Watchmen is the kind of work that invites interpretation. It has resonance with real-world political events and a tone of high moral seriousness, but no overt moral or political message. The formalist conceits are dazzling in their complexity, but lack the clear symbolic significance of, say, the gimmick from Memento. So what does it all mean?
Probably every geek-in-good-standing has a theory, and your humble blogger is no exception. However, it’s entirely possible that this isn’t the right question to be asking. As noted in a recent post, Watchmen has a reputation as a serious literary work. Words like “complex” and “difficult” get tossed around a lot, and not without cause. But if it is worthwhile for its “complexity,” then doesn’t it follow that providing the book with a moral is in a sense robbing it of the very thing that makes it special? In any case, crappy novels may have laudable messages, while many a masterpiece is appalling at its core. So when it comes to judging or explaining the value of Watchmen as a work of narrative art, its message is irrelevant at best.
And yet… and yet… the text is so mysterious on so many levels that it seems to cry out for exegesis. You have to be willing to entertain this sort of speculation if you’re going to engage with it at all: refusing to speculate about Watchmen is like refusing to laugh at a comedy.
So what does Watchmen mean? I’ll take up that question, but although I’ve thought hard about this, and I really do believe in the answers I’ve come up with, they remain as personal (and ultimately meaningless) as laughter. I’m sure that many of you reading this have interpretations of your own, and I hope you’ll laugh along with me by sharing them in the comments… that act of speculation, I think, is all that “really getting” the work entails.
One last thing: this is really only for people who’ve read it already. I will SPOIL the major Watchmen plot twist; what’s more I’m going to assume that everyone already knows the characters and plot. (Also it should be noted that this is about the Watchmen book. As of this writing, I haven’t seen the movie.)
Any attempt to figure out what Watchmen means is probably going to start by examining the heroes themselves. At first, these seem to be thinly veiled versions of more familiar superheroes. The Night Owl is obviously Batman. The Comedian looks a lot like Captain America. But if you try to extend this metaphor further, it falls apart. I’ve toyed with the idea that Ozymandias is supposed to be Reed Richards, but really only on the basis of the fact that he’s wealthy. The Silk Spectre might be Wonder Woman, since she has a fraught relationship with her mother, but that’s even more of a stretch. And in fact, Moore based them all on a relatively unknown roster of heroes from Charleton comics. (Wikipedia has a pretty good writeup on this aspect if you’re curious.) There’s a little more hay to be made out of the idea that the characters represent various aspects of America’s national identity. The Comedian is military adventurism. Ozymandias is the capitalist system. There’s not much for the Night Owl or Silk Spectre here, but as the audience stand-ins, they’re much less allegorical in general.
And then there’s Dr. Manhattan. He’s superficially similar to a number of other superheroes – The Hulk for his creation story, Superman for his isolated hideout, The Spectre for his overpoweredness and general balditude – and might represent America’s flirtations with technophilic futurism (the space race, the I-phone). But he is first and foremost a symbol for only one thing, whose deadly potential crowds out all other references and allegories: the Bomb.
And let us be clear: the Bomb is what Watchmen is all about. The Watchmen version of Vietnam has Dr. Manhattan pretty much singlehandedly wiping out the Viet Cong. If you remove the superhero business entirely, it still works as a piece of alternative history: what would have happened in a world where the United States used its nuclear arsenal early and often? Even the parts of the book that don’t involve Dr. Manhattan directly are tinged with nuclear dread. I’m guessing that it will be hard for people seeing the movie cold not to think of Veidt’s plot in terms of the 9/11 attacks, but in the mid 80s it would have had a very different resonance.
With this in mind, let’s revisit the climactic moment of the book. Rorschach, having learned that Ozymandias has murdered most of the population of New York, and that his comrades are willing to let Veidt off the hook (for the greater good and for their own safety), chooses death over compromise. I haven’t really talked about Rorschach yet, which might seem odd, first because he actually fits nicely into both allegorical schemes listed above, and second because his costume is based on a psychiatric test that has you attach symbolic significance to random shapes. But the key to understanding Rorschach is not to look at the shapes on his mask: it’s to pay attention to the colors. In moral terms, Rorschach lives in a world of black and white: he has no shades of gray. This leads him to be one of the most violent – and frankly scary – dudes in the Watchmen universe, prone to dropping people down elevator shafts when they violate his code.
Rorschach is unsettling. The swiftness and finality of his judgments, his fundamental opposition to compromise, make him awkward company even at the best of times. When you get right down to it, Rorschach and Ozymandias have a bit in common, in that both are cavalier about taking lives. What differs is their motivation. Rorschach wants to punish the guilty. Ozymandias actually wants to protect the innocent… even if it means killing a whole bunch of innocents for the greater good. In the narrative of Watchmen, Rorschach is a hero and Ozymandias a villain, but you have to wonder what kind of damage Rorschach would do if he had access to Ozymandias’ resources. And Veidt too is unwilling to compromise. He is pragmatic to a fault, but that which he feels must be done, he will do, cost be damned.
So maybe the conflict at the end of the book isn’t really Rorschach vs. Ozymandias. It’s Rorschach vs. Dr. Manhattan. Like I said before, the pictures of New York City shattered by Ozymandias’s attack are meant to suggest a nuclear strike: Veidt’s a jerk, sure, but this is what we’re meant to be scared of. (And if you want to get technical about it, the good Doctor is complicit in the attack from the beginning, in that his non-linear experience of time would have allowed him to stop it if he felt the need.) When Rorschach goes down, it’s Manhattan – not Veidt – that destroys him. This is significant.
The message of Watchmen, then, is this: in a world where man can end the world, there is no place for moral absolutes. Dropping a man down an elevator shaft in the name of justice is problematic. Blowing up a city in the name of justice is apalling, and what’s more, unjust. The touching thing about this scene, to me, is that Rorschach knows it too. He demands that Dr. Manhattan kill him, and he takes off his black and white mask first… because in this world, abandoning absolute morality is the only absolutely moral thing to do.
I might also remind you at this point of the series’ other major casualty, the Comedian, who as I said represents American military adventurism. Make of that what you will.