Few superhero movies of the past have seemed that interested in tapping the darkness of their subjects. The best example was probably Spiderman 2, which fully grasped the super human’s struggle to remain both super and human at the same time, but few other films in the genre have proven to be this introspective. The last two years have provided a different story.
This past May we had Iron Man which saw a fervently capitalist war profiteer undergo an eye-opening life shift and become committed to disarmament. This past July we had The Dark Knight which showed an idealistic hero attempting to inspire the best in humanity, and a super villain constructing complex moral experiments in an attempt to inspire the worst. Both of these films wore the skin of blockbusters but possessed the soul of morality plays.
And now we have Watchmen, Zack Snyder’s long anticipated adaptation of Alan Moore and David Gibbons’ graphic novel that imagines a society in which masked heroes walk amongst us but are faced with the real world problems of remaining heroic in a corrupt society. You might say that is every story involving a superhero, but few graphic novels have brought moral philosophy so close to their center the way that Watchmen does—it understands the complexity of being a hero in a world that discourages such an identity at every turn.
Few graphic novels have been as celebrated as Watchmen, and after reading it, I can understand why so many attempts to adapt it have fallen flat; the story is so rich and complex that any effort to condense or reshape it could rob it of its power. Some have called Snyder’s adaptation foolishly faithful, but I would ask those critics to name another superhero film that comes close to both its ambition and appeal—there really is something in this film for everybody, and it sits nicely along side The Dark Knight and Iron Man in the fascinating evolution of the comic book film.
Watchmen takes place in a dystopian 1985 in which the Americans and the Russians sit perched on the brink of nuclear destruction and Richard Nixon is currently enjoying his fifth term in office. Superheroes exist in this society, having popped up to fight crime in the 30s and continued to intervening in Vietnam and the Cold War. A recent law passed by Nixon has outlawed masked heroes and left some unnerved, some relieved, and others unable to let go.
The film’s plot centers on a possible “mask killer” who disposes of the Comedian (Jeffrey Dean Morgan), an ex-mask, in the film’s opening scene. But while this is the story’s jumping off point, Snyder and his writers, David Hayter and Alex Tse (with great influence from Moore’s book, of course), are more interested in the different human dimensions of each hero.
Dr. Manhattan (Billy Crudup), transformed into a true superhuman by a terrible lab accident, can manipulate matter and see the future but has lost almost all emotional connection to the world. Rorschach (Jackie Earle Haley) is all too aware of humanity’s flaws but still can’t bring himself to take off the mask, we sense because he’s seen too much pain to ever have a normal life.
Ozymandias (Matthew Goode) has revealed his identity to the world and has started a corporate line of superhero action figures. Silk Spectre (Malin Akerman) lives forever in the shadow of her mother, the first Silk Spectre (Carla Gugino), and seems to have never had a chance for a normal life, moving immediately from costumed hero to the lover of an increasingly detached Dr. Manhattan. And Nite Owl (Patrick Wilson), drifting slowly into middle age as a bespectacled, awkward everyman, still keeps the tools of his trade in the basement, fighting the urge to put them back into action.
The story unfolds to require these ex-heroes to reunite and go back into action as the fate of all mankind hangs in the balance, which you would expect in a typical superhero movie. But I was fascinated, both by the film and the book (the two really are indistinguishable), at the way these characters seem to understand the depth of their decision to act as heroes.
Dr. Manhattan, in his blue, glowing form, was robbed of a normal life with his accident, which has left him without any clear sense of past or future. With quiet detachment from his human surroundings, he invents and researches possible solutions to global problems, not because he has any clear connection to humanity (with the exception of Laurie) but, it seems, because he has the ability. All the while he acknowledges humanity’s flaws while standing quietly apart from them. It is no surprise when, in the middle of the story, he decides that a life of solitude on Mars is preferable to human folly on Earth.
Rorschach is an interesting parallel. Scarred by childhood abuse and the crimes he witnessed as a masked hero, he has come to resemble a sociopath. Convinced of human depravity, he walks the rainy streets narrating the film in a gravelly monotone, convinced there is a clear pattern in a world that discourages them. While heroes like Batman or Superman might have fought to inspire good, Rorschach doesn’t try to inspire much at all, having poured so much of his identity into the mask that any life outside of it is impossible. While the other heroes don costumes as symbols of hope, Rorschach, with his fedora, trench coat, and ink blot mask that is ever changing formation, embraces the anonymity of his.
Snyder explores the complexity of these characters while making a film that is as visually exciting as it is intellectually stimulating. So why are thoughtful comic book movies succeeding right now? I think it is because they are holding a mirror up to society and forcing us to look at the ugly face that war and economic folly have left us with. The worlds of Watchmen and The Dark Knight aren’t idealized comic book landscapes but worlds with shadows and pain that force us to look deeper at those we would consider heroes. Coming out at the start of an Obama administration charged with solving so many of society’s woes, Watchmen asks the question: is it possible for one man to inspire good without the dark that so often accompanies it? A fair question, and one that I am happy a comic book film is now capable of asking.