Watchmen: On Superhero Alert

Watchmen: On Superhero Alert

Saving the world, one despicable, outlandish villain at a time.
The transformation of Dr. Manhattan
Superheroes provide the ultimate wish fulfillment: saving the world. Our fascination with superheroes began in 1938, when Superman flew into Action Comics. But the genre’s more twisted incarnation in the movie Watchmen, illustrates what you can do with your time when you aren’t trolling Match.com.

Whether the motive is crime solving, retribution or the desire for edgy nights, Watchmen peers into a dark universe. It’s violent, risky and morally ambiguous. Though as anyone who’s seen the film can attest, the blue man’s anatomy ensures he’ll never be lonely.

Watchmen was originally published as a 12-issue limited DC comic-book series in 1986-’87. Combined and republished as a graphic novel, it was named to Time’s 2005 list of the 100 best English-language novels from 1923 to the present.

Watchmen is set in an alternative 1985 on the brink of nuclear annihilation. This is Nixon America and Fear We Can Believe In.

That’s the backdrop for the main event: The Comedian is murdered, and Rorschach (Jackie Earl Haley) his comrade, is tracking his killer, worried there may be a crusade to eliminate other retired superheroes, some of whom sound like escort services: Nite Owl II and Silk Spectre II. Rorschach, in fedora and raincoat, is a truth-obsessed film-noir nightmare. His sense of right and wrong is as black and white as the inkblots on his facemask.

To understand him, let’s go to the big screen, which is filled with bone-crunching, blood-spurting violence. Watchmen is set in a post-superheroes world, both on Earth and a spectacularly designed Mars. Popular in the 1950s, costumed crime fighters are now illegal. They’re also in danger. Let’s meet our contestants:
The Watchmen entourage
Ozymandias (Matthew Goode) is the smartest man in the world. To prove it, he tackles capitalism, which is more lucrative than crime fighting. Like all marketing geniuses, he recognizes the value of branding, creating action figures of his crime-fighting persona.

Dr. Manhattan (Billy Crudup), a victim of a scientific experiment, is the only masked adventurer with superpowers. He’s bright blue, gigantic and favors full frontal nudity. He’s shacked up with former powerhouse Laurie Jupiter, aka Silk Spectre II, who became a crime buster so she wouldn’t disappoint her mother. Dr. Manhattan may light up like neon, but he resembles his male counterparts in one key area: He overcompensates sexually to make up for being emotionally distant.

Conversely, the most benign retiree, Dan Dreiberg (Patrick Wilson), suffers from performance anxiety when he makes love with Laurie, now fed up with Dr. M. It’s only when Dreiberg dons his Batman-like costume and becomes Nite Owl II that the sexual rockets fire. The impulse is kinky, but the presentation is cheesy.

On the upside, major kudos go to Haley, the creepy but tenacious Rorschach. He had me from the opening voiceover, and I was yanked into the world of the graphic novel. In the atrocious acting category, welcome Malin Akerman’s Spectre. If there were any justice in the world, she’d be banned from filmmaking. She should have taken her cue from her fellow actors, who embody their stylized roles with panache.

“Watchmen is complex, in that it doesn’t just create a archetypal character, it goes through all the variations of why you would put a costume on, why you would want to fight crime,” says the novel’s co-creator Dave Gibbons. The characters’ obsessions ultimately subvert and deconstruct the concept of a superhero.

Unfortunately, the film’s misogyny, personified by an attempted rape and its aftermath, is problematic. It taints the story as some puerile male-fantasy gone wrong. That’s a shame, because the ethical questions Watchmen raises are intriguing. How do we determine good and evil? Do we destroy in order to save? What price do we pay for peace? Such questions were never broached by an earlier generation of superheroes – Superman, Batman – eager to save the world, though the Watchmen brigade remains in their cultural debt. The film, which speaks to a new generation, unmasks a lonelier, scarier quest.

THE RISE OF SUPERHEROES

The fiercely righteous Man of Steel

In a chaotic world, a rescuer, particularly one who looks good in tights, is always in demand. So it’s no surprise that the first superhero, Superman, debuted during the Great Depression in 1938. Shaped by liberal sensibilities, Superman has a New Deal bent. In the beginning, he fought corrupt businessmen and politicians. Come back, Shane! Where were you when Wall Street was playing fast and loose with the American Way?It’s easy to understand his appeal – he’s ripped and reliable. He’s also got some nifty attributes – supersonic speed and X-ray vision. Like Dr. Manhattan, he packs heat. And like all superheroes, he’s got an alter ego – Clark Kent, a reporter at The Daily Planet, who has a crush on fellow scribe Lois Lane. She, like Silk Spectre, wants the guy she can’t have. Superheroes work 24/7, which leaves little time to Twitter.

The Man of Steel is imbued with a strong moral compass; one shared by Batman, who debuted in May 1939. Batman doesn’t have superpowers, relying on brains, athletic prowess and enough tech toys to make Steve Jobs jealous. Like his fellow superheroes, Batman has a dual identity. All “pass” as regular folk, if you count being handsome mega-rich Bruce Wayne as regular. Clark Kent may be a nebbish, but Batman masquerades as George Clooney without the chick parade.

The Bat trio in full regalia

Batman’s bio, like his Watchmen brethren, is dark. As a child, Wayne witnessed the murder of his parents, and dons a bat costume to fight crime. He also gets a sidekick, Robin, who plays Watson to his beefcake Holmes. In the 1950s, psychologist Fredric Wertham, who crusaded against comic books, accused Batman and Robin of being lovers; enter Batwoman, introduced to keep the boys from the men. However, in her 2006 comic-book reincarnation, Batwoman is actually a hot Jewish lesbian heiress and martial artist. Hava Nagila, baby!

Important caveat: superheroes act as vigilantes, functioning outside the law. (The red tape would kill them.) And most are adults, save teen avenger Spider-Man, born in 1962. As science geek Peter Parker, he’s bitten by a radioactive spider – and suddenly the whiz kid can climb walls and shoot webbing. Like Batman, “Spidey” has a complicated love life, was orphaned early and has crazoid enemies, such as Chameleon, Vulture and Doctor Doom, who sound suspiciously like Dick Cheney.

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