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Watchmen

[1]4,702 words

Watchmen is one of the most thoroughly Right-wing, even fascistic works of recent popular culture, despite the right-thinking Leftism of the creators of the original graphic novel, Alan Moore, who wrote the story, and Dave Gibbons, who illustrated it—and of Zack Snyder, who directed the movie adaptation, which to my mind is the greatest superhero movie of all time, a movie that not only does justice to the original novel but actually improves upon it in fundamental ways.

Watchmen was not a Leftist parody of the Right that went off mark. Moore is too good a writer to fail in a big way. When Moore engages in parody, such as his sendup of Far Right Cold War journalism in The New Frontiersman, he hits the mark nicely.

Snyder also introduces elements of satire into the movie’s treatment of Richard Nixon. In the graphic novel, Nixon is portrayed as a lonely, dignified, and thoughtful figure who rejects rash decisions. (This is quite telling in itself.) The movie takes us into Dr. Strangelove territory, but it gives Nixon such great lines—contemplating the nuclear destruction of the Eastern Seaboard: “The last gasp of the Harvard establishment. Let’s see them debate their way out of nuclear fission”—that we find ourselves laughing with him, not at him. But Snyder’s treatment of the main characters follows Moore in being serious, not satirical.

Thus the Right-wing flavor of Watchmen is a product of design, not accident. At heart, it is a gallery, not of Right-wing caricatures, but of complex and compelling characters with a range of far-Right outlooks. These characters are placed in an extraordinary plot driven by fundamental moral and political, and even metaphysical and religious, conflicts. With its archetypal characters and high-stakes plot, Watchmen is a 19th-century Romantic novel disguised as a comic book. 

The Setting & Back Story 

The main events of Watchmen take place in October and November 1985. They are set primarily in New York City, in Antarctica, and on Mars, within an alternative history in which Richard Nixon has been President since 1968 and superheroes, called “Watchmen,” actually exist.

There are two generations of Watchmen.

The First Generation

The Watchmen began in 1938 as eight individual costumed crime-fighters, six men and two women. In 1939, they teamed up and were referred to collectively as “Minutemen,” after the rapid-response partisan militia of the American Revolutionary War. These superheroes were physically fit and public-spirited but otherwise ordinary individuals who donned masks and costumes to fight crime.

Five of them play little or no part in the graphic novel and movie: Silhouette (a lesbian who was murdered with her lover), Captain Metropolis (Nelson Gardner), Hooded Justice (missing in 1955, presumed dead), Dollar Bill (killed by bank robbers when his cape got caught in a revolving door), and Mothman (confined to a mental hospital). (Zack Snyder, who is a brilliant silent movie director, shows these stories under the opening credits of the film.)

Three first-generation Watchmen play important roles in the graphic novel/movie: Nite Owl (Hollis Mason), Silk Spectre (Sally Jupiter), and The Comedian (Edward Blake), all of them in their late 60s at the time.

The Minutemen rapidly fell apart. The Comedian was expelled in 1940 for trying to rape Silk Spectre. He went on to fight in the Second World War and after the war became a government “black ops” specialist who, among other things, assassinated John F. Kennedy from the grassy knoll near Dealey Plaza. Silhouette was murdered in 1946; Dollar Bill was gunned down around the same time; then, in 1947, Silk Spectre quit to have a family. In 1949, the Minutemen officially disbanded as a group, although some members continued to fight crime on their own.

The Second Generation

Despite their failure, the Minutemen did inspire a second generation of Watchmen, which formed in the late 1960s under the name Crimebusters. In the novel, they are called together by Captain Metropolis (Nelson Gardner), thus establishing a link with the first generation. (Gardner was to die in a car accident in 1974.) In the movie, they are convened by Ozymandias (Adrian Veidt). The Comedian also returned to costumed crime-fighting. Silk Spectre’s daughter Laurie took over her mother’s identity. Dan Driberg replaced Hollis Mason as Nite Owl. And three new personas emerged: Ozymandias, Rorschach (Walter Kovacs), and Dr. Manhattan (Dr. Jon Osterman).

