Faith & Social Justice: In the spirit of Richard Overton and the 17th C. Levellers

A Few Lessons from THE WATCHMEN

Yesterday, I saw the new movie, The Watchmen, based on the 1985 graphic novel by Alan Moore.  WARNING:  THIS IS NOT A REVIEW AND I WILL TRY NOT TO REVEAL SPOILERS, BUT I CAN’T PROMISE!  Those who have neither read the graphic novel, nor seen the movie, and are interested in doing so should stop reading this entry if spoilers ruin the experience for you–just in case.

SEPARATE WARNING TO PARENTS: TAKE THE “R” RATING SERIOUSLY! THIS “SUPERHERO” MOVIE IS NOT FOR CHILDREN AND CONTAINS NUDITY, SIMULATED SEX SCENES, AND GRAPHIC VIOLENCE, AS WELL AS PROFANITY AND SUBJECT MATTER NOT SUITABLE FOR CHILDREN.  Seriously,  I was furious when I saw Dark Knight, with Heath Ledger’s terrifying version of The Joker (as far beyond Jack Nicholson’s Joker as his was beyond Cesar Romero’s!) and VERY small children in the theatre being given  nightmares.  This is more serious and might have deserved an NC-17 (no one admitted under 17 years of age) rating. I am glad I saw no children in the theatre yesterday afternoon.

I thought the graphic novel deserved its place as the only graphic novel on Time‘s list of 100 best American novels and the film adaptation was great—VERY faithful to the original.

Here is some basic background necessary for further discussion.  The film is set in an alternate history of the United States. It is one where masked crimefighters (most originally having no “superpowers”) began appearing in the 1930s and were united under governmental semi-approval as The Minutemen to help fight the Axis Powers during World War II.  In the post-war years, some heroes were killed, others retired, and  new ones–sometimes more powerful ones–came along.  These united as The Watchmen, but the public soon began to fear them–sometimes for good reason as their powers increased and it became increasingly harder to distinguish their vigilante actions from those of the criminals and terrorists they opposed.  Under increasing public pressure, the Watchmen are disbanded and most go into retirement.  There are a few exceptions: One, Ozymandias, reveals his identity and markets toys, etc. of himself and his erstwhile colleagues, using that fortune to fund humanitarian work and a search for cheap, renewable, energy that will be free for all.  A second, the nearly-all-powerful Dr. Manhattan (a.k.a., giant, glowing, blue-dude-who-is-usually-naked!), whose identity was always known, now works for the government.  A third, Rorschach, is a fugitive.

The year is 1985.  Thanks to the Watchmen, President Richard Nixon is in his 5th term. (We later find out that one of the Watchmen assassinated reporters Woodward and Bernstein to prevent the Watergate scandal that led to Nixon’s downfall in our history.) Nixon used Dr. Manhattan and The Comedian to win the Vietnam War.  The world is poised on the brink of nuclear war and the flashpoint is Afghanistan. As the story opens, a retired Comedian is murdered by a super-strong, super-fast mysterious figure–a murder meant to look like a robbery. Someone is killing off “masks.” In struggling to uncover that mystery, we find that it is a diversion from a bigger, horrible, plot to save the world by extreme measures.

I read the graphic novel at a much younger age, so I do not know if the lessons I now draw from this parable are the same ones I did then. But here are my current thoughts for what they are worth:

