, doomed millions of people to die. The United States, too, is shown to be seduced by this power, using superheroes to do even more effectively what it has actually done in the post-Cold War era: attack other nations unilaterally, violently and with impunity -- acting as William Blum puts it, as a rogue state.

But the assumption and use of these powers is seen to come to naught. Ultimate power of course not only corrupts but is too easily abused, turned against oneself, or indeed, lost altogether.

Watchmen tells of the terrible consequences that can ensue when an individual or a nation assumes unwarranted and unlimited powers; for with the donning of the hero's cloak of righteousness, everything becomes permissible.

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