Watchmen

Watchmen is set in an alternative America during Nixon’s third term as president in 1985. The main characters are masked-heroes struggling, each in their own unique way, with their purpose after vigilantes were outlawed in 1977. They are drawn together again when the Comedian is assassinated, and each confronts the wretched state of humanity that is pulling the threat of nuclear holocaust ever closer.
The Christological themes are not altogether absent, but they are obscured by the films more prominent concerns. They are like shadows cast by the convergence of a ubiquitous hamartia[1] and a deep existential longing for redemption. The world is steeped in sin; child prostitutes and drug-dealers line walkways, brutal gang violence and psychotic criminals overflow the streets, pollution, greed in business, distrust in politics, all driven by the inertia of the corrupt condition of the human heart combine to create an imminent “doomsday” scenario. In this world there are still heroes who have hope, and strive for peace and justice. They are by no means perfect, but each in their effort to overcome and to right the status quo demonstrate qualities that we could likewise attribute to Christ.[2]

The Comedian is part just and part unjust. Embittered by the emptiness of the American Dream and the savagery of human nature he becomes a brutal cynic. Seeing the rot and wickedness of the world clearly, he fashions his persona into a parody of it. When told of the difficulty of discerning whether he is joking or being serious, he replies with rancor, “I am the joke.” The movie begins with his death and revolves around the mystery of his murder, his back-story and the discoveries he made which he led to his repentance and demise. The Comedian’s death is initially taken to mean we live in a sad world.[3] But his death comes to mean something else – that savage human nature gets the last laugh after all, for there is no real transformation.[4]

Our main narrator is Rorschach[5], whose namesake’s patterns adorn his mask. Haunting the city streets he uncompromisingly seeks and speaks the truth. Distributing justice mercilessly, his biting social commentary is dark and as deep as his melancholy. His mask shows criminals the corruption of their soul when they gaze upon it, shortly before they receive their just punishment. Reflecting on his back-story and the evil he sees in front and behind the mask, his insight is valid.

“ . . . If God saw what any of us did that night he didn’t seem to mind. From then on I knew – God doesn’t make the world this way. We do.”

The shadow Rorschach casts is Christological. Of his last journey, seeking to right the wrongs of the world: a final plight that will lead to his death, he says, “I live my life free of compromise, and step into the shadow without complaint or regret.” And it is this, “not even in the face of Armageddon,” for which he is killed: his body the last corpse on the foundation of a newly forged peace.

Nite Owl is the Batman of Watchmen, his secret identity is Daniel Dreiberg, a geeky, middle-class version of Bruce Wayne. He spends his time reminiscing about days gone by, afraid to take up the suit he once put down.[6] Like Christ he enters into the peoples suffering, becoming one of them. In desperate times he holds on to hope, and gives that to others. He is the only person with ties of friendship to all the rest, breaking through their solitary existence. Accordingly, he is constantly taking up the role of peacemaker.

Then there is Ozy, the fastest and smartest man in the world. His response to superhero exile was to go public, receive the admiration of the masses and turn his incredible intellect and wealth to the task of saving the world, ostensibly from ecological disaster,[7] and secretly from the savagery of the human heart. Given his vision[8] to unite the world “not in conquest, but by conquest of the evils that beset [men]” he plays the part of an anti-Christ. He is without scruples in his ambition.[9] Ozy is short for Ozymandias, a name taken from the Percy Bysshe Shelley poem, the words of which are inscribed on a statue in his artic palace.

“My name is Ozymandias, King of Kings,
Look upon my works, ye mighty and despair.”

Watchmen’s acquisition of these words is as ironic as Shelley’s, for the very next lines read,

“Nothing beside remains. Round the decay
Of that colossal wreck, boundless and bare,
The lone and level sands stretch far away”

The message is that nothing lasts; even the mighty deeds of men will decay. The movie ends with Rorschach’s journal about to be read, and with the truth Ozy’s grand plan[10] will lay in ruins, just as Shelly’s fictional Ozymandias lies in ruins.

