Friday, August 5, 2011

Who is Watching Whom?

I must admit that it has been a while since I either read or watched Watchmen, so my memory of it is a little fuzzy, but I was thinking about the characters last weekend and I wanted to solidify the thoughts that I had. For those unfamiliar with the premise, Watchmen follows the exploits of a group of, for the most part, ordinary people who decided to don hero costumes and fight crime. However, if the golden age of comic book heroes reflect the WWII era, where good and evil are fairly easy to distinguish, then Watchmen is easily discerned as resembling the Vietnam war instead. Additionally, the Cold War dramatically colors the tone of the book, as the Doomsday Clock, metaphorically representing the likelihood of nuclear war, in prominently displayed throughout the series. Fair warning, from here on out there will be spoilers, if you have yet to read or watch Watchmen, I highly recommend you do that first!

Most of the story revolves around the exploits of the Watchmen, as the league of costumed heroes is known. As such, they provide both the heroes and villains for the story, and I will be sorting them based on whether I consider them to play a protagonist or antagonist role overall. It is worth noting that one of the main themes of the story is accountability, "who watches the Watchmen?" As the story evolves eventually the Watchmen must end up watching each other.


Nite Owl: As an all around decent guy, Night Owl is the most obvious protagonist, as well as the audience's surrogate. A Batman-esque figure, minus the deep personal darkness and resulting crusade, Night Owl is a solid, if unexceptional, do-gooder.

Silk Spectre: The token female hero. Unfortunately she seems mainly present in order to provide the story with a female for romantic purposes. She is the daughter of a previous woman who assumed the Silk Spectre identity, which proves confusing at times.

Ozymandias: As the name suggests (read this poem if you don't get the reference), Ozymandias sees himself as not just a hero, but a visionary and leader. The inclusion of Ozymandias in the protagonist column is debatable, as he uses the wealth and power obtained from his business empire to obliterate New York city. However, he does so, framing aliens in the book and Doctor Manhattan in the movie, in order to provide the US and USSR with a common enemy against which to unite, in order to avert a much more tragic, and fairly eminent, nuclear confrontation between the powers. As Ozymandias does not seek personal gain, or even recognition, for the act, it does seem to be motivated by altruistic concerns, and I place Ozymandias into the protagonist column, the first of a bunch of hard decisions.


Doctor Manhattan: The only true superhero among the Watchmen, a mishap with a nuclear experiment gave an ordinary scientist incredible power over matter, even down to the molecular level. Here the influence of classic superhero origin stories can clearly be seen. Doctor Manhattan's existence drastically alters the timeline in the alternate universe in which Watchmen is set. Due to his intervention the US achieves military victory in Vietnam, and breaks the Cold War stalemate as Doctor Manhattans powers render a nuclear arsenal mostly useless. However, his disappearance proves to be the destabilizing event that triggers a near nuclear confrontation towards the end of the story. Despite his extraordinary power,, Doctor Manhattan often seems quite powerless. In fact, I liken him to a personification of Fate or Nature. Although Doctor Manhattan is able to see into the future, he is unable to alter it. Many times through the story it is emphasized that for Doctor Manhattan seeing something before it happens is no different than us seeing something as it occurs. Although he has preknowledge of events, he also knows how he will respond to that knowledge, and how that reaction will lead to the events in question eventually, and in due course these things which he saw would happen become things that he sees happen, and then finally things that he saw happen.

Furthering the Nature/Fate analogy is the interesting tidbit that the human who existed before the accident and eventually became Doctor Manhattan was a clockwork enthusiast. As clockwork is often itself used as a metaphor for a mechanistic, deterministic view of the universe, clearly supported by Doctor Manhattan's precognition, this hardly seems like a coincidence. Also interesting is the twist that in the movie Ozymandias attempts to put blame for the destruction of New York on Doctor Manhattan, which could be interpreted as declaring that it was Fated, or Necessary.


The Comedian: Although the death of The Comedian is the catalyst for the rest of the plot, we gain much insight into the character throughout the rest of the story. Although the rest of the Watchmen went into retirement when the government objected to their vigilantism, The Comedian, along with Doctor Manhattan, continued to work as agents of the US government. Thus The Comedian has a Captain America-esque persona, agent of the government and all that. Of course, in that agency The Comedian commits various brutalities on Vietnamese citizens. Although The Comedian almost rapes the original Silk Spectre, it eventually is revealed that he is the father of the Silk Spectre featured in the story as a result of a consensual affair that they had. The biggest character feature of The Comedian is his moral ambiguity; at best he might be considered an anti-hero. The rather ugly shade of grey he embodies is emblematic of the entire story as a whole.

Rorschach: Taking his name from the black and white inkblots used in psychological tests, in a world coloured in shades of grey, Rorschach's dogmatic belief in the black and white of good and evil leads me to categorize him as a villain. Brutal and uncompromising in his desire to eradicate those he considers evil, Rorschach puts me in mind of characters such as Dexter or Jack the Ripper who show no compassion as they fight "evil" with a sociopathic fervor. The atrocities performed by Rorschach provide the most public example of why the vigilantism of the Watchmen is dangerous, although he refuses to retire or join the government when pressed, and continues to mete out his harsh judgments. Rorschach and Nite Owl used to be partners, and resume that relationship in the story, each provides an interesting moral foil for the other. When they, along with Doctor Manhattan, discover that Ozymandias is behind the destruction of New York, after the fact, Nite Owl and Ozymandias go along with the ruse in order to prevent further loss of life. However, Rorschach cannot view this duplicity as anything other than wrong and he is therefore eradicated, in the truest sense of the word, by Doctor Manhattan in order to preserve the lives that would be lost in a confrontation between the East and West. In the end however, it looks like the truth of the story may be made known due to a journal that Rorschach sends to an ultra-conservative newspaper of which Rorschach is a fan.

Is the destruction of New York justified by averting a world wide nuclear war? Is Rorschach's determination to make the true culprit of the attack pay justified despite the nuclear war it would likely cause? Is the murder of Rorschach justified to preserve that secret? What if it, ultimately, fails to preserve that secret? And, of course, who watches the Watchmen? Who watches our own actions?

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