Reviews of Watchmen (1986) and related work

Watchmen (1986Sequential art with text)

Dave Gibbons (artist), John Higgins (colourist), Alan Moore (writer).

Around the time that superhero comics began to appear in reality, some gangs were using masks to prevent identification. In response, a couple of young New York cops meted out vigilante “justice” with masks of their own. One of them created a masked alter ego, and this was imitated, starting a minor media craze. Not being terribly normal or stable people to begin with, a lot of those costumed heroes of the 1940s, and their handful of villains, ended up dead or put away.

Another generation of American “superheroes” was spawned when a scientist accidentally obtained actual superhuman power through the loss of his “intrinsic field” in a 1950s experiment. That man, dubbed “Doctor Manhattan” to allude to the Manhattan Project and scare the commies, increased human insight into physics to a point where things like anti-gravity flight, miniaturized computing, smart fabrics and genetically engineered exotic pets were all possible three decades later. Manhattan, working for the US government, also won the war in Vietnam, enabling Richard Nixon to repeal the Twenty-second Amendment and stay on as president. Another 1960s superhero, the Comedian, also works for the government, so John F. Kennedy, Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein are mysteriously killed, while “Marxist” regimes in South America never last. With servants such as those, the arteries of the US government are hardening, and crime is going strong.

Doctor Manhattan and the Comedian are briefly part of a crime-fighting team called the Watchmen, but they dissolve when the Comedian points out they can't prevent war. Citizens don't seem to respond that well anyway. In 1977, a police strike leads to the outlawing of superheroes, strengthening the rule of law as an answer to Plato's question of “Who watches the watchmen?” imagined by the poet Juvenal. Once concentrated, how can power be protected from corruption, or in other words, if disincentives are to form the basis of society, how can they be enforced? Plato's own answer was that our protectors at the top will live by the “noble lie” that they are better than those below, and therefore responsible. Doctor Manhattan does not live by any such lie. His existence heightens the risk for war in 1985 because he is capable of stopping a high percentage of Soviet warheads. Stockpiles are growing to counteract that, and it becomes uncertain whether he would want to try.

Immortal and capable of viewing time and matter more accurately than humans, the sole superhuman teleports and colocates himself freely. Gradually internalizing the fact that he now shares almost nothing with his species, he loses his sense of community and respect for the “overrated phenomenon” of life, but is still devastated to hear that many of his old acquaintances are dead or dying of a cancer his mere presence may have caused. In that same year, a hated madman who refused to retire from killing criminals investigates the murder of the Comedian, on the brink of nuclear war.

You can enjoy Watchmen as an isolate work in the superhero action genre, on the strength of its character writing and crisp visuals. Whether you’re a fan of the genre or not, you can enjoy its interrogation of the superhero motif: It’s a thoughtful and entertaining examination of power from inside a culturally significant genre that is usually nonchalant with power. On a higher level still, Watchmen is structurally brilliant, a marvel of composition in plotting and visuals.

References here: The Incredibles (2004), Megamind (2010), Mars Express (2023).

sequential art text fiction

Watchmen (2009Moving picture, 162 minutes)

Based quite closely on the comic, but whereas in the comic there are two entities with definite superhuman powers, in the film there is only one. Instead of faking an extraterrestrial arrival, Veidt fakes an attack by Dr. Manhattan on several major cities, killing approximately 15 million.

Good casting, except of Veidt. Too much ass-kicking with greater strength and endurance all around. Too much famous pop and Wagner on the soundtrack. The use of Glass, on the other hand, is very appropriate.

The ending is significantly less appealing and logical than that of the comic, and there are many minor irritations among the details. Images are exported from the comic for no real reason, such as the graveyard statue. Some of the makeup is poor, including Nixon. On the whole I was surprised at the quality with which Snyder filmed what was designed to be unfilmable, but it could have used a little Glauber Rocha.

References here: Tiger & Bunny (2011).

moving picture adaptation fiction

‣‣ “Tales of the Black Freighter” (2009Moving picture, 26 minutes)

“More – blood! More – blood!”


moving picture bonus material animation fiction

‣‣ “Under the Hood” (2009Moving picture, 38 minutes)

Like the Dawn of the Dead (2004) newscast material: clearly inferior in style to the movie, and feeling partly cobbled together. There’s a fictional, very poor commercial, and random real ones. The appearance of incidental characters from the main story is also unfortunate.

moving picture bonus material fiction