"In descriptions of the movie and the comic book (Watchmen) I have repeatedly heard people say that this is real, the Watchmen strips away the facade and shows some kind of truth, whereas Spiderman and Superman and their ilk merely provide a reassuring fiction that truth and justice can and sometimes do prevail."
This is precisely what I found to be, if you will pardon the expression, so unrealistic in this movie.
Alan Moore was attempting to incorporate the themes of a film noir degraded and dirty realism into his comic. The problem is that, while horrid crimes, children chopped to bits and fed to dogs, may well exist in real life, the horrid comic book crime of blowing up major cities with transdimensional energy to force world peace does not exist. The excuse that this is an unflinching portrayal of grim, Brothers Karamazovian reality at its worst, warts and all, cannot apply in this case, where the grim reality is portrayed with grotesque unreality. It is not an unflinching portrayal, warts and all, it is merely a close-up of a wart meant to titillate an audience that has been desensitized to ugliness, and forgotten how to flinch.
In earlier times, when entertainment was a rare holiday event, and not an endless torrent, the general public had a grounded experience in real life, to which the unrealistic portrayals of life as appear in art and entertainment could be compared. In modern times, however, most young people’s only exposure to life consists of the highly artificial environment of school and the utterly artificial environment of mass popular entertainment. It is almost as if they cannot tell the difference between Saturday Night Live and what a real presidential candidate might say or do. What they think of as realistic and unrealistic goes by the barometer of what they see on the telly, computer, and movie screen.
On a different topic, I wonder how it is that such an unpleasant message can be sold to and celebrated by readers who manifestly do not hold with it? I think there are two reasons for this.
The first is merely reader tolerance and reader forgiveness. An atheist is a sorry figure who cannot with pleasure read Tolkien’s LORD OF THE RINGS when he finds it takes place in a universe where supernatural, indeed, beneath their masks, Christian, divinities act onstage and off. A Christian who cannot enjoy Wagner’s Ring Cycle because of it pagan elements is dabbling in Puritanism. You simply do not have to agree with authors to enjoy them, provided the author is telling a story and not preaching a sermon.
The second is that there is magic involved. I do not mean an interruption of the natural laws, I mean a sleight of hand trick. Alan Moore is accomplished enough a magician that he knows full well how to wave his right hand and wiggle his fingers to draw the eyes of the audience there, while he slips the joker out of his sleeve with his left.
You see, the readers do not know how the tale will end, and if you make the characters seem real enough, and lovable enough, albeit flawed or even insane, throughout the story, then the spell is cast. If you then kill them off in some arbitrary and stupid fashion to make some stupid point, the readers will blame the accident or the villain who kills them, and regard it as a tragedy, and not blame you.
Let me use the term ‘diagetic’ for this. A noise that the characters in a movie hear and react to, for example, a song on a radio where the radio is a prop in the story, is called diagetic. It is inside the story world. The voice of the narrator or the sound of the mood music is nondiagetic. It does not exist in the story world, and the characters cannot hear it. (Stephen Sondheim in INTO THE WOOD breaks this convention by having the narrator’s voice overheard by the characters, who rebel against his omniscient narrative, and drag him into the storybook story, where he is killed by a giant.)
The spell is successful if the readers remain enchanted or fascinated by the diagetic world, and do not notice or complain when something unrealistic, stupid, or offensive happens, because, after all unlikely things do happen in the real world, so why not in the story world? The spell is broken if the nondiagetic element is too intrusive: if the author’s message or point or hobbyhorse forces its way into the story. If the reader thinks “Why did Ozymandias blow up New York?” the spell holds. If he thinks “Why did Alan Moore blow up New York?” the spell breaks.
Now, Alan Moore is a master magician. He set himself the task of telling an antisuperhero story to an audience of superhero readers. He set himself the task of offending every assumption of his audience, without offending his audience.
Moore did this most of all by the intricacy of the detail involved his presentation; the clever use of symmetries and the correlation of scenes, the slight of hand where some trivial detail (the man with the signboard which reads THE END IS NEAR walks through the Comedian’s blood puddle instead of around it) turns out to be significant (the signboard man is Rorschach, the psychopath who never deviates or turns aside).
The trick is a clever one: the reader pays so much attention to the puzzle-like correlations of clues and joke and symmetries, pays so much attention to minutia, the he does not see the big picture when the last issue is sprung on him—and he realizes (or he does not) that he just bought and read eleven superhero comics were the superheroes not only fail to thwart the supervillain, but fail to do anything heroic at all (even saving the inhabitants of a burning tenement building was played for laughs—it was to allow Nite Owl to get an erection, not to save the innocent).
The supervillain’s plan may ironically turn out to save the world from thermonuclear global war, and, even more ironically, an imbecile going through the crank mail of a rightwing nutjob yellow journal may bring the truth to light, and make the whole sorry affair futile.
As we may have learned earlier from the Comedian, the whole thing is a joke with no point.
There is another part to this slight of hand. The story is one which is calculated to appeal to the vanity of young readers, and by vanity I mean that passion which drives boys to attempt manlike things forbidden to them, or children to get their hands on matter meant for adults. The Playboy magazine is enjoyed more by the sixteen year old, who hides it under his sock drawer, than the eighteen year old, who can buy it legally, merely because it is the forbidden apple. To read a funnybook comic where adult themes, ripped from the headlines, and ponderous issues, such as life and death, god and man, fate and foreknowledge, mayhem, rape, insanity and nuclear war, is heady stuff to a teenager. He is flattered because the material does not talk down to him.
He is so flattered, and so busy congratulating himself on being a grown-up able to deal with grown-up issues, that he does not notice that the Graphic Novel (Listed by TIME Magazine as one of the hundred best of the century!) deals with these issues in that pseudo-profound way one sees issues during a late-night college bull session debated. The youth is probably too young to notice what insults are being delivered to things he would otherwise hold dear: such as when a nihilist-fascist killer dressed in Captain America’s red white and blue and chomping on Nick Fury’s cigar declares the American Dream to be the sight of rioters in a grimy city being driven off by tear gas.
Robert Heinlein used a similar technique to very telling effect. He would address some profound and grown-up topic, give the most one-sided presentation imaginable, batter a few straw men carefully selected to be weaker than the average scarecrow, and successfully tie the reader’s real enjoyment of whatever was charming or interesting in the story into a flattering sales pitch. Any impressionable youth who instinctively recoils from having his self-image associated with the imaginary straw men thus shown to be so distasteful and foolish and the butt of the hero’s sarcastic jokes, will just as instinctively embrace whatever bill of good so packaged are offered up for his consumption. In Heinlein’s case, a libertine sort of libertarianism, a vision of life that combines rugged individualism, military glory, and a night in the Playboy Mansion; in Moore’s case something much bleaker.
There is a vacuum, a void a the core of WATCHMEN. After you watch it, you realize it is not really about anything.
Sometimes a single shock can break the spell.
For me, it was a very simple thought. If Ozymandias was indeed the smartest man on the planet, why was he unable to figure out a way to save the planet without nuking New York? Maybe you or I could not do it, but he is the smartest man in the world.
Since Ozymandias had successfully duplicated Dr. Manhattan’s teleportation, why not build a starship? Since, unlike his murder-project, this one could have been done in the open, why not ask Dr. Manhattan to begin terraforming Mars, rendering it habitable for human life, and start ferrying over colonists by the dozens, scores, and myriads?
Or, better yet, if you are so smart, Ozymandias, why not engineer the downfall of the Soviet Union without firing a shot? After all, Ronald Reagan did it, and he’s just a stupid actor cowboy, ain’t he?