  • Superheroes are fun, escapist fiction, but it is probably a good thing that we do not live in a world of masked crime fighters for several reasons.
  • The kind of personalities that would approach crimefighting through such extra-legal measures probably are not mentally balanced–and they probably tend toward fascist leanings. After all, they are bypassing due process, the human rights and civil liberties of suspects, usual rules of evidence,  public trials, etc.  The Watchmen is more realistic in this regard than the usual comic book superhero depiction: the “heroes” all have deep flaws:  a nearly all-powerful creature created by nuclear accident who is losing touch with humanity; a rapist (or attempted rapist) who also shot a Vietnamese woman pregnant with his child–and who had no qualms about leading covert coups de etat against Marxist-leaning governments in South America; the son of a prostitute whose experience with the seamy side of life has turned him nearly as sociopathic as the criminals he hunts; a woman who fell in love with an attempted rapist and later let him father her daughter; “the smartest man in the world” whose only “solution” for nuclear omnicide is mass murder and a huge deception.
  • “We don’t need another hero,” sings Tina Turner in Beyond Thunderdome.  We don’t need political (or religio-political) messiah figures.  There is a deep temptation in most people to what David Sirota calls “Dear Leaderism,” a hero worship that approaches politicians and other leaders uncritically.  I worry about that with Barack Obama–even though I worked for his election and still support him.  But not enough people took seriously his campaign speech in which he said, “I’m not just asking you to believe I can bring change, I am asking you to believe that you can.”  We don’t need to be cynical about the work for a better world, set backs and all. We just need to avoid this uncritical hero worship of leaders:  and organize mass movements of ordinary people working for change. Ella Baker, a mostly unsung heroine of the Civil Rights movement, clashed with Martin Luther King, Jr. over the top-down structure of King’s Southern Christian Leadership Conference. “Strong people don’t need strong leaders” was Baker’s slogan as she worked for “participatory democracy,” group centered leadership and wide empowerment.
  • I am VERY glad that they kept the movie adaptation in 1985.  I REMEMBER how close the ’80s felt to nuclear war. (I think we barely escaped repeatedly, but you can’t prove a negative.) In such a crucible it is tempting to think that “the only way to save billions is to sacrifice millions.”  But the Cold War ended and the threat of global thermonuclear war receded–even if it has not ever gone completely away.  RESIST those who are willing to reach for extreme solutions that sacrifice lives to save lives: whether  in struggle against terrorism, against drug cartels, against street gangs, etc.
  • At the film’s end (as with the comic book), the deception that brought about peace, and that supposedly justified the horrifying destruction of so many, is about to come unraveled.  Without that deception, will the fragile peace break down? What then “justifies” the holocaust which preceded the peace?  Any “peace” based on fear of greater firepower or on mass deception or both is a false peace that cannot last. Peace is the fruit of justice and compassion and truth–and active nonviolence.
  • The ends DO NOT justify the means.  As Gandhi said, we cannot control the ends, only the means. We must worry about right means and trust that good ends result.  Evil means, however “regretfully” adopted, in whatever name of “realism,” poison the good ends they seek to achieve–as the last 8 years have so clearly demonstrated. As history has shown so many times in so many ways.
  • The early Christian rejection of “secret societies,” a rejection later adopted by many smaller Christian groups in their rejection of membership in the Freemasons or other secret societies is rooted in the idea that we are the People of the Truth. We do not swear oaths (meaning that our word is useless apart from oaths) but let our yes be yes and our no be no. We do not join Yale’s “Skull and Bones” or the KKK (even apart from its racism), etc. I do not believe that a Christian can be an undercover police officer or a spy leading a double life.  Neither can we adopt other “secret identities.” If something cannot be done in the open,  in the light of day, it is probably evil–and is certainly subject to temptations of evil.  Police officers are subject to civilian review boards; masked vigilantes are not.  Soldiers, whatever their moral problems in arming and training for violence and being prepared to wreak it, are subject to military and civilian discipline: covert operatives, mercenaries, etc. are not.  They are, therefore, dangerous to the very ends they seek to advance no matter how noble the goals.
  • A single minded focus on “crime fighting,” ends up assuming that the law is always just (except, of course, the laws which protect the rights of suspects). It is inherently suspicious of mass movements for social change or of citizen dissent from official policy.

There are probably numerous other things to take away  from The Watchmen which I read and viewed as a cautionary tale.   (Some social critique in the film is done very quickly–almost quickly enough to miss.  E.g., one of the heroines of the original Minutemen is lesbian and makes the mistake of openly kissing her girlfriend after WWII during the ticker-tape parade as the troops come home. Both women are then killed in anti-gay violence in the 1950s.  Another of the original Minutemen was African-American, although this is not obvious since his costume covers his entire skin, but it becomes known and the KKK lynch him during the 1960s Civil Rights era.)  The movie soundtrack is wonderful as are the visuals.  The acting is superior to the usual run of the genre.  The special effects are amazing. 

If you like the genre, as I do, go see the film–but don’t take your kids.  And don’t let them read the graphic novel before they are 15, at least!  Be prepared to talk about the issues portrayed with them if/when they do read it as adolescents.

March 9, 2009 - Posted by | arts, entertainment


  1. You forgotthis lesson:

    *Do not take your wife to watch this on an IMAX screen. Eight foot long full frontal male nudity will give anyone inadequacy issues.

    Comment by agathos | March 9, 2009

  2. Well, Scott, since I didn’t see it on IMAX, with or without my wife, I didn’t learn that lesson!

    Comment by Michael Westmoreland-White | March 9, 2009

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