The second generation of Watchmen includes some genuine superheroes. Although the Comedian, Rorschach, and Silk Spectre are all-too-human vigilantes dependent on will and athleticism, Ozymandias and Nite Owl have to some extent transcended human limitations, Veidt through physical and mental exercises which made him the smartest man alive and fast enough to catch a bullet, and Dreiberg primarily through technology which he could afford to develop because of the money left to him by his father, a wealthy banker. (Nite Owl, therefore, resembles Batman in more than just the costume.)

Dr. Manhattan, however, is a true superman. He is virtually indestructible and can see the future, mold matter with the power of thought, and transport himself and anything else instantaneously over great distances.

The second generation of Watchmen operated for about a decade, and they were more than just crime-fighters. The Comedian walked out of the initial meeting because he saw little point in fighting crime in a world menaced by nuclear war. But he involved himself anyway, because his objections were taken seriously by both Dr. Manhattan and Ozymandias. Instead of being mere vigilantes trying to save New York, they began to think geopolitically about saving the whole world. The high point of their operations came when Dr. Manhattan intervened to win the Vietnam War for the United States. (The Comedian came along for laughs.)

But only a few years later, in 1977, public opinion had sufficiently turned against the Watchmen that the US Congress passed the Keene Act banning costumed vigilantes, and Nixon signed it.

In the eight years from the Keene Act to the opening of the story in 1985, Adrian Veidt (whose true identity was already known before the Keene Act) focused on building up a multi-billion dollar business empire. Dr. Manhattan and the Comedian returned to doing secret work for the government, the former in research and development, the latter in black ops, knocking over Marxist republics in Latin America. (Nixon also has the Comedian keep tabs on the former Watchmen.) Laurie Jupiter went on the government payroll as Manhattan’s lover. Dan Dreiberg went into retirement, never revealing his true identity. Rorschach, however, remained active, but entirely outside the law.

The Plot

My primary focus is on the cast of Watchmen as a gallery of Right-wing archetypes. But before I deal with the characters in greater depth, I must sketch out the plot.

Both the novel and the movie open with the murder of Edward Blake by an unknown assailant. Rorschach investigates and discovers that Blake was the Comedian. Rorschach then breaks the news to the other members of his fraternity—first Dreiberg, then Veidt, then Jupiter and Manhattan—warning them, also, that they might be targets. (In the movie, Dreiberg warns Veidt.)

When Rorschach observes the former supervillain Moloch paying his respects at the grave of the Comedian, he tails him to his apartment and forces him to talk. Moloch reveals that he has terminal cancer. He also reveals that Blake broke into Moloch’s apartment, drunk and weeping, and told Moloch that he had discovered a terrible conspiracy involving Dr. Manhattan, Janey Slater, and Moloch himself. But Blake never mentioned the details or who was behind the conspiracy. A week later, he was dead, apparently silenced by the conspirators before he could talk.

Meanwhile, Dr. Manhattan’s relationship with Laurie is fraying as he becomes increasingly detached from the human condition. Laurie walks out and goes to Dan Dreiberg, Nite Owl II, for company. Reminiscing about their crime-fighting days, they walk through a dangerous area looking for trouble and end up in a fight with members of a gang, the Knot Tops, whom they trounce.

That same evening, Dr. Manhattan goes on Nightline and is accused on live television of giving cancer to his former lover Janey Slater, his friend Wally Weaver, and other associates. Enraged, Manhattan teleports himself to Mars. The Soviets take advantage of the absence of America’s ultimate deterrent to launch an invasion of Afghanistan, setting the United States and the USSR on the path to nuclear war.

Rorschach’s theory that someone is targeting the Watchmen receives further confirmation when a gunman tries to kill Adrian Veidt. The gunman, however, swallowed a cyanide capsule before he could be compelled to reveal who was pulling his strings. Then Moloch was murdered. Rorschach was framed for the crime and arrested, but he is rescued in the middle of a prison riot by Nite Owl II and Silk Spectre II, who have grown closer, begun a sexual relationship, and returned to crime-fighting.

After the prison break, Manhattan teleports Laurie to Mars, where she tries to persuade him to return to Earth to prevent an imminent nuclear war. Meanwhile, Nite Owl and Rorschach investigate Roy Chess, the gunman who attempted to kill Veidt. They eventually discover that Chess, Moloch, and Janey Slater all worked for Pyramid Transnational, and that Pyramid was secretly owned by Adrian Veidt himself. They also discover a psychological profile on Manhattan that makes clear that Veidt was behind an elaborate plot to drive Dr. Manhattan to sever his ties with humanity, the success of which had brought the world to the brink of nuclear annihilation. They immediately depart for Veidt’s Antarctic research center (a kind of Fortress of Solitude) to get some answers.

