The Political Message of Watchmen

The Political Message of Watchmen

Getting a jump on this weekends pontificate-a-thon by looking for Watchmen’s moral.

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.

15 Comments on “The Political Message of Watchmen”

  1. chris #

    Rorschach is about individuals, individual criminals being sort out for their crimes and punished. Ozymandias is more about groups, he is willing to kill millions to save billions.

    One of the questions then is which one is better? Is Rorschach’s method of hunting down each individual criminal, chaining them to a pipe, and setting the house around them on fire better. Or is Ozymandias’ technique of carefully plotting to kill a very large number of people in order to unite the planet and get them to stop rushing towards mutual annihilation.

    PS Rorschach is soooo Batman, just a Batman who is broke and doesn’t have Alfred around keeping him reasonably presentable to the normal world.


  2. mkd #

    Since none of our costumed adventurers have powers (save DRM, AKA Superman), I think all the male characters represent different aspects of Batman. Veidt is the brilliant/rich “do-gooder” Batman, Owl is Gadget Batman, Rorschach is Dark Knight Detective Batman, Comedian is Bizzaro Gun-Toting Batman. Together they represent all the different incarnations of Bruce Wayne/Batman (or in the Comedian’s case, the one incarnation-type Batman refuses to explore- note again that he is the one major casualty for most of the story (maybe at all if some Rorschach Lives rumors are to be believed).

    In the end it’s all Superman vs Batman.


  3. christina #

    What if they are not representations of other super heros at all? I speculate that Rorschach stands as representation of ultimate conservatism. Maybe each character stands for something more political given the tones of the story. Just a theory.

    I enjoyed reading your article and the opinions that followed. I never read the book, but recently viewed the movie and was very impressed with the layers of complexity. It was intriguing to say the least.


  4. Josh #

    Actually the whole Batman comparison is kind of silly. The character models are actually different, more obscure characters form the DC Universe but whose models are related. Rorschach is a utilitarian libertarian, Nite Owl is a technocratic romantic with libertarian leanings, Silk specter has her own psychological issues rather than her abilities as the pillar of her arc, The Comedian is a utilitarian nihilist; believing that nothing has real value, we can do whatever the fuck we want. Veidt is also a utilitarian nihilist but with spiritual leanings towards death, but is also sort of like what if one of Ayn Rand’s characters was a rich caped crusader; he has no concern for people, only for abstract concepts. Manhattan is a utilitarian overman, who Moore uses to demonstrate why Nietzsche was wrong.
    Rorschach’s death, possibly the saddest moment in the book is not only the destruction of absolutist philosophies but also the death of men who wanted to believe that a better world could be made by individuals. Veidt is no longer a real man in that he has become the very demons he fought against while Manhattan, being an overman is no longer a man at all. Dan and Laurie are the only real people left, metaphorically speaking, but they intend to take their romance for themselves for its own sake and not really for the world’s.


  5. Gab #

    Josh, by “overman,” you’re referring to Nietzche’s Ubermensch, right? I (and J. Keeping) would argue that no one in _Watchmen_ quite fits the criteria for it, but that Ozy comes closest, and here’s why (let’s see if I can keep this short): The overman is self-made and wants to create a MODE of life, not a result of an accident that wants to create life itself, so Dr. Manhattan doesn’t quite fit the mold. Ozy isn’t perfect, either, since while he’s self-made and sells the “Veidt Method” to help others make themselves, too, he has a very high opinion of himself, to the point that he thinks he’s just as awesome as the ancient Egyptian pharaohs and Alexander the Great; thus and also, his corporate empire is parallel to the empires those old dead guys had, and empire means control, which is not the goal of an overman.

    And Rorschach is not a utilitarian, but a Kantian retribitivist: he believes people are not means to an end but ends in themselves, and he thinks of only the individual acts a person does and how moral or just they are, whether they fit the moral code, not the possible outcomes or results of said actions. His, “I’ll never back down, even in the face of Armageddon,” line (that may not be it word-for-word, but yeah) implies not just an Armageddon resulting from outside forces (like an asteroid?), but one that would result from his OWN action(s)- i.e. making everyone Veidt/Ozy killed die in vain by exposing him. A utilitarian, like Ozy, is fine with killing if the Greatest Happiness Principle is achieved, while R. isn’t, even if it means everybody suffers the whole time.

