An Analysis Of Alan Moore's The Watchmen Critical Thinking Sample
The death of The Comedian, and the counting down of the doomsday clock; these are just two of the underlying stories in The Watchmen. The world may be coming to an end but superheroes still exist. There was a time when the people put their lives in the hands of superheroes, whom in turn put their lives on the line for humanity. Now, these superheroes have been unmasked by way of forced retirement. Some of them attempt to blend into society; others can never really shed their alternate identity. Once the mask is off, who is it that they become? What characteristics define a hero? Who is to blame when heroes fall? Alan Moore’s The Watchmen, is not just about superheroes, it’s about what happens when the mask comes off, and superheroes are faced with their own morality and humanity.
The Watchmen aren’t your typical cookie cutter superheroes. You won’t find the boyish good charm that people associate with Superman/ Clark Kent. They aren’t like Batman whose vigilante antics tend to toe the line between good and bad, but never quite cross it. Their brand of vigilante justice doesn’t include a vow not to kill. With the Watchmen, everyone that gets in the way is liable to be killed. They isolate themselves from society to the point where even Silk Spectre despairs that her only friends are superheroes. There is a piece of graffiti in the movie that goes: “Who will watch the watchmen?” Who indeed? Maybe it is the anonymous assassin that is going around killing them off one at a time. While Rorschach is looking for the killer, the doomsday clock is counting down to twelve marking the end of the world via nuclear war. At the end of the story there are several superhero characters that have survived the mysterious hit man revealed to be Ozymandias and witnessed the destruction of a few million people by giant squid (not shown in the movie). Ozymandias, evil genius that he is, has taken the future of humanity into his own hands. He clearly exhibits Deontology in that he believes that his intentions are good and therefore he has done the right thing by killing the people that he has. Silk Spectre, Nite Owl, and Dr. Manhattan all exhibit Utilitarianism when they agree that the results of Ozymandias’ actions are for the greater good. On the other hand Dr. Manhattan and Rorschach both exhibit traits of Existentialism. Rorschach especially exhibits this when he refuses to conform to what the others are doing and would rather die than lie.
Rorschach is a clear example of Existentialist theory. “They had a choice, all of them. They could have followed in the footsteps of good men, like my father, or President Truman” (The Watchmen). While all of the characters in “The Watchmen” have faced one kind of ethical dilemma or another, characters like Rorschach mete out their own ideas of judgment. Rorschach does not base his ideas of justice on what is right by the law; he bases it on what is right in his own mind. This type of justice rarely falls inside of the limits of the law. The mask he wears perhaps marks his ambiguity. He doesn’t quite see things as one solid black and white image. He defined himself as once being a good guy. Once upon a time, he might have been the kind of guy to take it easy on the bad guys. Maybe he was the sort to give the bad guy the benefit of the doubt. He played that good guy until the day when he decided that murder in the name of justice was justified. Rorschach, at this point, has decided that his kind of justice is the best kind of justice. Even when the end is near, he won’t compromise what he believes to be his morals. He would rather die. This type of behavior could be considered Existentialist in that Rorschach believes that even though he plays the hero, humans are essentially responsible for themselves, but he’ll continue fight for the underdog and seek justice where justice is due. But one of these days, someone is going to ask for help and Rorschach will say no.
“The existence of life is a highly overrated phenomenon” (The Watchmen). Dr. Manhattan also portrays the classic example of Existentialism. Even though Dr. Manhattan (also known as Jon) was once human, he tends to look upon humanity with a sense of detachment. His only cling to humanity, in his eyes, is his girlfriend Laurie also known as Silk Spectre. However, when Laurie leaves him and he is accused of causing cancer in his former friends and co-workers, he flees to the planet Mars. He embodies that bad faith. He runs away again, at the end of the movie, under the premise of seeing Ozymandias’ point of view in creating a peaceful society and decides to start his own type of human race. The problem with Dr. Manhattan is that he can see the future, but is limited by being unable to see into his own humanity. He has removed himself so far from humanity that he no longer feels an ethic responsibility to save it. He asks Silk Spectre: “Why would I want to save a world I no longer have a stake in” (The Watchmen)? Although one could argue that Dr. Manhattan exhibits traits of Utilitarianism at the end of the movie, it must be pointed out that Dr. Manhattan is till seeking the meaning of life which is why he runs away to create his own race as opposed to watching the fallout of Ozymandias’ actions.
Likened, as one of the smartest men in the world the character Ozymandias is perhaps almost as interesting as Rorschach. His actions mix a little bit of Deontology with Utilitarianism. He both separates himself from society and conducts himself within society as a businessman. Unlike the rest of his team, however, he holds himself up in high grandeur. He doesn’t seclude himself like Nite Owl. He doesn’t separate himself from humanity like Dr. Manhattan does. He wants to be a god; he wants to be the king, he wants to create peace by waging a different kind of war. He doesn’t think that he is corrupt. It was mentioned earlier that Ozymandias exhibits both Deontology and Utilitarian traits. This is clearly seen when he decides to bring peace by destroying a few million people. He wants to take the focus off the tensions between the U.S. and Russia and unite them against a common enemy that is Dr. Manhattan. In his eyes, destroying a few million people is necessary and a part of the greater good. In his eyes, his actions are moral because the consequences prevent nuclear war. He may have felt that this was his duty as a superhero to act the way that he did.
Today’s typical superheroes seem to embody empathy as they try to make the world a safer place. However, there is a marked difference between those superheroes and the Watchmen. There is really no innocence nor empathy among any of these superheroes. Their moral codes are more of a suggestion as they mete out their own brand of justice. The imagery of the smiling face with the smear of blood can reflect each characters dual nature of good versus evil. The fact that The Watchmen are murderers within their own right doesn’t seem to come into question. Even The Comedian has asserted that The Watchmen are society’s saviors from themselves. It is unspoken that superheroes have a responsibility to the citizens to act in the best interest of humanity. In this regard, one can argue that the end does not justify the means. There really was no reason for Ozymandias to give people cancer, and set up Dr. Manhattan in the violent manner in which he did. There also was no real justifiable reason to massacre millions of people the way he did. Yes, he prevented nuclear war, but with a man as intelligent as Ozymandias was, there is reason to believe that he could not have come up with a better solution. In essence Ozymandias feels that with his actions, he has served the greater good. He is a villain, but neither he nor his peers sees him in that light when they realize that his actions have brought about a kind of peace.
Each characters actions tends to bring about more questions than answers as they walk away from what is clearly genocide on the part of Ozymandias. Millions dying seems to be too hefty a price to pay in order to gain freedom and peace. With that said, it can be argued that despite the mix of Deontology and Utilitarianism, the main underlying theory throughout the movie is Existentialism. You will find classic examples of bad faith in Dr. Manhattan. The Comedian and Rorschach represent some facets of ambiguity. And each character despite their violent bravado is looking for the meaning of life and trying to find their own freedom.
The Watchmen. Dir. Zack Snyder. Perf. Malin Akerman, Billy Crudup, Jackie Earl
Haley, Patrick Wilson, and Jeffrey Dean Morgan. Warner Bros. Entertainment, Inc., 2009. Film.
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