Veidt reveals that he has engineered Manhattan’s exile not to start a nuclear war but because Manhattan is the only person who could foil Veidt’s plans to stop it. At this point, the plots of the graphic novel and the movie diverge significantly. In the graphic novel, Veidt destroys New York City by faking an attack by a huge squid-like monster of apparent extraterrestrial origin. In the movie, he destroys a number of cities with explosions that bear the energy signature of Dr. Manhattan. In both cases, the result is that the United States and the Soviet Union call off their war and unite to face a greater threat: extraterrestrial invasion in one case, Dr. Manhattan in the other. In both the novel and the movie, Manhattan and Laurie return to Earth too late for him to do anything to stop it.

As a Lovecraftian, I am, of course, a sucker for tentacles. But I have to admit that the climax of the movie is far more elegant.

First, it provides a more plausible motive for driving Dr. Manhattan off the planet. Veidt had already successfully prevented Manhattan from seeing through his plot by creating tachyons, which obscured his vision of the future. Thus Veidt had no need to send Manhattan to Mars—as if such a piddling distance would matter to Manhattan anyway.

Second, the movie’s climax heightens Manhattan’s heroism. In the novel, Manhattan, Dreiberg, and Laurie agree not to reveal what Veidt has done, because to bring Veidt to justice would undo the unity he created and set the world back on the path to war. In the movie, however, Manhattan does more than just keep Veidt’s secret. He also takes the blame for Veidt’s crimes. Thus he plays a unique and supreme role in saving humanity by accepting, like Christ, the role of the scapegoat for the sins of others.

The dénouement of both the book and the movie are essentially the same: Rorschach refuses to keep Veidt’s secret, so Manhattan is forced to kill him. Manhattan then leaves Earth forever, perhaps to create life on another planet. The threat of nuclear war having passed, New York rebuilds (with Veidt Industries profiting handsomely). Dreiberg and Laurie decide to marry. And Rorschach’s diary, which tells the whole story up to his departure to Antarctica, when he dropped it in the mail, is fished out of the crank file at his favorite Right-wing periodical, New Frontiersman, bringing the story back to its beginning.

Principal Characters: First Generation 

Nite Owl I (Hollis Mason)

Hollis Mason’s primary role is as chronicler of the first generation of Watchmen and as a murder victim.

According to Mason’s memoirs, which are excerpted in the graphic novel, the Minutemen were called “fascists” and “perverts,” and there was an “element of truth in both those accusations,” although “neither of them are big enough to take in the whole picture.” In particular, Hooded Justice was heard “openly expressing approval for the activities of Hitler’s Third Reich,” while Captain Metropolis “has gone on record making statements about black and Hispanic Americans that have been viewed as both racially prejudiced and inflammatory.” As Mason sums it up, “Yes, we were crazy, we were kinky, we were Nazis, all those things people say.”

But, he adds significantly, “We were also doing something because we believed in it. We were attempting, through our personal efforts, to make our country a safer and better place to live in.”

This is an important point to bear in mind, for in mainstream comics, Right-wing political views are not the mark of superheroes, but of supervillains. Even the most macho vigilante scofflaw, like Batman, still has to pay lip-service to humanistic, egalitarian morals. But in the Watchmen universe, Right-wing superheroes are still superheroes. Indeed, as we shall see, they are the only kind.

Mason is killed by a gang known as the Knot Tops in retaliation for a beating meted out to their members by Nite Owl II (Dreiberg) and Silk Spectre II (Laurie Jupiter). (The gang members either don’t know or don’t care that there are two Nite Owls.) Dreiberg feels great guilt for Mason’s death, because he and Jupiter sought out the confrontation as they edged themselves toward resuming crime-fighting. 

Silk Spectre I (Sally Jupiter)

Sally Jupiter (born Juspeczyk) was a model turned crime-fighter. As one might suspect, she was no demure little flower. She drank and cussed with the guys, and also slept with some of them. Sally’s principal role in the plot is not, however, as a crime-fighter, but as a mother. The Comedian was drummed out of the Minutemen for trying to rape her. But later they had consensual sex (while she was married to her agent), producing Laurie (Silk Spectre II).