It would be easy to make Dr Manhattan a type of the God-man in scripture.[11] Jon Osterman, in a laboratory accident has his body pulled apart and refashioned with amazing abilities, making him Dr Manhattan.[12] He is however the image of Nietzsche’s ubermensch.[13] He is an atheist. Often compared to God, he always says he is not – “If he exists, I am nothing like him.”

However, he seems to allow that he is the closest thing to God there can be,[14] though far from perfect. Since his accident he moves from apathy to antipathy, becoming the consummate nihilist. Accused of loosing touch with humanity he struggles to find a reason to save the world.[15] Not until he is convinced by a miracle that life is indeed precious, does he make an effort to save humanity. Only he arrives too late. Ozy has detonated a nuclear bomb with radiation that points to Dr Manhattan as the cause. Like Christ, Dr Manhattan stoically takes the blame, and as a scapegoat “ascends” to another galaxy forever. In this he ensures that the peace forged in the wake of this tragedy endures. The Christological parallel goes beyond his sacrificial substitution. Night Owl says that the peace will remain as long as people believe that Dr Manhattan is watching them.[16]

The message of Watchmen hiding under the covers of nihilism seems to be if there is going to be salvation there needs to be sacrifice[17] from a god-like being. If salvation is going to be permanent and genuine there needs to be a perfection of humanness – something no hero had – not even Dr Manhattan. [18] The Silk Specter says, “Jon would say, ‘Nothing ever ends.’” This reveals the danger from the human predicament is not over: until human nature is made right there can be no utopia – things will continue as they always have. And in this we can discern a longing for redemption, a longing we know is only satisfied in the true God-man, the perfect human, Jesus Christ.


Footnotes

[1] A fatal flaw leading to a downfall of a tragic hero or heroine.

[2] They are not Christ figures, but they can be interpreted meaningfully as Christ symbols.

[3] Night Owl agrees that there aren’t many laughs around these days, because “…the comedian is dead.” The idea is now there is no one left to make us laugh at ourselves. And as long as we could laugh at ourselves, we could forget our truly miserable state.

[4] The real practical joke in the end is that man is not idealized (genuinely made better), but deformed (even more deceived, twisted).

[5] The name of the inventor of the ink-blotch picture cards used in psychotherapy

[6] He recalls that when looking through his special goggles, “no matter how dark things got, everything was as clear as day.”

[7] His solution is to discover alternative energy sources and freely provide them, thus eliminating the need for war over resources, and saving the world from the inevitable nuclear holocaust.

[8] He draws his inspiration from Alexander the Great

[9] A sinister version of the wizard behind the curtain

[10] To deceive the world so they would unite in peace.

[11] Dr. Manhattan becomes an extraordinary genius. With the power of his thoughts he is able to create and destroy, see the past and the future simultaneously, move things with his mind and telelport himself or others. When he won the Vietnamese war for America the Viet Cong wished to surrender to him personally, revering him as a god.

[12] A name “to strike fear into the hearts of America’s enemies.” Also a name to reflect his ability to manipulate atomic structures.

[13] A super-man, physically and mentally superior, that will arise out of the masses and create new human values. Strong values like “might is right” unlike the weak values given by Christianity such as sacrificial love, compassion and equality.

[14] The original Night Owl describes his arrival in his book as “the dawn of the superhero.” His physicist friend comments on the television;

“You see at the time I was misquoted. I never said, “The superman exists, and he is American.” What I said was, “God exists, and he is American.” Now if you begin to feel an intense and crushing feeling of religious terror at the concept, don’t be alarmed. That indicates only that you are still sane.”

[15] The Silk Specter II says to him “you know how everything in this world fits together except people.” and says the world for him is like walking through mist where people are just shadows in a fog. This is confirmed by his response on the talk show, revealing his radical physical reductionist view of human persons. When falsely accused of causing people cancer he says, “Even if it’s true, it’s irrelevant. A live human body and a deceased human body have the same number of particles. Structurally there’s no difference.”

