It’s a dark rainy night. Rorschach approaches the barb-wired fence surrounding the Rockefeller Military Research Center and asserts himself through the barrier using a pair of wire-cutters. He slyly avoids the guards and breaks his way into the facility. He approaches a large metal door and opens it. He is immediately flooded with a bright blue light. “Good evening, Rorschach,” booms a loud yet tranquil voice.
We, in the audience, thoroughly unsuspecting, watch in awe as the shot starts at two enormous glowing blue feet and slowly tilts upward. We travel up the leg, following the enormous proportions of this mysterious huge blue man. And then there it is. A big blue radioactive penis. The camera stops. We stay staring at the penis. The dialogue continues. “Good evening, Dr. Manhattan,” Rorschach replies. We zoom in on the penis a bit. We hear Laurie Jupiter walk in the room. “What are you doing here, Rorschach?” The shot tilts slightly to left, capturing the penis from a different angle, zooming in a little more and back out again. “Good evening, Miss Jupiter.” We now tilt to the right. Zoom in and out. All the ways to watch a glowing blue penis.
Of course this shot isn’t actually in Watchmen, but to hear some people talk, you’d think that it might as well be. Now, I’m not going to deny that there is certainly a good deal of full-frontal shots of the film’s walking A-bomb character, Dr. Manhattan, played in the film by Billy Crudup. But I’d like to think that if you’re paying any attention to the film at all and aren’t a rabid homophobic or a common household douchebag, then you aren’t likely to be distracted by it and sent into a tantrum.
But is it a necessary plot device? Does Dr. Manhattan’s penis hold the key to this corrupt and evil world’s ultimate salvation? Will he be drowning the world in a Golden Shower of Truth? No. That’s just silly. But you’re out of your mind if you think that the implementation of plot devices is all there is to this movie. In the world in which this movie exists and for the overall tone and sentiment of the picture, the presentation of Manhattan’s genitalia is anything but gratuitous. Friends, there’s a way of looking at this sort of thing where you might actually think about it rather than simply passing small-minded judgment. Watchmen is a film that challenges you to think about what it’s depicting at every turn, and in my exploration of why this damn penis that everyone’s so up-in-arms about has relevance, I ask you to use this same line of thinking when looking at the movie as a whole. I forewarn you, however, that SPOILERS lay waiting in yonder paragraphs.
First off, I’d like to do away with one of the arguments that I’ve heard a lot of my fellow Supporters of Manhattan’s Penis (or SOMPs) use and that is this: “Well, he’s naked in the book, too.” While it’s true, that’s no justification for it being in a film adaptation, because what if it was gratuitous in the book to begin with? (It wasn’t, but for argument’s sake, just go with me here.) A lot of people seem to be of the mindset that once something from a separate medium is adapted to film, that such an act suddenly makes the source material’s greatness an undisputable fact. And this is not true. Yes friends, “The Dukes of Hazzard” is still a stupid fucking TV show and even if the movie had accurately captured its magic, it still would have been a stupid fucking movie based on a stupid fucking TV show. So, having gone off on a bit of a tangent there, let me simply reiterate that I am throwing that brand of argument out the window because it’s pretty much worthless. However, since in the book Manhattan’s nude form had the same significance and meaning as it does in the film, I’m not much worried about that line of thinking anyway, because they both work completely.
Now, the Underminers of Manhattan’s Penis (or UMPs) will lead you to believe that Manhattan’s full-frontal exposure is “gratuitous” and “distracting.” Distraction, of course, is subjective, but I’ll get to that later. To label it gratuitous, however, is simply just not right. For one thing, it’s one of the many products of the transgressive nature of the film. Everything in Watchmen seeks to give you more from what you expect out of the average American action movie to the point of near discomfort. Director Zack Snyder knows that a lot of American moviegoers are walking into this film hoping for some good ol’ fashioned sex and violence, in their traditionally glamorous yet subtle superhero movie moderations, of course.