    And while I’d agree the Comedian is a nihilist, I disagree about him also being utilitarian. He’s not doing anything for a greater good, but because he takes enjoyment out of laughing at society in its inherent brokennes, and he has found legitimacy to do so through the state. The state may claim it’s for the the benefit of the world as a whole, but the Comedian doesn’t care about that.

    If any of that was unclear, please ask and I’ll try again…


  6. Sir LoinALot #

    The part of the book that always seemed most open to analysis to me was Veidt’s monologue where he explains his reasoning in destroying half of New York (this part is also why, if rumors of the changed ending in the movie are true, it can’t live up to the book in terms of thematic importance). Basically, Veidt creates the illusion that an alien being has materialized in the middle of New York City and subsequently destroyed/killed everything in the immediate area. What seems vital in this isn’t the destruction itself; the same effect could be had by simulating a nuclear blast. Rather, Veidt realizes that in order to end mankind’s self-destructive drive towards utter nihilism that is embodied in the image of the Bomb and the cold war (and which is realized in full only by the Comedian), he needs to introduce an alterity, or a world-shattering experience of an Other.

    The book seems to suggest that the struggles of mankind, which have reached an unprecedented potential for destruction, are premised on a fundamental need to divide the world between Us and Them. This is, of course, a very well documented notion in political philosophy, especially in Carl Schmitt’s writings ( Essentially, it seems that people can only identify themselves as part of an “Us” (whether that is a state, country, race, gender, class, etc.) in reference to another “Them,” which is by its very nature a class of people who are not-“Us”. Thus the US is held together in the cold war by its opposition to the enemy, that is, the Soviet Union. True reconciliation of this conflict and all other conflicts are impossible, because truly forming an all-inclusive common humanity is impossible insofar as it contradicts the possibility of a “Them” group that could relate to it.

    Adrien Veidt, the smartest man in the world, sees this clearly, and he realizes he needs a Gordian Knot, a solution that cuts through this seemingly impossibly tangled problem. He does this, of course, with the giant squid-alien that he teleports into the middle of the city. Suddenly, mankind is not the only being in the universe; we have evidence of alien life apart from our own. Moreover, this alien is responsible for millions of death, making it an easy and obvious enemy for all of humanity. We can find a uniting commonality in the newest “Us”/”Them” dichotomoy: humanity versus the aliens. Thus, humanity is saved.

    Or at least, that’s my take on it.


  7. Gab #

    Sir LoinALot: Very well-said. When and if you see the movie, you’ll see how what you bring up, the need for the enemy to be an Other, is dealt with. I, for one, being a politics major, was and am quite interested in the role of the state and government, as well as legitimacy and (abuse/ lack of) power. Even the legitimacy of Nixon as president is highly in question (not just because we know he avoided Watergate, but because of the heavy insinuations about his involvement in Kennedy’s assassination). I could write a LOT, but I’ll just leave it there.


  8. moralcode #

    To me the story addresses both human perspective on life and the political/idealogical aspect as well. Each character is driven by a perspective. The Comedian seems cynical at best but also as a realist in that he believes the world is what it is and you make the best of it according to your own beliefs and morals or lack thereof. Dr. Manhatten is disassociated from the human condition relying on science to give the answers to life’s problems. For him it’s not about emotions its about solutions and their logic. Ozymandias represents the intellectuals who feel that no one can be trusted to overcome the world’s problems and that it is the responsibillity of those elites to care for mankind as if they were children to save them from themselves. The characters of Nite Owl 2 and Silk Spectre 2 represent the everyday ordinary people trying to live their lives the best they can by doing what they can and accepting whatever outcome occurs. Rorschach is driven by a set of moral values and is unwilling to compromise those values under any circumstance. He is convinced that society is worth saving but that justice must be swift and final.

    The story is about a clash between values and ideals and which solution should be universally accepted as the means to achieving peace at any cost.


  9. Hmmm... #

    These are all really good ideas, so I figured I throw one more in there. I’ll confess that I’ve only seen the movie, but it made me think, which I like, so it’s worth a post.

