Friday, January 7, 2011


Watchmen, Zak Snyder's stylish 2009 adaptation of DC Comics graphic novel of the same name by Alan Moore and Dave Gibbons, is a lengthy action film that has no big stars and good acting, large stunts, and stunning production design.

The film engages with ideas about the hero monomyth, the superman and Friedrich Nietzsche's ubermensch in an entertaining, thoughtful and stylish drama of superheroes on the skids.

Based on DC Comics superheroes and set in an alternate history, where third term US President Richard Nixon has won the Vietnam War, the Watchmen opens with an extended sequence of two supermen battering each other as ferociously as any of Goya's Titans.

Watchmen's superheroes are unpopular with the public, and a law against the wearing of masks has relegated most of them to early retirement. An exception, who works for the Nixon government, Dr Manhatten, who has become radioactive during a nuclear accident in which he acquired godlike powers, is the only character who is manifestly superhuman. A glowy nude blue muscleman, Manhatten has become estranged from his girlfriend, his last link with humanity.

In a story by turns thoughtful, dazzling, and ultraviolent, Manhatten engages in an emotional super-struggle between self-loathing inhumanity and the last vestige of attachment he still feels for others. Where Nietzsche’s Ubermensch annihilates boundaries between self and other, the troubled Dr Manhatten builds them.

Although changed somehow on the inside, Manhatten is godlike but not quite the cyborg, whose insides and outsides are characteristically indifferent and exposed. Manhatten's giant nude body emits a radioactive blue glow, although it is not clear whether the purpose of the glow is to conceal Manhatten's metamorphed interior or reveal his heartfelt desire to remain separate from others.

Will the real Other in Watchmen please stand up? Manhatten's story arc in Watchmen is a masterful deconstruction of the monomythic hero. Watchmen presents no super-villians, rather, the protagonists must confront themselves and their own humanity, and demons, and in Manhatten's case, inhuman ones.

Manhatten is an omnipotent being, he sees past, present and future all at once, and can be everywhere at once. He is bored with humanity, bored with Earth, and moves to Mars. The inhumanity of Dr Manhatten becomes an issue when he becomes the only hope, in the story, of saving the world. But does he care enough? And can this ubermensch find love and be happy?

Manhatten is released from his self imposed, almost godlike exile from Earth when he realizes the potential of a single moment to transcend good and evil, an inspiration that dissolves the boundary he constructs between himself and the human race. Ironically, at that very moment events conspire to make him the most hated man on Earth. Too late, Manhatten realises he must surrender the idea that he remain alone, only to find himself exiled from the human sphere. "Perhaps I shall make some life", he announces before leaving our galaxy forever, implying renewed desire to incorporate, assimilate and integrate with the other.

Watchmen's monomythic heroes and heroines are all too human and, glowy blue musclemen aside, not really super, abundant masks, capes and spandex notwithstanding. The story confronts ideas about heroes, love, desire, fear, the watchful omnipotent eye-in-the-sky, and the unbermensch, with exuberance and attitude. But its not for the kids.

Watchmen is a 2009 film directed by Zak Snyder and distributed by Warner Bros. Pictures. I watched it on the Foxtel satellite TV service, widescreen standard definition (SD).

1 comment:

  1. I can't find the film in Melbourne Uni Library, which surprises me because Angela Ndalanis (Cinema Studies) is a real fan of comic books and films inspired by them. I have however, found it at the RMIT Uni library, which I may be able to get on loan.