Who Watches The Watchmen's Political Message?

When I went to see Watchmen on opening night, I was on the lookout: not just for political allegory, but for any conservative bias on Snyder’s part. Why the apprehension? Prior to Watchmen, Zack Snyder directed 300, another graphic novel adaptation bursting with both action and political themes. And while 300 is a well-constructed and entertaining story, I was (and still am) disgusted by its insidious Bush-like, overly simplistic praise of violence in the name of democracy.

My initial overall reaction to Watchmen as the first credits rolled was pretty positive. I found the film’s structure less tight than 300, but was willing to forgive: from what I understood, the film had a lot of complicated story to condense. In particular, I welcomed the temporal jumps so roundly criticized in Patrick Lee’s review on SciFi Wire.

I was mostly pleased that the film critically explores the theme of the hero. While imperfect in crucial ways, Watchmen presents thought-provoking questions: What is a hero? What if there were more than one? What if they disagreed? How do we know who is right? Are humans worth protecting?

Watchmen asks these questions by presenting an alternate reality in which human heroes exist. In such a world, we find that the nature of heroes is contradictory: they seek justice, but they are dogmatic and uncooperative. As with the general population, each hero has different ideas of how to solve the world’s problems. And as I would expect from a hero, they are not willing to compromise. Even with each other. When the ultimate threat - extinction of the human race - comes along, their differences become even more divisive. And the high stakes help them all feel entitled to pursue their own goals. So the real battle in Watchmen is among the heroes: a battle of ideals.

Luckily, Watchmen approaches this with a dose of realism. The heroes are real humans: morally ambiguous, lonely, psychologically wounded. We are shown the violent past that creates one of our most violent heroes, Rorschach. We hear The Comedian’s thoughts on human nature. We learn the source of Dr. Manhattan’s powers and his emotional detachment. We likewise depart from the tame kisses and bloodless battles of many hero films, delving into real lovemaking and naked violence.

The political parallels are compelling and relevant. Likening the network of heroes in Watchmen to our political system, we find that we similar predicaments. Like the film’s heroes, each of our elected officials has their own political and moral opinions. They are often deeply divided on fundamental issues, and when they refuse to work together they can be consumed with internal conflict and get little done. And at their worst, they do something else the film’s heroes do: purport to act on behalf of the public while completely ignoring them.

But while I wanted to like the film, something about the story nagged me, and I couldn’t quite put my finger on what it was. Something felt off with Silver Spectre and Nite Owl, with the ending sequence, with the film’s narrative. I haven’t read the graphic novel, so I asked a fellow Living Liberally member, Josh Bolotsky, to compare it to the book. I was surprised to find that many of Josh’s criticisms of Snyder’s adaptation addressed my nagging feeling, and revealed a hidden bias.

Turns out that the film was a poor adaptation of the book, choosing the wrong moments to expand and condense and eventually changing the original meaning of Watchmen into something less mature and interesting; more commercial.

*Some spoilers below*

For example, a major theme of the book is the moral ambiguity of all the heroes. Snyder has instead created a narrative in which we have typical protagonists (Silver Spectre and Nite Owl) and antagonist (Ozymandias). He does this by omitting the back stories of these characters, allowing the story structure to create their identity: Silver Spectre and Nite Owl are lovers on a mission to save the world; Ozymandias an evil genius working against the other heroes in secrecy.

Making this adjustment injects a simple right/wrong morality into the story that wasn’t in the book, abandoning a mature and balanced contemplation of the nature of heroism. As a result we are essentially asked to identify with some heroes more than others, which is troubling to me because they each represent specific political and philosophical ideologies.

Rewriting the ending was also a poor decision. It allowed us to demonize Ozymandias and glorify Dr. Manhattan, and it ignored the fact explored in the book: that humans need a constant common enemy in order to work together. A single explosion and an invisible, insurmountable enemy would not do the trick. The book’s ending, by contrast, encourages us to move from thinking about the moral ambiguity of heroes to the true nature of humans.

Here's a short analysis of

Here's a short analysis of the "message" of The Watchmen, if you are interested. :)