    One of the major themes I took away from this story was spelled out in the scrawlings on the walls: “Who’s Watching the Watchmen”. The trouble with govornments and such organizations is that the people on top, who are trying to solve the problems generally associated with the human race are, in fact, members of the human race. They are part of the problem. Rorschach punishes injustice without compromise, and yet he lights a cop on fire to escape arrest; hurting one who keeps the law for his own ends. He makes a compromise. Dr. Manhattan slaves away night and day to save a race he has lost interest in, it has become a concept, a puzzle for him, and finally he realizes the absurdity of saving a race he has learned to despise, and leaves…for a while. Ozymandias loses his humanity to save the human race, effectively detaching himself from the prize of his labor, and to follow his pragmatic ideologies to the bitter will only lead to the utter removal of mankind from the face of the earth (as complexity removes comfort and man is, by his very nature, complex). The Comedian…well, the Comedian speaks for himself, “It’s all a big fucking joke”. He sees the fundamental absurdity in the actions of the other watchmen, but chooses to stand with them because, frankly, it’s more interesting than investment banking. He’s more of a hedonist than I nihilist. He knows that none of this will last, so he lives as hard as he can and shoots any pregnant Vietnamese women who get in his way. As for Nite Owl and Silk Spectre, I agree with moralcode. When they find they cannot possibly win against Ozy and Dr. Manhattan, they turn to each other and make the best out of life, while ignoring the plight of the outside world (while at the same time becomeing part of it).

    As unpopular as this may sound in the budding ‘yes we can’ era, Watchmen was, in my eyes, a testament to the failures of secular humanism. Eventually it all fades to an amoral slush, as compromises cloud the bright vision of the self-made man and perfection is only achived by the lowering of standards. The Watchmen no longer look upward for their moral code, but outward, to the swarming masses, trying to find a solution in the chaos. In the end, the only major players choose one of two paths, that of the destroyer (as in the case of Ozy), or the deserter (As with Dr. Manhattan). All else will face only frustration at the sheer magnitude of their task (as Rorschach has to kill every bad guy on the planet one by one) or the uselessness of their mercy in the face of monstrosity (as Nite Owl desperately tells a crowd of protesters there is not need for violence while The Comedian hammers them with a riot shotgun).


  10. Wick #

    Watchmen’s left wing existentialism posits that America required a band of amoral superheroes to stand up to the Soviet Union. The flaws of the Watchmen, some of whom are prone to war crimes, suggests a moral equivalence between the US and the USSR. In short, flawed superhero exceptionalism stands in for authentic American exceptionalism.

    Funny how history played differently: Ronald Reagan (aided by Maggie Thatcher, Lech Walesa and John Paul II) defeated Soviet Socialism with nary a ripple in the space-time continuum. Guess that makes them real life Watchmen, sans the moral tarnish. Of course, Watchmen author Alan Moore no doubt believes that the leaders of the Western World were and are covered in moral tarnish, a view never more in vogue than during the Reagan years when Moore wrote Watchmen. To amplify that notion he places the proto-fascist Richard Nixon as the ongoing US President. However, the fact that the Cold War ended with a whimper and not a nuclear holocaust is an inconvenient truth that damages the story’s thesis.


  11. Gab #

    Wick, I know this will sound nit-picky, but stating that “Ronald Raegan… defeated Soviet Socialism” completely disregards, among other things, the fact that Nixon himself helped get the ball rolling with the U.S.S.R. The Cold War ended under Reagan’s watch, yes, but he does not deserve sole credit, for it ended after a long diplomatic process that began arguably as far back as Kennedy (his attempts to reach out to Khrushchev were often criticized, for example). Then Nixon kicked the door wide open with detente (and the SALT treaties with China helped, too); and if he had not resigned, perhaps things would have turned out differently and the Berlin Wall would have come down even sooner (although perhaps not under his watch). I think this fallacy ignoring the whole process occurs for a lot of reasons, but I also think the main one for Nixon being ignored is how he left office so shamefully- conservatives that tout Reagan as the champion of Cold War warming don’t want to associate the progress and ultimate success of overall U.S. foreign policy with such a “failure” of a leader. The Vietnam War ended under HIS watch, but does anyone say he “won” it? No, of course not. But the Cold War *did* in fact end “with a whimper,” which in itself implies something more than just one president doing all of the work.