And then BAM! Bones are cracked, arms are sawed off, entrails are stuck to ceilings, and cities are nuked. It’s not exactly the loud noises, fist-fights, and victim-free explosions that one may have thought they were signing up for. It’s as if Snyder were saying “So you want violence? Here! Here’s your precious violence!” Snyder isn’t really showing the violence as realistic, but rather keeping things just as stylized as what we’re used to, only ten times as grim. It keeps things in the same comic-book universe where we might find a Spider-Man movie but doesn’t shy away from the ugly side. It has a sort of comic book Rashomon effect. We’re dealing with similar characters in similar situations, only seeing them in a much harsher light.
And the sex? What might have been a quick simple sex scene turns into a joyously over-the-top display, bringing straight to the table the inherent fetishism that would have to be inside of anyone who’d have it in themselves to dress up in costume and fight crime. Somehow I feel like a normal low-key sex scene between a guy dressed up as an owl and a woman in what’s clearly a dominatrix outfit just wouldn’t have worked for this movie.
And Dr. Manhattan’s penis is just one more element in this film that keeps in with that tone and that notion that this isn’t your average superhero movie. Sure, Watchmen gives you your precious sex and violence, only you have to take everything else that comes with it. And friends, you can’t have sex without a penis. A big blue penis. Besides, I don’t hear anyone complaining about the constant display of female nudity in today’s R-rated cinema, so one measly (blue) penis really shouldn’t send us to hell any more quickly than we’re already getting there.
But more than all that—the tone and the transgressive sentiments of the material—is the significance it has for the character. Many Watchmen philosophizers will tell you that the display of Manhattan’s penis is symbolic of his impotence in the face of the world’s problems, and I can certainly see this as a valid observation. These same SOMPs have criticized the way the film portrays it, claiming it to be much larger than it is in the book, thus undermining this sentiment. And while it’s true that it is larger in the film, I still maintain that a big flaccid dong is capable of being just as impotent as a small flaccid dong. And why not give the ladies a little something, right? (Even if it is kinda…blue and flaccid.) I think we owe them.
For me, what Manhattan’s birthday suit represents is the immaculacy and perceived divinity of the character. There is such a strong emphasis, both in the book and the movie, on Manhattan being regarded by the world as a god, or even perhaps the God, that seeing him constantly in this more pure and true form gives him the aura of a deity, which is so important to the story and its themes. It’s this concept that’s played out to an even greater effect in the film, in light of the altered ending. After the world is made to think that they have received such vicious attacks by Dr. Manhattan—the super-man they all perceived as a modern-day god—it makes all the more sense than it did even in the book for them to interpret this act as a warning and come to peace. Manhattan’s god-like qualities would have been undermined, especially in this version of the story that uses them so well, had someone come by and said to him “Dude, put some pants on.”
And finally, returning to the idea that Manhattan’s floppy manhood is a distraction, I’ll reiterate what I mentioned above, which is that distraction is something that’s going to be mostly subjective. Personally, I was not distracted by it at all. In fact, before the movie had begun I made a mental note to myself to check out how they went about tackling Manhattan’s penis. And when the time came, I forgot to look. (Too enamored with his pecks!) I will concede that, since I’m very familiar with the book, I went into the film knowing that there would be big blue penis in it and had I not known, I probably would have found it a little jarring when the blue naked guy showed up. But then I would have quickly gotten over it and re-immersed myself in the fantastic film that was playing out before me. Sure, the last thing that I want to do is see this movie with an audience that’s going to giggle like little kids every time he shows up, and I’m lucky enough to have seen it three times by now and not been with those people yet (although I’m sure they’re out there). God knows I’ve heard enough about it already from others I’ve talked to about the film as well as many of the annoying hypocrites within the porn-laden internet community.
A recent post by an UMP that’s been getting a lot of replies on IMDB’s Watchmen message board had this to say:
Everyone under 20 giggles and laughs and whispers immature comments to their friends. Adults squirm uncomfortably as they hope the kids they brought to the movie aren’t staring at it, and dreading the inevitable questions in the minivan on the way home from the movie.
