Nowadays it’s hard to imagine the impact that Alan Moore and Dave Gibbon’s ‘Watchmen’ must have had on its audience when it was first released. Studies of the superhero’s psychology are commonplace now: many recent comic book movies and recent comic book series’ explore the question of what compels a human to don a mask and fight crime. Modern pop-culture aficionados are familiar with the loneliness of Superman, the anguished responsibility of Spider-Man, and the sheer vengeful torment of Batman. And so, while the message of ‘Watchmen’ has been diluted over the decades since 1986, it must have always been strong to remain so potent even in this dark and brooding decade.
As a comic book ‘Watchmen’s intent is obvious: it’s a genre-breaking work aiming at lovingly parodying the superhero archetype and portraying the strange psychology that would lead to someone literally fighting for true ‘all-American’ justice in the real world. That is why, upon reading ‘Watchmen’, the fans’ outrage at the 2009 film version becomes understandable. A film would be superfluous. Superhero films already explore the tortured psyches’ of the protagonists. They’re already reasonably philosophically complex (relative to the entertainment industry). No subverting of the genre needs to be done.
Yet the recent trailer proved that the film has a purpose beyond making money (although being a product of the monstrous hydra that is Hollywood, profit is undeniably its main aim). The trailer proved too irresistibly cool for me to resist: the promise of engaging characters, the gorgeous cinematography, the mystery, the nuance, the haunting Smashing Pumpkins track. It was too much and I finally did something I’ve always lightly contemplated: I read ‘Watchmen’. The purpose of the film is therefore to bring a new audience to this brilliantly layered work packed with insight into the human condition. Thus the film has already achieved its purpose.
After Rorschach’s moody soliloquy in issue 2, I could see why ‘Watchmen’ is the only graphic novel to win a Hugo and appear on Time’s list of great 20th Century novels. Each character is developed, some given their own chapters, and each is given their own unique philosophy on this place called the world which creates a richly complex narrative. It is a subtle work, at least towards the beginning, and this makes it so rewarding to discover the hidden lines of pure poetry and the panels full of symbolism. You could read it several times over and never pick up everything hidden beneath the layers upon layers.
Without wishing to spoil the ending for the new audience of the impending film, I will say that it perfectly encapsulates a theme of the whole book: that of right and wrong never being black and white. Shades of grey are all we, as humans, have access to. With regards to justice, good and evil, and humanity, in the abstract I tend to edge towards idealism. But I’m also enough of a realist to recognise that extreme measures can be required and even justified. The ending makes it obvious why Hiroshima was mentioned throughout the story: personally I’ve never been able to decide whether the ends justified the means with regard to President Truman’s actions. There’s a similar conflict in ‘Batman Begins’ where I’ve never been able to choose a side. Are the people of the world redeemable or is a sudden purge required to thin out humanity? Does human society require sympathetic nurturing or a firm hand? Aristotle’s everyday virtue ethics or Plato’s stern Republic? Kant’s deontology or Nietzsche’s Übermensch? These are the morally complex themes that ‘Watchmen’ was instrumental in bringing to the forefront of the comic book genre.
I’m also enough of a realist to know that in this world without superheroes we have to work within the confines of the established system, gradually changing it from within hopefully for the better. Maybe small idealists are the only hope for a brighter future, no matter how big our ideas for radically different social systems might be. We have to do what we can while we can where we can. Rorschach may be insane but at least he never compromises. The small idealist’s everyday hunt for harmonious justice is a message that can never be diluted even though as ‘Watchmen’ makes clear extreme measures can be justified.