Unmasking The Superhero: Alan Moore’s Watchmen

Copyright © 1986 by Alan Moore and David Gibbons.

There’s something intrinsic about the concept of heroism to human nature.  As the ancient Greeks had their heroes (like Achilles, Odysseus, Heracles, and Perseus), the twentieth century saw the rise of superheroes (like Superman, Batman, Incredible Hulk, and Spider-Man).  We like heroes because they can do everything we mere mortals wish we could do, because they do what’s right, and because they inspire us to do good in our own way.

But there is a dark side to letting superpowered or super-talented men and women take on injustice on our behalf, and not all heroes are as virtuous or as wholesome as they’re traditionally portrayed.  Such is the premise behind Alan Moore‘s beloved graphic novel, Watchmen.

The Story: Five Minutes ‘Til Doomsday

Watchmen looks at a world where superheroes are not only real, but treated realistically.  The mere existence of “costumed adventurers” changes the course of twentieth-century history.  It’s a world where a Superman-style hero called Dr. Manhattan can obliterate his enemies with a word, thus allowing the US to win the Vietnam War and let Richard Nixon stay in office well past his second term.  And when a government-hired hero called “The Comedian” is found murdered, only the masked anti-hero called Rorschach is willing to investigate, but what he finds could spell the end for superheroes and bring the world closer to nuclear Armageddon.

The Cast: Anti-Heroes And Near-Villains

Our characters are as varied as any lineup of superheroes–all of whom happen to be inspired by characters created by Steve Ditko.  There’s Rorschach, so called because of his black-on-white mask and his black-and-white moral philosophy; Nite-Owl, whose array of gadgets and costumes is counterbalanced by his earnest, Boy Scout-like worldview; Silk Spectre, an action heroine who tries desperately not to think too much about the troubles in her past; The Comedian, a gunman-turned-government agent whose turbulent story is told through flashbacks; Ozymandias, a retired hero with the best publicity and a reputation as the world’s smartest man; and Dr. Manhattan, a former scientist caught in a lab accident that gave him god-like powers and a growing sense of detachment from the human race.

This story is a deconstruction on so many levels: on vigilante justice, on the monopoly of force, on heroic and anti-heroic motivations, and on man’s place in the cosmos (at least from Manhattan’s God-like perspective).  Yet for all its despair and dark characterizations, there is some small hope for humanity and for things like truth and justice.

The Film Of The Book: Better Than Expected

In 2009 came the long-awaited film adaptation of Watchmen, directed by Zack Synder.  Historically, adaptations of Alan Moore’s works have rarely been faithful to the original material (see V for Vendetta and The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen), but Synder’s comes close.  Granted, it’s a long film because of it’s so faithful to the graphic novel’s complex plot and does change one or two elements near the end, but for the most part, it tells the same story that Moore told back in the Eighties and even manages to keep the story to that same era, rather than “updating” it as happened in V for Vendetta.

Copyright © 2009 by Warner Bros. Pictures.

Every actor in Snyder’s production is remarkable, but special mention goes to  Jackie Earle Haley, who brings the gruff and tireless Rorschach to life, from his distinct speech habits right down to his face beneath the mask.  The soundtrack also stays true to the music of the Seventies and Eighties and the CGI does a fantastic job of refining such visual feats as Dr. Manhattan and the surface of Mars.

Final Verdict: Dark, Deep, And Beautiful

Watchmen is one of those stories that doesn’t treat its characters nicely and at times it almost seems too dark.  But at the same time, it’s a wonderful tale of human nature, both at its finest and worst, and even if you cherish all the heroes it deconstructs, you’ll still find something to cheer for.

Bibliography: Watchmen (graphic novel).  Written by Alan Moore.  Illustrated by David Gibbons.  DC Comics.  September 1986 – October 1987.

Watchmen (film).  Directed by Zach Snyder.  Produced by Lawrence Gordon, Lloyd Levin, and Deborah Snyder.  Screenplay by David Hayter and Alex Tse.  Perf. Malin Akerman, Billy Crudup, Matthew Goode, Carla Gugino, Jackie Earle Haley, Jeffrey Dean Morgan, Matt Frewer, and Stephen McHattie.  Warner Bros. Pictures, 2009.

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