Literature Commentary: Watchmen

31 Aug

(Originally published January 23, 2009)

If you’ve been to the movie theater lately (or, like me, saw “The Dark Knight” when it came out) you’ve probably seen the trailers for the upcoming superhero film “Watchmen.” At first glance, it appears to be little more than another CGI extravaganza in the tradition of movies like “Spider-Man” and “Iron Man.” However, as the film’s trailer proudly proclaims, its source material is allegedly “the most celebrated graphic novel of all time.” Normally I don’t read graphic novels, but this one piqued my interest. So, being the literature nerd that I am, I promptly borrowed it from our local library.

Suffice it to say that I was not impressed.

(Note: In order to explore this graphic novel’s theological and philosophical underpinnings, this review contains spoilers)

The graphic novel asks the question “what if ordinary humans attempted to enforce justice for themselves?” And yes, these vigilantes do dress up in superhero costumes. They suffer from many of the flaws of ordinary humans…unlike characters such as Spider-Man or the Fantastic Four. The premise is slightly bizarre, but still held my interest enough for me to keep reading.

The one real superhero in the story is Dr. Manhattan – a man transformed by an atomic accident into a being of virtually limitless cosmic power. In effect, he is the God of the “Watchmen” universe. However, this God is a flawed deity – afflicted by a myriad of insecurities. What’s worse is the fact that he abandons Earth in the early pages of the novel and returns only when he chooses to. Author Alan Moore, an avowed anarchist, obviously views the true God in a similar light: a cold, emotionless sentinel oblivious to the struggles of humankind. This deistic worldview is developed throughout the story.

Another character of note is the enigmatic Rorshach – a nihilist who wears a mask speckled with black ink-blots that change shape as the story continues. His thoughts and writings are peppered with biblical phrases: “sin” “defiled” “godless” and other such verbiage. However, his moral absolutism (odd coming from a character who professes to believe in nothing at all) is ultimately shown to be futile and hopeless.

Set in the 1980s, the novel explores the final days of the Cold War, when nuclear war sometimes appeared imminent. With World War III looming on the horizon, the people of New York are desperately searching for some way to avert the impending disaster. Enter the “villain” – a handsome costumed hero named Ozymandias with a genetically modified lynx for a pet. In his personal crusade to stop the threat of nuclear war, Ozymandias creates a monster and infuses it with the brain of a psychic. (I am not making this up) He then proceeds to unleash it upon the people of New York City. About two-thirds of the city’s population are killed in the first assault, with many more going insane from the psychic reverberations. All of this gets explained in the final pages of the graphic novel…a very, very weak ending to a novel that started out promisingly.

Apparently, the New York disaster drew the world’s attention away from nuclear war – deferring, if not concluding, the apocalyptic standoff. Upon learning of Ozymandias’ actions, Rorschach storms away in an attempt to bring the truth to New York and tell them that Ozymandias was responsible for the deaths of millions. Dr. Manhattan destroys Rorschach before he can betray Ozymandias.

This blatant display of situational ethics and moral relativism is “Watchmen”‘s greatest flaw. Instead of displaying an example of courageous self-sacrifice (like the one that was so beautifully demonstrated in this summer’s “The Dark Knight), “Watchmen” takes the easy route with a disappointing, morally weak ending.

And that’s not the only problem with “Watchmen.” The very first image is of blood being washed off a sidewalk. And the violence doesn’t stop there. We’re not talking about a few drops here and there – “Watchmen” contains gallons and gallons of gratuitous gore. What’s worse, there’s very little point to the copious carnage. This distasteful trend gets worse and worse as the book proceeds, finally seguing into a hyperviolent, slaughter-happy finale. When Ozymandias’ monster finally descends upon New York, six or seven full-page illustrations of mutilated corpses follow. Rorshach’s gruesome backstory is even worse. The amount of violence alone would push the boundaries of even an “R” rating…without even mentioning the prevalent foul language and suggestive overtones.

So is “Watchmen” really worthy of the title “the most celebrated graphic novel of all time”? The answer is a resounding “No.” While the novel does contain some interesting thoughts on the depravity of man, the story quickly descends into a bloody, morally murky labyrinth of evil. The amount of gore alone should put this one off-limits for most readers. While violence can sometimes be used to effectively illustrate man’s desperate need for redemption (example: Ted Dekker’s novel “Showdown”) “Watchmen” contains no such positive values. The novel is sickeningly depressing…a portrait of a hopeless universe desperately needing salvation.

A disturbing mashup of graphic violence and flawed morality.

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Posted by on August 31, 2009 in Sci-Fi


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