My first issue with this is obviously “Why the hell did you bring kids to this R-RATED MOVIE?” I don’t expect an answer. I just shrug and die a little inside. And why this person didn’t mention the sex scene in this regard, I have no idea. (And I’m sure a penis is way more traumatizing to those kids than seeing two dogs chewing on the bones of a dead little girl just minutes before Rorschach slams a butcher’s knife into the murderer’s head over and over and over again…Yeah, I’m sure they’ll be fine.) He goes on to say:
Too bad…this movie has some GREAT atmosphere, action and cinematography and could have become a real cult hit. But right, wrong or indifferent, it just isn’t acceptable to typical American sensibilities to continually display the full monty for no reason, PARTICULARLY in a trivial comic book movie that will inevitably appeal to young people.
Sir, in reiterating my earlier argument, this movie exists to challenge typical American sensibilities, not simply regurgitate them into the same damn thing we’re force-fed weekly by movies. And to entirely look past the themes of the story, which come full-force quite strongly at the end, and label the movie as “trivial” just goes to show that there’s something you’re just not getting. My UMP friend goes on:
Whoever is responsible for this has basically committed “indecent exposure” against the whole audience. If a guy was in the lobby doing the same thing, he would be arrested, right?
It should be noted that the onlookers in said lobby knowingly paid to be there because they heard that it was R-Rated Naked Lobby Day at the flicker shows. Grow up and stop trying to mold everything in the world to fit inside your small-mindedness. And again, I find it interesting that this guy makes no mention of the nudity in the sex scene. I assume that the particular nudity of that scene served a purpose for him because of its presense during sex. Because the only good the human body ever achieved was to give this guy an erection so that he can have sex with his wife and create dopey offspring that he will one day decide to take to this R-rated film when they’re entirely too young. And it looks like Manhattan’s penis just ain’t doing it for him. However, by his logic, I guess if there were two people having sex in the lobby, that would probably be kosher. And if I were to hack someone up with a meat cleaver in the parking lot, that’d be cool too. (As long as I had a really really good reason!)
The UMP finishes by proudly stating that not only did he receive a full refund for every crying orphaned 4-year-old that he took to the movie, but an apology as well. This is a big thing with me. When you pay to go see a movie, the notion that it might be something you’re not going to like is the risk that you take. And if you’re going to get upset because a movie that advertises itself as “Rated R for strong graphic violence, sexuality, nudity, and language” contains strong graphic violence, sexuality, nudity, and language, then there’s just no help for you. You have no business going to the movies.
Ultimately my thoughts are that if a penis on the screen, making no effort to sing and dance and draw immediate attention to itself, is something that’s going to offend you, let alone “distract” you from an endlessly fascinating and compelling story, then it’s pretty clear that this movie just wasn’t meant for you. If people can’t sit still and watch intelligent movies in intelligent ways and if boobs and explosions are all that matters to anyone anymore then there simply is no hope at all for the future of film. I’m shocked that after a 20-year struggle Watchmen made it to the big screen as intact as it is. I’m also shocked that a smart, complex, and powerful comic book film like The Dark Knight managed to become the second-highest-grossing film of all time. Maybe there is some hope, but part of me just feels like these occurences are flukes. I have always been a very strong believer in the medium of film as a real art form, and it has produced countless truly powerful works in the past and I believe that Watchmen is another one. But if “typical American sensibilities” are to fly off the rails and demand a refund if an R-rated movie shows a naked blue guy in a nonsexual context (while never batting an eye at the plethora of female nudity and blood-soaked carnage) and completely ignoring the urgent and relevant thematic weight of the film, then maybe we really will just all be forced to watch the same movies pushing the same small-minded ideas in the same bland ways, devoid of any real thought or creativity over and over again for the rest of our lives. It’s a damn shame.