Imagine a world in which a human being developed godlike powers and put them to military use. War might soon be a thing of the past. Imagine this world also tolerating people who dress up in costumes to avenge crime before -- as worlds often do -- turning its back on these vigilantes in search of another scapegoat on whom to project its hunger for violence.
This is the world of Watchmen, one of the most serious and elegant graphic novels ever written. This is not the world of Watchmen, one of the most talked-about movies ever made.
In the moral universe of the novel, created by Alan Moore and Dave Gibbons as a meditation on power at the height of the Cold War, Richard Nixon is, in 1985, the apparently permanent president; celebrity and industry have struck a devil's bargain with politics and militarism; the streets run dark red with the aftermath of the shattering of community bonds; and vigilantism is an inevitable outworking of society's sickness. The costumed avengers, as they call themselves, have been banned from their activities, Nixon having made masks illegal (which gives you a sense of the knowing ironic tone of the book). Most of them have retired, happy to be left alone, but quietly grieving a previous life so exciting that it can't be compared to what they have now.
One of them is the godlike being -- Dr. Manhattan -- who is introduced to the world with the headline: 'The Superman exists and he is American." (Later a colleague clarifies the intent, revising his statement thus: "God exists, and he is American." He offers words of comfort to anyone who feels terrified by such a sentiment, saying that their fear is merely an indication that they haven't lost their minds entirely.) This telegraphs the heart of the book: When power is treated as right rather than privilege, when violence is assumed to be the path to peace, when people define themselves primarily as nations rather than a global community, and when sexuality is wrapped up with force, you get perpetual war.
The book is utterly fascinating, bleak, and serious.
The film gets the second part right. It's bleak. Bleak as hell. And I mean that as literally as I can. In the moral universe of the Watchmen movie, all reflective thought is banished in favor of an astonishing visual setup -- one of the most visually stunning films ever made turns out to be also one of the biggest missed opportunities. Is violence inherent to human nature? Do people always default to selfishness? Does fame depend on the exploitation of others? In what sense does the love of money lead inexorably to the destruction of community? These, and many other questions are left quietly alone, allowing the movie to indulge its (admittedly talented) director's taste for showcase thuggery. You've never seen blood flow like you do in this movie.
In spite of some good casting alongside the brilliant photography and art direction, the film is a far cry from the somber philosophical text on which it's based. Moore has said that, among other things, he wanted to explore what "a Batman-type, driven, vengeance-fueled psychopath would be like in the real world." Clearly the authorial intent was to ask serious questions about how we allow violence to be done in our name. Yet the film presents this "Batman-type" character in such a manner that at the first screening I saw, when he carried out a horrific act of violence, the audience applauded. I don't think the filmmakers were being ironic. When the story in the novel climaxes with a "kill a few to save a lot" ending, we're supposed to wonder if there might just be a better way to bring peace than to commit genocide. But the film doesn't have enough heart to make us care about the future of humanity. It's a color photocopy of the source novel -- a clone without a soul. The novel aims to tell the truth about violence, but the film wants us to be excited by it. In a world with vengeance-fueled superheroes running the show, people would be afraid to be afraid, but the movie made me feel afraid for how we often tell the story of human beings to each other these days. The book mourns how we so often see violence as a positive path. But the film celebrates it.
Dr. Gareth Higgins is a writer and broadcaster from Belfast, Northern Ireland, who has worked as an academic and activist. He is the author of the insightful How Movies Helped Save My Soul: Finding Spiritual Fingerprints in Culturally Significant Films. He blogs at www.godisnotelsewhere.blogspot.com and co-presents "The Film Talk" podcast with Jett Loe at www.thefilmtalk.com.