Sunday, November 25, 2018

I didn't realize I cared

Andrew Ducker linked to an article claiming that the movie of Alan Moore and Dave Gibbons' Watchmen missed the point of the original. I'm sympathetic to such arguments, having been through numerous similar cases, but it seemed to me that the article itself misunderstands the graphic novel as seriously as it claims the movie does. But I haven't seen the movie, so I intended to keep quiet until Andrew encouraged me to respond. At which point I surprised myself - because I didn't realize I'd internalized this literature so deeply - with a long screed:

Well - I knew something was wrong when the author wrote "Moore does not like these guys." Actually, the virtue of Watchmen lies primarily in the evaluation of the characters being mixed and ambiguous.

Even the Comedian - such a nasty piece of work that we only meet him in flashbacks, so we never have to confront his appallingness directly - discovers, rather to his own surprise, that he has a moral conscience: which vitally turns out (spoiler alert!) to be the reason he's murdered.

Ozymandias is a brilliant depiction of someone moved to do great evil for what he perceives as a greater good; and unlike most such characters in fiction, he isn't a straw-man; his greater good really is a good if not a greater one. Instead of being unlikable, he's a personally likable character who forces the reader to think hard about what actions are justifiable for such goals.

And he gets away with it, succeeds in his goal - until the final panel of the book throws an ambiguity into that. Leaving the reader even more conscious of how mixed and questionable everything is.

And who's responsible for throwing in that ambiguity? Rorschach, whom the article dismisses as "basically a force for evil," acknowledging only that he's competent at what he does. But Rorschach only applies his ruthless methods at truly reprehensible characters. If you're not feeling both satisfied and disgusted by his actions at the same time, you're missing the point.

How much more subtle a depiction of the fascist impulse this is than Frank Miller's. The article describes Miller's 300 as "a nakedly fascistic work." I haven't read 300, but that's how I felt about The Dark Knight - brilliantly written, but loaded and heavy-handed in a way that Watchmen totally isn't.

And so, returning to the ending, if you consider Ozymandias's plan evil, who's going to save the world from its consequences? Rorschach, who sacrifices his life to do it. On that account, he's the hero of the story - but such an ambiguous and nutty one. And is destroying Ozy's plan after it's been carried out an unambiguously good idea? Nobody else is trying to do that. More questions, uncertainties, ambiguities.

Lastly, the article describes Nite Owl as "a clueless pud who’s never not in over his head." This makes me wonder if the writer actually read Watchmen. True enough that Nite Owl feels that his superhero career has been pointless and futile in overall accomplishment - his sexual impotence is a metaphor for this - but he's no pud or doof, he's done a lot of good in individual missions, and while not a match in combat with, say, Ozymandias, he is generally competent and knows what he's doing. He's not the Tick or a pathetic wanna-be, which is what the description makes him sound like.

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