Watchmen (2009)

Rated R. Our Rating: V-2 ; L- 1; S/N-2 . Length: 2 hours 42 min.

Some take pride in chariots, and some in horses,
but our pride is in the name of the LORD our God.
They will collapse and fall,
but we shall rise and stand upright.
Psalm 20:7-8

Again, the devil took him to a very high mountain and showed him all the kingdoms of the world and their splendor; and he said to him, “All these I will give you, if you will fall down and worship me.” Jesus said to him, “Away with you, Satan! for it is written, ‘Worship the Lord your God, and serve only him.’ “ Matthew 4:8-10

Rorschach visits Nite Owl.

2009 Warner brothers

Not being a fan of graphic novels, I was unfamiliar with the source of this film, and so at times was confused as director Zack Snyder’s version unfolded. But bored, never! With fantastic special ef fects and a script filled at times with some philosophical and ethical insights interspersed between action sequences, the film never lets go of the viewer’s attention! This is one film I look forward to seeing again, hoping to clarify some of the puzzling scenes, such as …

The story is set in an alternate 1985 America, one in which Nixon is serving a third term as if Watergate never happened. (Shudder!) The big concern for Americans is the Doomsday Clock, the device set by nuclear scientists concerned that the volatile relations between the Soviet Union and the United States will erupt in nuclear holocaust. The U.S. is involved in Afghanistan, and the Soviets are worried about our intentions. As tensions grow, the scientist move the large minute hand closer to the 12. (This took me back to that anxious period when I joined with a million others marching through the streets of Manhattan and converging on Central Park where the huge Peace Rally that was held!)

We hear the voice of a masked superhero who calls himself Rorschach (Jackie Earle Haley). A fellow superhero called the Comedian (Jeffrey Dean Morgan) has been attacked in his high rise apartment and thrown through the window, his body crushed on the pavement far below. Rorschach becomes convinced that his friend was murdered, and that someone is out to kill all of the remaining superheroes. Once, back at the beginning of the 1940s, a group of superheroes known as the Minutemen had operated in the open, keeping the streets safe by vanquishing criminals. However, due to public fears concerning their extraordinary powers, they had been forced into retirement, except for the one with the greatest of super powers, Dr. Manhattan (Billy Crudup). Once physicist Jon Osterman, his entire being was transformed when he became trapped in a chamber in which a nuclear experiment was being conducted. Now a shift-shaping blue spectre, he divides his time between working for President Nixon and teleporting himself to Mars.

Rorschach speaks in a raspy voice like one of those detectives from a film noir: indeed, we soon see that his ethics in regard to killing is akin to Mickey Spillane’s Mike Hammer. He convinces Dan Dreiberg (Patrick Wilson), known as Nite Owl II, to put on his costume again and start up his flying Owl Ship, the two soon putting down a violent street demonstration with brutal force.

In the meantime Laurie Jupiter (Malin Akerman) also known as Silk Spectre II, leaves her former lover Dr. Manhattan and begins a relationship with Nite Owl. They both relish the thrill of adventure as costumed crusaders working with Rorschach to track down the killer. Also joining them is Adrian Veidt (Matthew Goode), who has become wealthy, calling himself Ozymandias, “the smartest man in the world.” Obsessed with Alexander the Great and Pharaoh Rameses II, he lives in a lavish palace with a large Egyptian statue on the base of which he has inscribed lines from Shelley’s famous poem of the same name. He dreams of uniting humanity into one worldwide peaceful community.

Watchmen, like the animated The Incredibles, as well as the Spider Man series and The Dark Knight, goes far beyond the exploits and adventures of the super hero genre by exploring what might happen to superheroes when the action is over, the criminal apprehended, and the routine chores of daily living have to be faced. Or, as in the case of the recent Hancock, what happens when the public’s fear of the powers of the superhero becomes a major issue. As a graffiti in Watchmen puts it, “Who watches The Watchmen? Good question: if they are human, are they not subject to the temptations to abuse power, as even Jesus was when he ventured into the wilderness to wrestle with how he would use his divine powers?

We see in both Rorschach and The Comedian a cynical world-weariness that lashes out to brutally suppress any opposition. And Dr. Manhattan struggles in the safety of his Mars retreat as whether or not to help save humankind. Even more disturbing is the identity of the murderer that the Watchmen are seeking. It is well worth the extra time required to sit through this longer than usual film. I am looking forward to seeing it again.

For Reflection/Discussion

May contain spoilers.

1. What do you think of the super hero genre? If you like it, why? And if you do not, why? What were its trade marks when it started out in the 1930s? How is the genre a modern counterpart of the fairy tale?

2. Critics have described The Watchmen as a film that deconstructs the genre: how does it do this? What are the signs of this in the film? (Or in the other more recent super hero films mentioned in the review?)

3. How is the issue of power central to the genre? Why do you think it did not occur to the early creators of super heroes that their character would always use his/her power for good? Note how the writer of the scripts for Spider Man was aware of this when he had Peter Parker’s Uncle Ben remind him that “with great power goes great responsibility.” 4. How is power and its use central to the story of Jesus as well? Note how the Psalmist also dealt with it: how about the Temptation and Fall story in Genesis 3?

5. What seems to be the view of violence in the film? Were you comfortable with this? Why or why not? How does it reflect the prevailing opinion about violence?

6. What do you think of Ozymandias and his use of Shelley’s poem? Do you think that he really understands it? If he did, would Alexander the Great and Pharaoh Rameses II be his heroes? What about Jesus of Nazareth or Frances of Assisi?

7. Back to the view of violence and power: how do you see this debate going on in politics and our society as a whole? For example: the debate as to how our government should react to foreign threats (such as Iran and North Korea)—diplomacy versus military power. The War on Terror—a law enforcement matter or a military one? The War on Drugs—a therapeutical approach or more stringent law enforcement? What has the latter led to in regard to our prison system?