The Watchmen and The Big Lie
Googling to find some appropriate artwork to illustrate excerpts from The Watchmen: A Look Back, we came across the most appalling illustration of its thesis. An arts blog putting it forth as an example of the fantasy escapism people turn to in a recession. The Watchmen is far from fantasy escapism. It is, as AI says, “probably the most misunderstood saga in comic book history.” It is a “harsh indictment of the late 20th century trend reinvisioning comic book heroes as psychopaths, yet it is celebrated as the seminal work in the genre doing exactly that. It’s not that shocking that comic book readers who imagine themselves so sophsticated are incapable of recognizing satire. It is shocking that the man who made a movie of The Watchmen is equally out of touch with the material.”
Who Understands the Watchmen?
In The Last Temptation of Christ, both the 1953 novel by Nikos Kazantzakis and the movie adaptation by Martin Scorcese, the apostle Paul is preaching the story of Jesus as we know it from the New Testament: died on the cross, rose from the dead, ascended into heaven, etc. He encounters the “human Jesus” that the book explores as a What If: a Jesus who preached and was crucified but was rescued from the cross. Who lived to marry and had children. An ordinary human man who lived an ordinary human life. Paul says “You’re no good to me. I need you on the cross. But I am very glad I met you, because now that I’ve seen you, I can forget you.” The wisdom of the book is not to run screaming from the mere suggestion of a human Jesus but to take a good hard look at the idea. To let it play out. The writer knows that to most people, it will ultimately be unsatisfying, and once it’s shortcomings are seen, the idea can be forgotten.
Imagine if instead the readers completely missed the point and held up The Last Temptation of Christ as the definitive dogma of the Christian faith?
In 1986, DC Comics began what is quite probably the most misunderstood saga in comic book history. The 12-issue limited run comic series called The Watchmen by Alan Moore “used the story as a means to reflect contemporary anxieties and to critique the superhero concept” and is “regarded by critics as a seminal text of the comics medium,” according to Wikipedia. Moore played into the spirit of the age, and of DC Comics in particular, which was on a kick rejecting the very notion of heroism as an outdated, simplistic and childish one. Moore spouted all the right rhetoric for people celebrating Frank Miller’s psychopaths and prostitutes as “more realistic” than the classic characters they replaced and a giant step forward for the genre. Moore spoke of “not regurgitating moral cliches” and the gullible fanboys ate it up, never once noticing the story on the page did not quite match up to what the author’s mouth was saying.
Consider his cast of deconstructed heroes and their fates:
There was Jon Osterman, aka Dr. Manhattan, who’d been a government patsy Superman pastiche, only his powers were so alien he’d slowly detached from all human emotion. Edward Blake, The Comedian, was a vile rapist sleaze masquerading as a hero, and he gets offed at the start. Daniel Dreilberg/Nite Owl and Laurie Juspeczyk/Silk Spectre who are basically normal, decent people, except for Spectre’s odd relationship with Jon. The simple-minded see the owl’s resemblance and decide Nite Owl must be Batman, without turning the page and noticing that Adrian Veidt, aka Ozymandias is smooth, charming, super rich and brilliant, sort of Bruce Wayne cross-bred with Tony-Stark. And we know where he went. And finally there is Walter Joseph Kovacs, aka Rorshach, a scruffy antisocial murderous psycho vigilante. Rorshach was a sick, sad, damaged little man trying to be a hero, it’s only that his idea of what constitutes ‘a hero’ is as wrong as can be. He is only sympathetic in a few scenes with Nite Owl, which are rather like watching a socially awkward friend show up at a party. You know the guy is hopeless, but he’s trying, and you sort of feel for him even as you cringe.
On the surface, The Watchmen fulfills Moore’s claim: “Look how EDGY and DARK I made your pretty 4-color heroes.” Until you look at the story that is unfolding: “Look, Fanboys! If your 4-color heroes were really edgy, dark and damaged the way you think you want them to be, they’d kill each other and cause an apocalyptic disaster. Happy?”
The aura of satire is palpable to any engaged reader, although it obviously eludes Zack Snyder, director of the disastrously slavish movie. I suppose it makes sense that Snyder, who made a career of working with Frank Miller, would not glean that Millerism is being debunked and not celebrated in The Watchmen. Or as one critic put it: “There’s a reason Batman doesn’t rampage around killing people, and that reason is Rorshach.”
And that is why the movie fails. Because it possesses that fanboy inability to see past the literal. It is still difficult to understand how anyone can read Watchmen and fail to grasp its true meaning. It’s as if Moore pushed a puppy’s nose into its carpet puddle so it would learns this is undesirable filth, and found the puppy mistook it for a celebration of dog urine.