[16] This seems to offer the answer the question, as the poet Juvenal put it, “Who watches the Watchmen?” tagged on a shop window in the opening sequence. To God we are all accountable. In a world without God, there is no one to prevent the gross misconduct of the powerful authorities.

[17] The incredulous words of Ozy to a distraught Nite Owl, “Dan, Come on. A world united in peace – there had to be sacrifice.”

[18] Rorschach accuses Dr Manhattan, “Suddenly you discover humanity? Convenient. If you’d cared from the start, none of this [mass destruction] would have happened.”

Dr Manhattan, as powerful as he is, is not able to change to human nature. This task was also beyond the reach of Ozy. He had to create the world’s biggest practical joke with mass murder to achieve his utopia, and even this was, as the poet Shelley writes, impermanent. It was built on a lie. If the two greatest men in the world cannot come close to righting the human predicament by changing human nature, it follows something a lot closer to perfection is needed than them.

4 replies
  1. Bnonn
    Bnonn says:

    Stuart, I don't get it. Watchmen is overtly non-Christian. Do you have any evidence that it's intended to contain Christian themes? If not, how is this not just deconstructionism? What's next, a Christian interpretation of Sin City?

  2. jaredclarke
    jaredclarke says:

    Out of interest, Bnonn, why do you assume that a film has to be overtly or intentionally Christian to contain Christian themes? Even the most hardened atheist who has rejected God cannot escape the fact that they live in God's world and have hearts designed to be filled solely by God. Surely this will show itself in their thinking and (especially) their art?Furthermore, shouldn’t the doctrine of common grace give us pause to consider that, in God’s gracious favour, people are restrained from being as evil as they possibly can be and actually can work good (without meaning that they are saved). If I understand this correctly, that means that non-Christians are capable of things that are incongruous with damned state (just as Christians are capable of doing things that are incongruous with their justified state). Film-making isn’t any different.So, I’m all for digging deeper into "non-Christian films" and exploring themes that betray the Gospel or at least our hunger for it. Yet, at the same time, I have reservations about reviews like this one. I don’t think we should ignore what is taking place on the surface of a film. And that is a real tension for a film like the Watchmen: the graphic violence, ubiquitous nudity, sex, and so on, seriously undercuts our ability to extract the good below the surface (let alone follow Biblical injunctions like Phil 4:8). So even if I agreed with some of your conclusions, Stuart, I think it would be difficult to responsibly recommend this film to another Christian.

  3. Stuart001
    Stuart001 says:

    I think a text can be approached in different ways. As Christians we can of course approach a text as a Christian, with Christian questions and Christian concerns. There is of course a danger of reading into a text themes and messages that are not there. We can also approach a text as humans, asking the great questions that are common to all. Questions pertinent to this film are "Who watches the watchers?" How do we live in a world filled with evil? Where can justice be found? Is there a hope for the future? These questions the film attempts to answer, and perhaps because of common-grace, perhaps because we are all made in the image of God, perhaps because our werstern-culture was infused with Christian values and soaked in its themes, we can expect these answers to resonate with and coincide with Christian messages.So I'm against thinking of texts as Christian and Non-Christian. I think secular folk can have brilliant ideas, and give good answers to the same questions Christians would, should and might ask. (Also Christians can have appalling ideas) Appreciating art as a Christian we do need to be careful what choose to entertain us and what we allow our minds to absorb – as Jared Clark warns, but we can also do some intelligent digging to find out what good different texts have to offer, and these things we can dwell upon – as Phil 4:8 says. That verse doesn't mean we should live in balloon, and only read "Christian" books, or watch "Christian" films. It means we should draw out from amongst the bad what is good, just as Paul did in Athens on Mars Hill with all the Greek poetry that he must have known (and obviously studied).

  4. William
    William says:

    Just found your site, though I feel I may have been here before. Absolutely loved your analysis. I took a course in Ancient History in college. My professor remarked that, while other Near Eastern religions taught about great mortal and demigod heroes, the Hebrews believed that only God could save them in times of trouble. Even the great Judges had to be called and empowered by God. Without His divine blessing, Samson, Gideon, and even Moses were powerless.

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