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Watchmen

I saw Watchmen on saturday night, the much anticipated adaptation of Alan Moore’s graphic novel (at one point Terry Gilliam was rumoured to be attached to it). After Zack Snyder’s last execrable effort, 300, a neo-fascist movie based on Frank Miller’s eponymous graphic novel, I was hesitant (and besides, I loved the graphic novel). I was pleasantly surprised. Though it’s impossible to compress a novel like Watchmen into a film, the scriptwriters do a good job, and the whole thing is pretty damn interesting – we should remember that Time magazine, I believe, at one point listed Watchmen as one of the 100 greatest novels of the 20th Century.

There is much else to say about Watchmen – and I’m commissioned to write a piece on it shortly so I won’t mention much here – but what struck me most, besides its fairly faithful adaptation of the novel, is its politics. Essentially (spoiler alert!) it argues that the end does justify the means. That the destruction of vast areas of civilization for a greater purpose is justified. It is, in short, a particularly radical vision. This should not surprise us, as Moore’s other great graphic novel V for Vendetta is equally interested in violent action for social change (though in the context of a fascist England). Equally, both of them see this change as brought about by minority action, appropriate, I suppose, to some versions of anarchist politics. Watchmen, then (again spoiler alert), is almost a reversal of the usual liberal politics of films approaching this issue. It’s as if the bad guy in a James Bond movie, who plans to destroy a great city, is actually a good guy with a vision. He simply wants things to be better – and can see no other way of achieving this. Interesting.

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Rjurik Davidson is a writer, editor and speaker. Rjurik’s novel, The Stars Askew was released in 2016. Rjurik is a former associate editor of Overland magazine. He can be found at rjurik.com and tweets as @rjurikdavidson.

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  1. Sorry, Rjurik — maybe I’ve missed something but that makes it sound like a fascist movie. Destroying chunks of civilisation is necessary? The end justifies the means? Destroying a whole city is a good thing?

  2. It’s not a fascist movie, in fact it leaves the political questions it asks pretty much open-ended. In this film you’ve got a contrast between a Nietzschean ubermensch and a character who is actually God-like, a resolution which is more utilitarian than fascist, and a lot of thematic shades about politics in the local sphere vs universal politics.

    The bit I disagree with is that the film ultimately agrees with its ending. I think you’re invited to sympathise with Rorschach, who personifies the minarchist, self-sufficient vigilante, a caricature of a certain type of US ideology, as well as with the “villain”.

  3. I did say radical – I didn’t say necessarily left-wing. I’m not sure actually whether it is left or right or a weird amalgam of both. I doesn’t ultimately argue that destroying large parts of civilisation is unambiguously good. Only that once the main antagonist achieves this, well, it seems that the world is a better place.

    All this fits in, I think, with a general zeitgeist in film and literature at the moment: the kind of apocalyptic critique of capitalism that we have been discussing re Cormac McCarthy’s book The Road; and again in the film Unforgiven a little while back on this blog. But I’m not saying that The Watchmen is left-wing. Is it right wing? I’m not sure. It damn sure isn’t liberal.

  4. Like Tom, I think you’ve overlooked Rorschach’s contribution. He is definitely supposed to be a sympathetic character, even though we are repulsed by his violence (not to mention his personal hygiene). In the end [SPOILERS] it is not Rorschach’s violence but his detective-work and journalism (in finding the “mask-killer” and sending his diary to the New Frontiersman) that are the most important — to the point where they will destroy Ozymandias’s false peace. Truth will out.

  5. Slightly OT, but I’ve decided I reallly, really don’t like graphic novels. Was reading the China Mieville book of short stories last night, which includes one story done in that format. No matter how good the illustrations, it just can’t give the same experience as pure text.
    And speaking of which, how do you get those pictures into the comment box?

  6. Jeff, have you read Alan Moore? He does things structurally and narratively which cannot be done by pure text. Some of which are brilliant.

  7. It’s not the same experience as pure text, that’s true. But neither are the same as film, or music, or what have you. It is what it is.

    And, of course, a lot of it is rubbish, just as a lot of books and movies are rubbish. But Watchmen is brilliant. You might like something like From Hell, too.

  8. Not liking a Miéville comic is rather like not liking a Tolkien poem: unsurprising? I hope he never releases a jungle record either (probably already has).

    And in the large, claiming to hate graphic novels is precisely similar to claiming to hate poetry: there are probably still one or two instances of the form out there that would inspire you.

    Rjurik I think you’re right about the zeitgeist, or at least I think we find all cultural products re-lit and red-shifted by the overwhelming radiation of the financial crisis, when we look at them today.

  9. I do vaguely remember Watchmen from when it first came out (hell, I remember the eighties from before they were ironic!). And yes, you have to take forms on their terms — but that doesn’t mean you can’t argue about what the limitations or strengths of those terms are. Otherwise you collapse into complete relativism.
    Anyway, the fault’s probably with me — I’ve never had much visual sense.
    On Mieville, I kinda thought he would translate well into other forms. Reading his book, I was struck by how much the strength of his stuff lies in his dizzying imagination rather than in the prose itself. Perdido Street would make a great film.

  10. I went to see this last night on the back of this post and was horrified by the awful politics. I don’t see it as particularly radical or a departure from liberal political themes – ultimately individuals acting/making decisions on the part of the majority – be it Rorschach or the any of the other male characters with messiah complexes. It made me unspeakably angry because it stylised this mutated political vision of working people. The best comparison is probably the Matrix, which did, for all its faults, portray a vision of society where a section of society literally has their lives sucked out of them to keep the system working. If I go on, I will sound insane, but it really was awful.

    Nice costumes, sure. But I want my 10 euros back please (and that’s a lot in A$).

  11. Lizzie, I think the politics are radical in the sense that it portrays a society which is radically flawed. Remember there have been plenty of radicals who were also elitists and into minority action. And as I mentioned in an earlier post, radical doesn’t necessarily mean left wing, just that the usual liberal solutions – a little change here or there – are just not possible. But I much preferred it to The Matrix, which I found a bearable rip-off of the work of Philip K. Dick. The Watchmen’s script was so much better.

  12. Sorry Rjurik, I disagree. To say that the film’s greatest strength is that it recognises society as radically flawed is to damn it with faint praise. Isn’t that pretty obvious? Critiques of the system (in part and in totality) are not uncommon in popular culture.

    So next question, what do you do about it? A bunch of vigilantes wreaking havoc to keep the system running… that seems like a pretty familiar theme to me. Not to mention that the whole outcome of these shenanigans is virtually impossible to believe. Script is nice, but the politics ruined the experience.

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