    Tangent: Asserting something is one president’s victory OR defeat is not always accurate. The Great Depression was NOT just Hoover’s fault, and F.D.R. didn’t single-handedly end it. The current economic crisis is/was NOT just G.W. Bush’s fault, nor are our occupations in Afghanistan and Iraq. Etc. There are Congress and the Supreme Court to keep in mind, as well as the long-term effects of said factors and yes, the policies of past White Houses. We like scapegoats and figureheads, though, so it happens a lot.


  12. Max Shea #

    I’d like to point out one problem I found with the article by referencing a quote;

    “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.)”

    Actually, Dr. Manhattan’s foresight into Veidt’s plans was clouded by Tachyons (theoretical particles that move faster than the speed of light and exist in the Watchmen universe) that prevented him from clearly seeing the future. In both the graphic novel and the movie, Tachyons are mentioned to have prevented Dr. M from uncovering the nature of Veidt’s plans, although Dr. M did predict a major catastrophe. In the graphic novel, there’s a great scene where Dr. M starts acting like a broken record and repeating himself, addressing the wrong people and acting like he’s a malfunctioning machine due to the Tachyons that I think is worth revisiting if you need a reference. He starts talking about them right after doomsday strikes in the street with Laurie in ch. 12 I believe.

    Also, I’m all for more analysis of Watchmen, but I would have liked to see more in the article explain what “no room for moral absolutes” means for our contemporary society. I guess I don’t understand the correlation between Obama and moral absolutes when I immediately think of the Bush doctrine and Bush’s “You’re either with us or with the terrorists” absolutist lines. I’d like more interpretation of the consequences Watchmen’s message for today’s world from Stokes.


  13. Gab #

    Actually, the tachyons-blocking-time-excuse thing is a huge plot hole in both the novel and movie. If Doctor Manhattan does see all time simultaneously, even what he can’t see about Veidt’s plan when it’s happening because of tachyons would be negated by the period of linear time AFTER the tachyons left and he was “normal again.” He has all future knowledge right now, INCLUDING after the interference stops, so he really should know about the plot before it happens, since he already knows about it after. Same thing with the scene when the Comedian kills the Vietnamese woman in the bar- and that one didn’t even include a tachyon interference.

    This, then, leads to questions about why he reacts the way he does to certain moments. His shock and frustration during the interview, his surprise at the Comedian’s violence in the bar, his bafflement at the big reveal. He has the line where he says something like, “Even my reactions are preordained. I’m just a puppet that sees the strings.” So why, exactly, does he still allow himself to react emotionally? Why ARE those reactions preordained, if he can see what will happen as if it already has?


  14. Stanstheman #

    I think Laurie represents societies vices and passions. Sex, drugs and entertainment, plus she is a product of violent passion of her mother who’s part of the plot and the Comedian. Nite Owl represents the liberal do gooder, who has good intentions but is empotent sometimes and doesn’t react with his guts and his heart. He and Laurie together is modern society, the quaint educated nice guys and the passionate seedy side, they need each other to be complete. I get a new world order feel from the movie(I have’nt read the book yet), if Ozy is right and the only way to stop fighting wars is to divide the world up(which has already happened, nowhere else to discover or conquer whoever you view it) and find a resource that creates unlimited energy. I personally think there is a model currently for unlimited energy. Solar and nuclear energy can and will at some point produce all needed human energy. The key is needed, who decides, maybe Ozy and big business. If all those things happen we no longer would fight, maybe bicker but not fight. Since NATO, IMF, World Bank, the UN and more importantly the global economic structure that allows for so much of one countries debt and assets to be owned by other countries and people we would’nt go around destroying places where we have so much invested. We being every country. China owns how much of are national debt and is invested in how much of are infrastructure and vice versa.


  15. v1r1d1s #

    I see it in far simpler terms relating to the NWO.

    False Flag Operation and subsequent Order from Chaos = Veidt/Pyramid false flag operation.
    (Albeit Alien false flag in the comic or Dr M as per film)

    Dr M = All powerful, bringer of light, understands why it had to be done, Lucifer?

    Night Owl = Owl is worshipped by the NWO. Endorses the plan.


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