Does superpower corrupt? Absolutely.
By Jared Peterson
Watchmen is a pitch-dark exploration of human nature and the corruptions of superpower on the eve of impending doom. In the story’s alternate history, costumed superheroes have been around since the forties, taking the law into their own hands and soaking up publicity and adulation from a grateful public. But after three decades, the honeymoon is over and masked heroics are condemned as vigilantism and declared illegal. The heroes are forced to reclaim their secret identities and lead normal lives. Two refuse to retire. Rorschach (Jackie Earle Haley), the film’s narrator, is a vigilante in the familiar sense—angry, paranoid and disgusted by the vice and hypocrisy all around him. The Comedian (Jeffrey Dean Morgan) is a cynical brute whose normal life is as a government operative conducting sinister interventions in the world’s conflicts.
Now it’s 1985. President Nixon is in his fifth term, riding a seemingly endless wave of support following his swift and decisive victory in Vietnam. The U.S. has occupied Afghanistan, set up shop at the Soviets’ doorstep, and flaunted its most fearsome weapon: an omnipotent superbeing called Dr. Manhattan. Once a mild-mannered physicist named Jon Osterman (Billy Crudup), he was incinerated in a nuclear mishap and reborn as a muscular, glowing blue figure with the ability to manipulate matter at the atomic level. He can destroy anything or anyone with only a thought, and he stands as a one-man nuclear deterrent in a world gone half-mad.
Though conceived by British comics legends Alan Moore and Dave Gibbons at the height of eighties nuclear paranoia, this story of American corruption and arrogance in an era of fear has remained relevant into the twenty-first century. When asked what happened to the American dream, The Comedian offers this smirking, cynical assessment: “It came true. You’re looking at it.” And indeed, Watchmen’s shadow America gets what it wished for—power, dominance, impunity. But choked of hope and dignity, it loses its soul.
The Watchmen graphic novel is a dense, layered and ambitious work widely credited with establishing comics as a legitimate literary form. (Time magazine saw fit to set it among the one hundred best novels, graphic or otherwise, of all time.) In some ways, it is the Macbeth of comics. The filmmakers—director Zack Snyder (X-Men, 300) and writers David Hayter and Alex Tse—certainly seem to think so. They reverently recreate much of the source material shot for shot and line for line. At nearly three hours, blockbuster action is juxtaposed with long stretches of expository dialogue and political and philosophical musing. The result is both stunning and wearying.
As for the film’s R-rated action and content, the kind word to use is unsparing. Nothing in it is implied or suggested—the very raw material is plainly evident and graphically portrayed. By about fifteen minutes into the picture, the violence has migrated from action over into atmosphere, permeating the film like a cold sweat. There are many shootings, all closely observed. The Comedian, who is casually cruel and not at all funny, attempts to rape one woman and shoots another who is pregnant with his child. Yeah. The good guys aren’t nice, and the bad guys aren’t caught; instead, they are beaten, maimed and frequently killed. Several scenes border on anatomy lessons, as the camera slows and lingers to take in the gory details. Over and over, bodies are split and drained, limbs fractured and severed, skin burned and bitten. (You heard me—bitten.) And a few poor folks are essentially pureed, ripped apart from the inside out and spattered in all directions, courtesy of Dr. Manhattan’s mastery of matter. It’s brutal, and sometimes hard to watch.
Speaking of which… As you may have heard, there is some glowing blue nudity in the film. At formal occasions, Dr. Manhattan dons a well-tailored suit; otherwise he wears little or nothing, and there are a few moments when the camera simply fails to pan away from his nether regions. Little comfort, perhaps, to some viewers, but there’s actually a narrative purpose for this: Dr. Manhattan’s nakedness and his (and the camera’s) indifference to it communicate Osterman’s retreat from human affairs and his dwindling interest in whether we destroy ourselves. But no matter how (or whether) you look at it, he’s a man in full.
Characters are also portrayed in flagrante, both in bed and out, naked and covered. Love’s for sale on the streets, and cocktails indoors. We catch a quick glimpse of a copy of Hustler on The Comedian’s end table and a cheap, dirty comic book featuring one of the old-time heroines. The old profane chestnuts are rolled out, including the f-word—downright quaint in the company of severed limbs and liquefied bodies.
The viciously-fought and hard-won lesson of Watchmen is simply that nobody’s perfect, even–and perhaps especially–those who wear masks and say they want to help.
At a March 7th screening the following previews were shown, none of them with material nearly as bad as that I’ve described above: Observe and Report (R), starring Seth Rogen, who can seemingly do anything he wants; Terminator Salvation (not yet rated), with Christian Bale, who seems like a polite young man; Public Enemies (R), with Johnny Depp as an American, for once; Star Trek (not yet rated), with young whipper-snappers lining up for their chance to be typecast; Angels & Demons (not yet rated), with Tom Hanks and his magical hair; and X-Men Origins: Wolverine (not yet rated), with Hugh Jackman, whom I will now allow my editor and colleague Kristen to fawn over—annnnnnd go:[Kristen: He is shirtless a lot in that preview. Thank you, trailer guys!]
Jared Peterson writes about film and popular culture for Chesapeake Family Magazine. His secret identity is available at http://proweirdo.blogspot.com and http://panandscanblog.wordpress.com. He last reviewed Street Fighter: The Legend of Chun Li.