Watchmen, besides its much-lauded status as a seminal work for “serious” superhero comics, is intricately caught up with politics. As Rawal Ahmed has written, Alan Moore’s oeuvre is inseparable from his loathing of Margaret Thatcher and the transatlantic political scene of the 1980s. Less appreciated, however, are the ways in which Moore’s work calls into question the very ideological underpinnings of the superhero genre. This self-critical tendency is perhaps most notable in the pages of Marvelman/Miracleman, but it is also a too-often overlooked facet of Watchmen—a facet that is illuminated by comparison with Zack Snyder’s 2009 film adaptation.
Moore, resident anarchist mage of the comics world, developed in the book several themes he had touched upon in his earlier work Marvelman, offering superheroes as an allegory for state power within a cautionary narrative of totalitarianism that eventuates in global catastrophe. The effect of this, not well appreciated in a context where “grim and gritty” has become the norm, is to call into question nothing less than the very ethos of mid-20th century American comics.
The stories of book and film are identical in broad strokes. While a few structural differences exist (the omission of certain scenes from the film, a slightly altered ending), the substantial differences between Moore’s work and Snyder’s—what I believe are the ideological differences—are to be found on the aesthetic level.
In the graphic novel, masked heroes become (more or less explicitly) a symbol for state violence. The Comedian, a parodic embodiment of American jingoism, and Doctor Manhattan, a character whose backstory and abilities parallel the emergence of nuclear weapons, help to effect American victory in the Vietnam War, while those who do not retire following the passage of the Keene Act operate domestically under the aegis of the United States federal government. A despotic Richard Nixon, presumably bolstered by the activities of so-called “masks” both domestically and abroad, is still president.
In both comic and film, Adrian Veidt (the main villain of the story, if there is one) stands aloof for much of the action, a 1980s Elon Musk seemingly leveraging his social status for the public good through investments in such technological innovations as electric cars and genetic engineering. He is at once a figure of both past and future, self-consciously modeling his alter ego on the Egyptian Pharaoh Rameses II. In less megalomaniacal fashion, too, he is the only character with still-unmixed admiration for his and his fellow masked heroes’ achievements in their glory days.
But this Nostalgia (to quote the name of Veidt’s popular perfume line) should be suspect. The fact that Ozymandias perpetrates an act of mass murder with the goal of uniting a divided humanity is indicative of Moore’s attitude toward the set of assumptions and rationalizations underlying the actions of fictional superheroes as well as of the state. Moore conveys this skepticism toward superheroes not simply by telling a new superhero story, but by telling a story that evokes the entire Gestalt of the genre. Working within an industry that had long ago settled into convention and creative complacency, Moore crafts a parody of superhero comics, but a parody that hardly needs exaggeration or caricature in order to critique.
By deliberately recreating the aesthetic of traditional superhero comics, both the book and the film simultaneously conjure within and exorcise from the reader a nostalgia not for a specific time in the past (other than perhaps a childhood spent indulging in the four-color power fantasies of superhero comics in their heyday) but for a way of reading, a political naivete in which the actions of idealized heroes and villains may be isolated from real-world politics.
In so doing, Moore’s pastiche takes this cultural critique another level deeper (or, insofar as it approaches nearer the reader, higher), effectively asking his audience to consider the ways in which the narrative conventions of superhero comics may reflect upon the real world. The difference between authoritarianism proper and the kind of respect for authority inculcated by such simplistic narratives of good-versus-evil is, for Moore, one of degree and not of kind. (See, for example, the subtly ironic declaration by an anti-vigilante protester that “we want reg’lar cops,” suggesting how little daylight Moore sees between “regular” law enforcement and vigilantism.)
The effect of this pastiche is primarily negative, setting up an array of deliberately clichéd characters that act as archetypal icons, non-entities whose primary significance is their mere familiarity. This, as comics scholar Geoff Klock writes, “performs a kenosis towards comic book history”; the eschewal of narrative innovation, paradoxically, allows for the creation of a narrative that acts as an encyclopedic take-down of the first fifty years of superhero history.