The Comedian (Edward Blake)

Edward Blake is one of the most enigmatic characters in Watchmen. He is called the Comedian because he wears a mask of cynicism and irreverence. He is capable of cold-blooded brutality and sadism. At first glance, he seems to be a sociopath. Ozymandias characterized him as “practically a Nazi.” But the Comedian is no Joker. Blake has a conscience. When he discovers that Ozymandias is committing crimes far more terrible than anything he has done, he is horrified and distraught and tries to confess to Moloch, one of his old foes.

Blake, moreover, is not just a cynic. He is best understood as a disillusioned idealist. Blake loves America. But he is a political realist enough to know that America has enemies, foreign and domestic, who must be killed. He knows that maintaining law and order sometimes requires going outside the law. Thus he is capable of assassinating President Kennedy and killing countless Communists in Vietnam and Latin America, and probably a lot of innocents who just got in the way.

But at some point, Blake lost his faith in America. Since he began as a conservative American, Blake surely saw liberalism as a decadent deviation from American ideals. But Blake had changed his views by the time of the police strike and riots of 1977, which were followed by the Keene Act, all of which sprung from a Left-liberal rejection of vigilantism.

The Comedian realized that liberal decadence was not a deviation from American principles, but their fulfillment. Exasperated by the ingratitude of the rioters, Nite Owl II asked the Comedian, “Whatever happened to the American dream?” To which the Comedian responded: “It came true.” America had been a giant joke after all, and the joke was on him.

Principal Characters: Second Generation 

Rorschach (Walter Kovacs)

Rorschach is the narrator of Watchmen. We see the story through his eyes. Veidt creates the conspiracy, and Rorschach’s investigation creates the plot. Rorschach also has the best lines in Watchmen and is by far the most popular character.

But he is also deeply problematic, for as his origin story makes clear, he is a hero out of the most unheroic of motives: ressentiment. The son of a prostitute, young Walter Kovacs suffered from abuse, neglect, and scorn. He was placed in a juvenile home at the age of 11, after savagely attacking two older bullies. Walter’s anger and embitterment give rise to a powerful desire to punish, both others and himself. Thus he adopts an absolutist, objective, black-and-white moral code which he applies without mercy or compromise.

Rorschach became a masked vigilante in 1964. He teamed up with Nite Owl II to fight crime. In the late ’60s, he joined the “Crimebusters” group. Rorschach was known for roughing up criminals, but he delivered them to the police alive. But America’s increasingly soft and liberal criminal justice system could no longer be trusted to mete out justice, so in 1975 Rorschach began killing criminals, starting with Gerald Grice, who had kidnapped a little girl, Blair Roche, butchered her, and fed her to his dogs.

Rorschach’s excesses were surely a factor that led to the Keene Act, banning masked vigilantes altogether. The other Watchmen retired or went to work for the government, but true to his uncompromising code, Rorschach remained in the fight. Thus Rorschach was on the scene after the Comedian’s murder, and his investigation brought the other Watchmen back into action.

But this same uncompromising character leads to Rorschach’s death in the end. After Ozymandias has used mass murder and trickery to pull the world back from the brink of nuclear war, Rorschach vows to tell the world. He is so wedded to punitive moral absolutism that he prefers that justice triumph even though the world might very well perish.

When Dr. Manhattan offers Rorschach the choice of silence or death, he chooses death. Rorschach’s attachment to principle seems admirable. But the root of his attachment is ultimately a punitive bitterness and spite that turns suicidal when Manhattan blocks him from unleashing it on the world. 

Nite Owl II (Dan Dreiberg)

At first glance, there is nothing particularly Right-wing about the character of Dan Dreiberg, who became Nite Owl II. But the mere fact that he is a costumed vigilante in the first place should rate rather high on the F-scale. Thus I would argue that all costumed superheroes should be treated as de facto Right-wingers in the absence of any express allegiance to liberal humanism, which is entirely absent in Dreiberg’s case.

Dreiberg and Laurie Jupiter are drawn together because they were the only two Watchmen who actually retired into private life after the Keene Act. Rorschach went rogue, the Comedian and Dr. Manhattan went to work for the government, and Ozymandias became a publicly-traded commodity.

