Who will watch the Cold War watchmen?Posted: Thursday, March 5, 2009
Twenty-three years after its first appearance and a week before its movie adaptation is released, I finished reading Watchmen (and you thought you were a procrastinator). I cannot express how much I loved it, particularly its overriding ambiguity toward its main characters.
With the movie officially out tomorrow, I have no doubt it will be a hit, regardless of reviews. But putting aside its fascinating character study, my concern is will its overriding Cold War theme about the threat of nuclear annihilation go over the heads of the under 30-fan base critical to its success? My guess is, yes it probably will. I’ve been thinking of this since I finished the novel last week, and io9 reviewer Charlie Jane Anders struggles with this question too — she makes the perceptive observation: “We understand superheroes and costumed asskickers, but we no longer understand Henry Kissinger.”
I think all this will hardly matter to its bottom line, as it comes in with a heavy dose of marketing momentum and little box-office competition at this time of the year (a brilliant move to release a potentially controversial, decidedly R-rated superhero movie in early March, thus avoiding the PG-13-friendly summer competition, in my humble opinion). Most importantly to its box-office ambitions, but perhaps not to its modern pertinence, it promises a superhero movie that blows shit up real good.
SPOILER ALERTS. CONTINUE AT YOUR OWN RISK.
So in spite of its near-guaranteed commercial success, will it resonate critically to the ticket-buying Millennials, and will its main theme resonate with, and still hold relevance, to the rest of us (other than as a lesson in history, albeit an alternative history where Nixon is still President in 1985)?
The younger end of the Millennial Generation hardly remembers 9/11 and were born after the Cold War, so its sort of like asking if a movie set during World War I would resonate with Baby Boomers (set aside an analogy of World War II movies and how later generations view them — like the Civil War and the American Revolution, WWII was, for lack of a better word, a transformative war, one whose global impacts are still felt to this day, including yes, the spawning of the Cold War).
I also wonder how Rorschach will fare with today’s audience in a time of liberal ascendancy, or if the movie will ignore his underlying right-wing leanings. Rorschach is Watchmen’s most fascinating character (though Dr. Manhattan and the Comedian are a close second and third), a tragic hero whom we still root for despite his reactionary world-view. In this way, he is the flip side of the Comedian, who quickly loses any reader support (though not reader fascination) after the opening scene of the book. It is exactly this dissonance that causes questions in the reader’s mind and also solidifies Watchmen‘s artistic brilliance two decades after its release.
Or cinematically, will this too go over most viewers’ heads, the way it seemed to with the popularity of The Dark Knight‘s vision of Batman? Batman, as Commissioner Gordon notes, is “the hero Gotham deserves, but not the one it needs right now,” a brave character who takes the blame in the end, but also violates the Constitution along the way and who, by his mere presence, is much to blame for the Joker’s very existence. (Ironically,a similarly dissonant argument could be made for the man who plays Batman. Christian Bale is a great actor, able to balance pathos and comedy, and I’ll see him in almost anything. And he seems to be an absolute shit in real life. How’s that for moral relativity? But I digress.)
In his single-mindedness, Rorschach is often blind to his own inconsistencies (again, reflecting back on the reader’s, and humanity’s, inherent hypocrisy). Rorschach reveres President Truman, who made the awful yet necessary decision to drop the Bomb that killed thousands to end the War, but can’t reckon that with Ozymandis’ decision to do something similar, but do it to his own people — or perhaps Rorschach reckons it better than any other character, and all too well, based on his own ultimately tragic and truly sad fate.
The graphic novel’s Rorschach rails against liberals and homosexuals and he also views the Comedian as a national hero, a man, despite his foresight to strike a deal to wear Wal-Mart’s smiling logo even before there was a Wal-Mart, who is quite clearly a brown-shirted extra-legal fascism-empowering monster, G. Gordon Liddy with a flamethrower (or, perhaps, Rush Limbaugh, to fit into this week’s lunacy).
Back to where we started: Watchmen (the book) is largely an allegory about the nuclear arms race and the prevailing threat of Mutually Assured Destruction. While those threats still exist to a lesser extent, this is no way as feared as it was from 1946 to 1989, including 1986, when Alan Moore and Dave Gibbon’s epic first appeared.
Today’s prevailing worldwide violent threat is, of course, terrorism in a post-9/11 world. It was that underlying theme and fear that I believe tapped into our collective consciousness and propelled The Dark Knight to become the critical hit that it was (to say nothing about its astronomical commercial success), with the late Heath Ledger portraying The Joker as a modern urban terrorist and Batman’s tortured position as both savior and enabler/creator.
I can’t wait to see how director Zach Snyder deals with this. I’ve heard the ending of the film may be a cop-out, perhaps with legitimate reasons that speak to Our Times. But I’ll need to see it to judge, and I won’t be going until after the first-weekend crowds die down.
Moore and Gibbons end their novel with this epigraph (post-graph?):
Quis custodiet ipsos custodes … Who watches the watchmen?
The authors noted the quote is from the 1st–2nd Century Roman satirist Juvenal and was used as the epigraph of the 1987 Tower Commissioner Report into the Iran-Contra affair, a report that implicated many of President Reagan’s advisors and criticized, but did not implicate, the President himself.
Ultimately, the critical success of the Watchmen movie may be in how well it portrays this ever-still germane question for the 21st Century, rather than how much it focuses on a question that had greater implications in the 20th Century.