Watchmen: Twilight of the Superhero

Lois Lane: You’ve got me? Who’s got you?

WatchmenIt’s summertime; let’s talk about superheroes. If I were to argue that the comic book exists as an art form at the midpoint between novels and cinema, Watchmen would undoubtedly be my go-to example. Writer Alan Moore and artist Dave Gibbons took the best elements from both and made a miniseries that stretched the limits of comics’ potential, a story with novelistic complexity and cinematic transitions among its many strands. The ambition on display extends to philosophy, politics, psychology, history, and science, but for today I’m staying in my wheelhouse, which is Watchmen‘s critique of the two foundational superheroes, Superman and Batman. Glimpses of those two icons can be found in four of the story’s main characters. The resemblance is less than flattering.

Dr. Manhattan is the only character in Watchmen gifted with what are conventionally known as superpowers, and the comic explicitly draws parallels between him and Superman. In essence, the character is an exploration of what would happen if Superman stopped caring about people and decided not to save them anymore. Recently, filmmaker Shane Carruth said that the Superman story he’d be most interested in would be one in which the Man of Steel did just that. A common complaint about Superman is that he’s too good to be true — both invincible and supremely good — and therefore uninteresting. Be careful what you wish for. Dr. Manhattan compares human beings to insects. Superman might see us the same way, but he cares about us regardless. At times, Dr. Manhattan looks like all of our darkest fears about what God might be like: why should he care what happens to us, tiny and helpless as we are, surrounded by cosmic majesty? At other times, he reminds me of people with autism: an exceptionally gifted mind that struggles with making emotional connections. Superman can be counted on to do the right thing, but Dr. Manhattan leaves us holding our breath.

The pivotal character in Watchmen is Ozymandias, because he possesses characteristics of both Superman and Batman. SOME SPOILERS FOLLOW IN THIS PARAGRAPH. Moore’s boldest move was to make this heroic composite the villain of the story. (All of the characters are complex individuals with conflicted motives, but Ozymandias is revealed to be the antagonist from a narrative standpoint, even if the reader decides his actions were right.) Superficially, he shares with Superman an antarctic fortress; global fame and a high approval rating; and the gift of being “faster than a speeding bullet.” How he acquired his “powers” aligns him more closely with Batman: he’s just a human being who has attained mastery over his body and mind through globe-trotting, martial arts training and wide study. This summer’s Man of Steel, perhaps unintentionally, made another connection between Superman and Ozymandias. In the film adaptation of Watchmen, directed, like Man of Steel, by Zack Snyder, Ozymandias succinctly explains that his plan to prevent nuclear war required the deaths of millions “to save billions.” Likewise in Man of Steel, Superman prevents the extinction of the human race, but in the process he takes part in a battle that destroys much of the city of Metropolis. The morality of the compromise isn’t commented upon, which is the movie’s great failing. But the story seems to communicate — even if Superman himself doesn’t believe this — that the sacrifice was necessary. Comedian Kumail Nanjiani tweeted about the film that it’s “the only superhero movie where if the good guy didn’t exist thousands of people wouldn’t have died.” Actually, it’s not the only one. One of the most interesting, and disturbing, ideas in Watchmen is that the presence of these “heroes” leads to an even more dangerous world than the one we know. This is an idea that’s been known to torture Batman from time to time — without him, would the Joker exist?

The Joker: You see, this is how craaazy Batman’s made Gotham!

Watchmen RorshachNite Owl and Rorschach are basically Batman divided into two people. Nite Owl is to Batman what Ozymandias is to Superman: similar on the outside, different on the inside. He has a very similar costume and takes a nocturnal predator as his emblem; he has a subterranean lair and lots of gadgets. The character starts out as Batman with all of the nobility but none of the rage, and he plays by the rules in a way that Batman never would. Facing middle-age and a law against costumed vigilantes, he quits. To me, he’s the most pathetic character in the story, fixated on sparking romance with Silk Spectre while the world crumbles around them. He is impotent in both senses of the term, offering Moore and Gibbons a chance to explore the kinky qualities of the superhero’s costume.

Finally, there’s Rorschach. If Nite Owl is Batman gone soft, then Rorschach is Batman driven to the opposite extreme. Sickened to the point of psychosis with the evils of humanity, he is consumed with contempt. He’s something of a genius at finding different ways of inflicting pain and suffering, whether the goal is to get information, to intimidate his enemies, or even to kill them. The safeguards Batman sets up in his soul to keep himself from becoming a murderer are nowhere to be found in Rorschach. With this character Moore unmasks the arrogance and latent misanthropy that might lead an ordinary person to declare himself a hero for humanity. Despite all that, Rorschach somehow manages to become a deeply sympathetic character. His loyalty to his colleagues drives him from start to finish, and he remains convinced that their job is to make the world a better and safer place. Like Batman, he’s not interested in fame, just results. Like the death of Bruce Wayne’s parents, a traumatic event in Rorschach’s past shapes who he becomes, driving him to strike terror into the hearts of evildoers before they can sink to the depths he’s witnessed.

Watchmen reminds me of the scene in Superman III when Superman, turned evil by a new type of Kryptonite, divides himself in two so that the good side can fight it out with the bad side. The bad news about Watchmen is that the “good side” — Superman and Batman as we traditionally know them — is conspicuously absent. The good news is that the “bad side” that we get isn’t all bad. These characters are richly developed, all with their own distinct voices, broken and flawed but trying to make the best of a bad situation. The story’s lesson is that these are people just like us, that they shouldn’t be idealized or leaned on to solve every problem. Superman and Batman, on the other hand, are ideal, and as such couldn’t exist in the real world. But they continue to be icons in the world of fiction, soldiering on in the battle of good vs. evil, inspiring us to dream.

Superman: I can do things that other people can’t.

Watchmen Mars

Batman: It’s just something I have to do.

Vicki Vale: Why?

Batman: Because nobody else can.

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