In Snyder’s film, though, the intensity of this critique is muted by the filmmakers’ capitulation to the conventions not of mid-twentieth-century superhero comics, but to the (not-that-different) standards of the modern action film. Scenes of “heroic” action, rarer in the book than in most other works in the genre, are played to their fullest in the film, and those gruesome scenes from the book are rendered all the bloodier. In a particularly extreme example, a scene early in the book in which Dan Dreiberg and Silk Spectre are pursued by a street gang down a dark alley is greatly expanded in the film, all of the added length devoted to the depiction of hand-to-hand violence, including a cringe-inducing compound fracture inflicted upon an assailant’s arm and at least three deaths.
Another instance of the film’s marked difference from the comic may be found in a flashback scene depicting a formative incident in the life of Walter Kovacs. The scene itself is substantially identical on film and in print, an approximately ten-year-old Walter reacting violently when a group of his peers make degrading comments about his mother, a sex worker. The scene’s most visceral moment comes when an enraged Walter leaps at another boy, cutting him off mid-sentence by sinking his teeth into the other child’s cheek.
This occurrence is depicted with a roughly equal amount of gore in both works, but its significance in the film is muted in comparison with all the blood, guts, and bone that have come before. This is, as near as we can tell, the young Rorschach’s first foray into interpersonal violence, motivated primarily by a wish to defend his mother’s reputation. It is, most significantly, a uniquely personal act of vigilantism, and thus a forerunner of the violence he will perpetrate later in life in the private belief that he is combatting a veritable conspiracy of communists and homosexuals devoted to the destruction of American society.
In the book this scene serves to show how personal Rorschach’s crusade is, and that small-scale violence necessarily translates to the kind of dysfunctional large-scale violence represented by superheroes (or, for Moore, by police). Like the shifting inkblots of his mask, the ethical cosmology Rorschach inhabits is black-and-white, with no gradient in between the two. A simplistic narrative of good and evil drives Rorschach’s murderous actions just as it drives the superficially more palatable actions of Silver Age heroes of the 1950s and 60s, whose battles against personified evil rarely result in death.
The film, on the other hand, obfuscates this nuance by virtue of its unending chain of blood and gore, both more graphic than that presented in the graphic novel and perceived more quickly, as a series of moving images progressing at a continuous pace rather than of static ones, the pace of which may be determined by the reader. In the context of the film, this incident in the early life of Rorschach is just another example of Snyder’s blood-soaked aesthetic, together with the gratuitous violence of the alleyway scene mentioned above, the gruesome injuries and deaths inflicted by Doctor Manhattan in Vietnam, the Comedian in the US (and in Vietnam), and Rorschach himself at a continuous pace throughout the story, most of which are presented by the filmmakers with a seeming delight in the carnage.
Surprisingly, however, at least for readers of the graphic novel the movie never fully devolves into a spectacle-driven snuff show. In fact, through such instances of excess, one could argue that it comes to perform a more perfect parody than it realizes or intends. Snyder’s film, by overindulging in the capabilities of digital effects and ultimately conforming to genre conventions, becomes in its own way an example of the kind of story its original calls into question. Its appropriation of the comic’s characters and themes reinforces rather than undermines the critique of political naiveté encoded in the earlier work.
To say that Snyder’s work, or Snyder personally, misses the point of Moore’s Watchmen would be too simplistic. Either or both may do just that, but Snyder’s adaptation turns out to be just as much a pastiche as the classic graphic novel. It is, rather, a pastiche of a pastiche—a superficial re-presentation of a twenty-year-old story that wholeheartedly embraces the ideology its plot was constructed to question. Notwithstanding the ways in which Snyder crafts a work aesthetically antithetical to its source material, his film winds up unwittingly reinforcing the critique of superhero stories that led Moore to author his work some two decades prior.
By appropriating all the violent visuals of the graphic novel with none of the ironic self-effacement, Watchmen the film takes on qualities describable as ontologically prior to Watchmen the book. Under the ideological weight of the genre to which it is subservient, Watchmen becomes the very story it was meant to critique. By reading Moore “straight,” Snyder makes Moore’s point better than he himself ever did—that subservience to a genre centering on violence carried out by superpowered individuals results in subservience to an ideology of power and violence.