Although both of them deny it, they very much miss “the life.” Laurie resents being reduced to Manhattan’s consort, for which she receives a government paycheck, although it turns out that her principal role in the plot is not as an independent agent but as the object of Manhattan’s affections.

If Laurie’s retirement reduces her to a sexual companion, Dreiberg’s has reduced him to sexual solitude and impotence. Laurie and Dreiberg are first drawn together by loneliness and nostalgia, but they can conquer their discontent only by inching back into crime-fighting. After their dust-up with the Knot-Tops, Laurie moves their relationship in a sexual direction, but Dreiberg is impotent. He only recovers his sexual potency after a full-fledged return to superherodom, right between saving people from a burning tenement and breaking Rorschach out of jail.

The character of Dan Dreiberg is a combination of Bruce Wayne (Batman) and Clark Kent (Superman). Nite Owl II’s costume looks like Batman’s, more so in the movie. Also, like Batman, Dreiberg is independently wealthy and uses his wealth to create technology that helps him transcend his human weaknesses.

Like Clark Kent, Dreiberg has a bespectacled, nebbishy persona, complete with spit curls. But in the graphic novel, Dreiberg is far more Jewish than Superman. Indeed, with his hook nose, ’berg name, and banker father, he is almost explicitly Jewish, but not quite.

There is, however, nothing distinctly Jewish about Dreiberg’s psychology as written by Moore. Dreiberg is earnest, not ironic. His psychological emasculation is not rooted in an overbearing mother or some other mind-twisting childhood trauma, but in the adoption of an emasculating lifestyle. Thus in the movie, Zack Snyder completely Aryanizes the character by casting Patrick Wilson in the role.

As a side note, the graphic novel is filled with Jewish touches. We read an excerpt from Dr. Milton Glass’s book on Dr. Manhattan. Mrs. Hirsch is interviewed by the police after her husband kills himself and their two children. Rorschach’s mother’s maiden name was Glick. Dreiberg is questioned by a detective Fine. Veidt sends a memo to Miss Neuberg. There are also numerous references to the Third Reich, National Socialism, and the Second World War.

Part of this can be explained by the fact that the novel is set mostly in New York City. Another factor, surely, is Moore’s desire to fit into the comic book industry, which has an overwhelmingly Jewish culture due to its principal founders. It may also have been calculated by Moore to somewhat counterbalance the political incorrectness of the novel with a little Semitical correctness, in effect giving it a “neoconservative” character.

Snyder, however, scrubs the Jewishness of the novel from the film, except for Veidt’s description of the Comedian as “practically a Nazi.” Interestingly enough, in 300, Snyder also mutes the strong Jewish-neoconservative nature of Frank Miller’s original graphic novel.[1]

Dr. Manhattan (Jon Osterman)

In 1959, nuclear physicist Jon Osterman was seemingly annihilated in an experiment with an “Intrinsic Field Subtractor.” But he managed to reassemble himself into a being who can see past, present, and future simultaneously and bend matter to his will. The birth of Dr. Manhattan was greeted by the news that, “The superman exists, and he is American.” But Wally Weaver, who was present at Osterman’s death and resurrection, went further, declaring that “God exists, and he is American.”

And indeed, Dr. Manhattan is portrayed as a god, and not just a god, but a savior. Like Osiris and Dionysus, he was killed through dismemberment, then reassembled and resurrected, showing mankind the way to conquer death. Like Jesus, who also died and was resurrected, Dr. Manhattan appears floating in the air in a halo of light.

He is also portrayed as a Hindu avatar of Vishnu, specifically Krishna: muscular, with glowing blue skin, and a circular “bindi” mark on his forehead, which to a Hindu indicates expanded consciousness. He even appears in a lotus position.

But of course Dr. Manhattan does not just look the part of a savior. He actually plays it, saving mankind from nuclear annihilation, by assuming, like Christ, the role of scapegoat for the sins of others, in this case Adrian Veidt. The use of such symbols and myths is part of the emotional power of Watchmen. 

