Near the start of Watchmen, Adrian Veidt (Matthew Good), the “world’s smartest man” and erstwhile masked superhero Ozymandias, chides the leaders of industry (including Lee Iacocca [Walter Addison]) for resisting his newly developed energy source. As he explains his intention to distribute this energy for free, an instrumental “office” version of Tears for Fears’ “Everybody Wants to Rule the World” plays in the background. It’s funny and it’s apt. Throughout, the film incorporates the musical hits and detritus of the past 40 years to anchor its fantastic super-heroics in recent US history.
In this detective story set in an alternate version of 1985, the U.S. won the Vietnam War (with the help of superheroes Dr. Manhattan [Billy Crudup] and The Comedian [Jeffrey Dean Morgan]) and Richard Nixon (Robert Wisden) has been elected to a third term in office. The film’s excellent opening credit sequence, soundtracked by Bob Dylan’s “The Times They Are A-Changin,'” sets up this America through a series of tableaux vivants depicting scenes familiar and new. Here, for example, superheroes are incorporated into the everyday and the famous post-WWII photograph “V-J Day in Times Square” is recast with the costumed superheroine Silhouette (Apollonia Vanova) in the role of the GI kissing a pretty nurse.
First published in serial form in 1986-1987, Alan Moore and Dave Gibbons’ Watchmen transformed presumptions of what comics could “do.” The good news for fans is that Zack Snyder, along with screenwriters David Hayter and Alex Tse, maintains most of the source’s complexities. True, many of the digressions and philosophical depths of the comic series are missing (for instance, the interspersed story of the young boy reading issue after issue of the fictional comic series, “Tales of the Black Freighter” — Moore’s commentary on comics, popular fiction, and the functions of storytelling and myth — has wisely been cut from the film). Nonetheless, Watchmen maintains the comic’s central questions regarding individual and collective morality, ethical action, and exercises of power.
In its considerations of power and responsibility, Watchmen is essentially nihilistic. While it asks what would be different if the US had triumphed in Southeast Asia, the answer is bleak. Nothing much in world affairs is different here. In this alternative world, warmongering and aggression are still the U.S. order of the day. The Cold War is still in effect and the U.S. and USSR are on the brink of nuclear war. However, possessing the ultimate super-weapon, Dr. Manhattan, has allowed Nixon (Robert Wisden) and Henry Kissinger (Frank Novak) to enact even more belligerent international policies.
Moreover, corporate capitalism remains the ruling economic ideology, epitomized in Veidt Industries, involved in the production of nearly everything, including “toys, lunchboxes, and genetic engineering.” Institutions are corrupt, with officials and superheroes alike driven by self-interest. According to Rorschach (Jackie Earle Haley) — whose journal entries provide voiceover narration and moral commentary for the film — The Comedian is “practically a Nazi.” As Rorschach sees it, his big cruel ego has only been exacerbated by the carte blanche extended to him by the US military authorities. Veidt insists he’s trying to make the world a better place by giving free energy to all, but he is at the same time selfish and greedy. Even as Veidt asserts that only he can save the world, after a near-apocalypse has left a smoking crater in the middle of New York City, it’s Veidt Industries that are already at work rebuilding, a la Halliburton.
Ozymandias’ conundrums are juxtaposed with those of Dr. Manhattan. Formerly a nuclear physicist who was transformed into an omnipotent supra-human being by a lab test gone wrong, Dr. Manhattan has the power either to save or destroy humanity. Radically detached from and different from “the rest of us,” Dr. Manhattan wonders why he should even bother being concerned with the fate of humanity. While Spider-Man received his moral aegis from his saintly Uncle Ben (“With great power comes great responsibility”), Dr. Manhattan wonders whether to save the human race at all.
Watchmen complicates its ethical ruminations over the human race per se by considering the effects of violence experienced on the individual level. The relationship between Sally Jupiter (Carla Gugino) and daughter Laurie (Malin Akerman) is particularly fraught. The original Silk Specter (an avocation subsequently taken up by her daughter), Sally is troubled by a personal history of domestic and sexual violence. The consequences have affected both women, and a lifetime of wondering whether she has made the “right” choices has led Sally to numb herself with alcohol, and Laurie potentially to repeat her mother’s actions in a psychologically (though not physically) abusive relationship with Dr. Manhattan.
The women’s stories never quite resolve in this film, but Rorschach’s is even pricklier. The result of a protracted childhood of mental and physical abuse, he has adopted a sense of moral absolutism. When, according to his own code, Rorschach decides that someone is “evil,” his “justice” is swift and vicious. In flashback, we see one of Rorschach’s first “cases,” a child kidnapper who begs to be arrested, because he “has a problem.” Unconvinced that the baddie was not fully cognizant of and intentional in his actions, Rorschach coolly and repeatedly axes his skull apart.
For Rorschach, there are clear lines between “good” and “evil,” and in this he is the most traditional of the superheroes in Watchmen. The problem is that Rorschach is also a monster himself. In a world, much like our own, in which any decision can be rationalized and situated as the “right” choice, Rorschach’s certitude is one chilling answer. It’s an answer, however, that leads right back to the foundational questions Watchmen raises about power and ethical action. If we accept Rorschach as the hero, are we willing to accept the consequences of a world ordered around his sense of absolute right and wrong? This is Watchmen‘s central challenge: how can we identify with a fascist and a sociopath?