Hurm…Posted: March 4, 2009
Okay, time to kick off the Watchmen seminar.
Alan Moore’s Watchmen prominently features two newspapers on opposite sides of the political spectrum, conservative The New Frontiersman and liberal Nova Express. Think of these as mid-’80s print versions of the Drudge Report and The Huffington Post, respectively. Even as the end of the world bears down on them, these two publications often seem more interested taking potshots at each other than worrying about the impending nuclear crisis.
Here is where things start to go differently than you might expect, in ways I didn’t really notice (or maybe just didn’t care about) when I read this back in high school. It’s the Nova Express that breaks the sensational (and probably untrue) story that Dr. Manhattan is responsible for the cancer that killed his friend and co-worker, Wally Weaver, and is slowly killing ex-girlfriend Janey Slater and ex-nemesis Moloch. Dr. Manhattan, ashamed, exiles himself. Then the Soviets invade Afghanistan, and the U.S. interprets it as a threat now that it lacks its superman. In a nutshell, the liberal leaning paper is the catalyst for disaster.
The New Frontiersman, meanwhile, lauds the heroes for defending traditional values while blasting the government for tying their hands. Some of Moore’s political thoughts are somewhat dated, but this observation is one of the most timeless. Despite the fact that Moore’s fictional 1985 has unchecked, aggressive conservative leadership in the form of a four-term Nixon, the conservative paper still has the stones to publish stories that make it seem like the liberal government is out to screw the hard-working, freedom-loving Republican. If the last election taught us anything, it’s that this rhetoric refuses to die.
If not handled carefully, this is only going to get worse after this story is filmed. Watchmen‘s final scene shows a zit-faced copy editor at The New Frontiersman reaching for Rorshach’s journal, chock-full of dangerous knowledge. I guarantee you this scene will be cited ad nauseam by giddy conservative minds, who will at last have a big budget representation of the conservative renegades taking on the big bad left-wing conspiracy. (It certainly makes a lot more sense than this.)
Over the next few weeks, there will undoubtedly be an inflation of blogs viewing Watchmen, book and film (though unfortunately, I’m sure mostly film) through a politically biased lens. The majority of these exercises, I think, will miss the point. I’m wary of trying to find deliberate political bias for two reasons. First, if the film really is as faithful an adaptation as Zack Snyder claims it is, than any way it deviates from the political conceits of the book are most likely a failure on Snyder’s part. (For the record, I apologize for how snobby that previous sentence sounds.) Let me put it another way. Snyder isn’t Kubrick. His adaptations aren’t going to twist the source material into a completely different animal. My guess going in is that any new themes that might crop up in the movie will be unintended (still haven’t seen the movie, so I might be way off the mark here).
The second reason comes from the content of the book itself. It’s easy to say that the book is conservative, since Adrian Veidt and the Nova Express are liberal, and respectively do so much deliberate and accidental damage. It’s just as easy to argue that the book is liberal, since it’s the warmongering conservative leadership in both the U.S. and the U.S.S.R. that escalate the war situation. Both points are true, but to accept either conclusion requires the reader to ignore the other one.
Appropriate to the Cold War, Watchmen props up lots of these opposing ideologies: The U.S. and the U.S.S.R., the Nova Express and The New Frontiersman, and personified in Rorschach and Ozymandias (even before the ending, one staying the vigilante and the other becoming the ultimate sell-out). But throwing around terms like “conservative” and “liberal” loses sight of how extreme, fascist even, the perspectives of these characters are. Rorschach conveys complete devotion to the idea of righteousness at the expense of personal humanity. Ozymandias, meanwhile, is complete devotion to the ends, at the expense of personal humanity. It doesn’t stop there. The Comedian and Dr. Manhattan could be seen as two different forms of supreme indifference, amorality/anarachy and a purely scientific/quantitative perspective. In all cases, these characters lose their ability to empathize with the human condition.
So this might be an odd note to start the debate on, but I submit that the only political conceit in Watchmen (the book at least, can’t speak on the film yet) is an intense mistrust of any extreme point of view. Devotion to ideologies, even supreme indifference, destroy humanity.