Silk Spectre II (Laurie Jupiter)

Just as Sally Jupiter’s primary role in Watchmen is not as a crime-fighter but as the object of the Comedian’s lust and mother of his child, Laurie Jupiter, Laurie’s primary role is not as a crime-fighter, but as the object of Dr. Manhattan’s affections. Needless to say, this is a very traditional and anti-feminist conception of the true power and proper role of women.

When Manhattan learns that Laurie was produced through the sordid union of Sally and the Comedian, he is snapped out of his estrangement with humanity and resolves to save mankind. This is the crucial moment in the plot, marking the emergence of one of its deepest themes: Love for an individual human being can redeem the whole universe.

If you love someone, you are implicitly saying “yes” to his existence. You are glad of his existence and wish it to continue. Logically, you cannot love someone and wish that the causes of his existence were otherwise, for then one’s loved one would not exist. And since everything in the universe is causally connected with everything else, if you really love someone, you cannot wish that the universe were otherwise. And this is true even though the universe is filled with many things that, in themselves, are terrible.

At the end of the story, this theme is reprised with great emotional power when Laurie is reconciled with her mother. Laurie can forgive her mother because she loves herself, which entails accepting all the conditions that made her life possible, including the union of her mother and the Comedian. Laurie says, “I love you, mom. You always did right by me.” Sally is also reconciled with the Comedian because he gave her Laurie, whom she loves.

Ozymandias (Adrian Veidt)

Ozymandias is the only openly liberal character in Watchmen. He is 46 when the story of Watchmen begins. The hyper-Nordic child of wealthy German immigrants, Adrian Veidt is a self-made superman. He has used meditation and other physical and mental training techniques to become the smartest and fastest man alive. When he was young, he gave his vast inheritance to charity and pursued the life of a costumed crime-fighter, taking the name Ozymandias, a name for the Egyptian Pharaoh and megalomaniac Ramses II. But when the Keene Act forced Ozymandias into retirement, he went into business and became a billionaire in his own right.

Ozymandias is a vegetarian and a pacifist. He is unmarried, and Rorschach thinks he is a “possible homosexual.” In the graphic novel, he is portrayed as beefy and also—despite his gymnastics exhibition—as macho, posturing in victory like a quarterback after a touchdown. In the movie, he is portrayed by the wiry and epicene Matthew Goode, who heightens the character’s liberal do-gooder “vibe.”

Ozymandias is also a materialist who believes that war is caused by the poor seeking wealth and the rich trying to hold onto it. He believes, therefore, that free, unlimited energy will bring about universal abundance and end the Cold War. He is a utilitarian governed by the principle of the greatest good for the greatest number. He reckons in terms of human quantity rather than quality. (He believes that anybody can become a superman through the Veidt Technique.)

In short, Ozymandias is a quintessential egalitarian humanist, which is the moral code of virtually every superhero outside the Watchmen universe. But Ozymandias is the only egalitarian humanist in the cast of Watchmen. Ozymandias would seem to be a counter-example to my thesis that Watchmen is a Right-wing comic, were it not for the fact that he is also the villain of the story, the cold-blooded, calculating murderer of millions.

Ozymandias is no less the villain because his scheme worked to prevent nuclear war. Indeed, his scheme to goad Dr. Manhattan into exile brought the world to the brink in the first place. Moreover, he is no less a villain because he in effect uses nuclear blackmail to force the other Watchmen to remain silent, and Dr. Manhattan to kill Rorschach, all in order to keep his secret.

There is a sense in which even Ozymandias is a Right-wing archetype, namely a Right-winger’s archetype of a villain: the egalitarian, humanist, pacifist mass murderer.

Although egalitarian humanists like Lenin, Stalin, and Mao are the biggest butchers in world history, within the world of comics, the heroes are always egalitarian humanists, and the villains are always people who reject that morality, e.g., traditionalists, Nazis, fascists, racists, eugenicists, and the like.[2] Watchmen neatly and completely inverts this code. That is why it is the supreme masterpiece of pop fascism.

Notes

1. See my review of 300 [2] in Trevor Lynch’s White Nationalist Guide to the Movies, ed. Greg Johnson, Foreword by Kevin MacDonald (San Francisco: Counter-Currents, 2012).

2. See my reviews of Batman Begins [3], The Dark Knight [4], The Dark Knight Rises [5], Hellboy [6], and Hellboy II [7]in Trevor Lynch’s White Nationalist Guide to the Movies.