Notwithstanding the provenance of this film, there are no cartoon characters in Watchmen. They were drawn much more richly and intricately than people you’d find in your average mass-market flick. That alone would differentiate Watchmen from the ordinary pap emanating from Hollywood. And being adapted from a graphic novel, its characters are drawn against a lush background, both literally and figuratively.
The counterfactual element of this background should be interesting for fans of political economy. In the story, the first gen Watchmen appear around the 1940s, when the U.S. was looking for heroes. The public welcomed the “Minutemen” (as they were then called) who fought crime at home and inspired victory abroad.
Alas, no one remains a media darling forever, especially if you’re fallible and powerful. The backlash coalesced around the slogan “Who will watch the Watchmen?” The answer of course was, “the government,” which led to something quite predictable in our world–licensing and regulation. In order to be allowed to continue their heroics, they would have to register with the authorities. The public choice mavens among you would no doubt ask, “Who will watch the people watching the Watchmen?”
So, Dr. Manhattan, the one Watchman with supernatural, almost god-like powers, becomes a civil servant tasked with preventing a nuclear holocaust. He eventually becomes so detached and melancholy that he ends up hardly caring if the whole human race dies. Don’t you get that feeling from the folks behind the counter at the Post Office?
The law drives most of the other Watchmen out of the crime-fighting business. The government’s monopoly on violence is preserved, and all is back to normal. Including Cold War governments threatening violence against each other that can destroy the planet. That’s where we find our largely retired heroes by 1985, with the nuclear countdown approaching zero. So, the driving question becomes, can retired, demoralized Watchmen save us from those who were supposed to watch the Watchmen? This is a problem because, as noted above, the powerful Dr. M, doesn’t give a damn.
Like Dr. Manhattan, this movie is unstuck in time, shuttling between the worrisome present and a turbulent past. As a flashback-and-forth device, it works fine here. But, maybe it’s me, I’m always a little annoyed when someone like Dr. M is able to experience the future in any way. It opens one up to infinitely recursive loops that mess with your head (not to mention nullifying all theories based on uncertainty).
The story is largely narrated by Rorschach, the moralistic vigilante who refused to retire. His paranoia propels the film’s suspense and provides its most viscerally compelling moments. Rorschach is driven to solve the murder of the retired masked hero once known as “The Comedian.” We eventually learn that Rorschach’s morality is not altogether noble, his paranoia is not altogether unwarranted, and The Comedian has a very unfunny demeanor.
Then there’s the relationship between Night Owl II and Silk Spectre II (second generation superheroes, retired young, she’s kept fitter than he). A lot of critics have a problem with gratuitous sex. Not me. Well, except for the cheesy Leonard Cohen soundtrack playing “Hallelujah” while they’re doing it. I do appreciate the fact that their romantic bond is not tested in some save-the-girl-or-save-the-world climax. I really appreciate that the love triangle between Silk Spectre, Night Owl, and Dr. M doesn’t lead to any angst between the three when it comes time to go after the bad guys, and that the distinction between good and bad guys remains ambiguous to the very end, and where “saving the world” means different things to different people.
Then there’s the brilliant, cocksure Ozymandias, who cashed in fabulously on his identity after retirement, making enough money to afford a Bond-villainesque Antarctic retreat. And, guess what? Contrary to the Hollywood code, he is not unambiguously evil, although his calculations turn out to be about as cold as his lair.
Needless to say, this film follows few of the formulaic conventions that the average movie-goer seems to crave. Watchmen, for all its flaws, works well on the level it’s supposed to work–a visual treat surrounding a bunch of personal stories that come together in a thoughtful denouement. And the blue guy finally leaves government service for another galaxy.
Finally, I have to note the wonderful pictures that herald this film on every billboard, bus stop, and subway station. Those are the products of Clay Enos, who happened to be our wedding photographer. Gorgeous job.