— A mysterious figure in a trench coat strikes a man with the body of his canine companion, then gives the victim a choice: die in the flames of a burning house or saw off his bound arm for a chance to escape. Seems like the perfect time for a superhero to swoop in and save the day.
Just one problem. The guy in the trench coat is the hero. His name is Rorschach, and he’s just one member of the team of caped crusaders that will leave audiences questioning how good the good guys really are when “Watchmen” hits theaters Friday, March 6.
Thanks to comic book-to-big screen successes like “X-Men,” “Iron Man” and “The Dark Knight,” no one goes to the movies expecting an old school do-gooder to flash his pearly whites as he flies the baddies off to their new jailhouse digs. But in “Watchmen” the superheroes go far beyond the modern trend toward tortured men who soldier on for righteousness.
They’re a pack made up of masked men and one woman, each bringing their own damaged motivations to the fight for justice with varying degrees of passion. There’s the detached blue former human, Dr. Manhattan, whose drive is lost and found. The cigar-chomping Comedian was simply spurred by a way to legitimize the ultimate bully fantasy. Hubris led Ozymandias into the fight and everything else he ever did. And looking almost squeaky clean compared to Rorschach and the rest, Nite Owl II and Silk Spectre II simply followed in the footsteps of those who came before them — one willingly, one not so willingly.
Film fans may even wonder where the words “super” and “hero” fit in this story that deconstructs the typical take on Captain America types, revealing them to be little more than deeply flawed humans who happen to own some cool costumes. In fact, it’s tough to sort the heroes and from the villains in this bunch. That’s the moral riddle that makes the story so compelling.
Take Rorschach. He’s obviously deranged, but there’s a method to his madness. As with the much of “Watchmen’s” backdrop, Rorschach was born from real history. His trademark shifting splotch mask was said to be cut from the same cloth as a dress intended for Kitty Genovese, a New Yorker whose screams went unanswered as she was sexually assaulted while she lay dying in front of her own apartment in 1964. The mask symbolized what he was fighting for, and why he would never let a little thing like vengeful brutality get in his way.
The good, the bad and the sort of heroic
In the world of “Watchmen,” the tights and cape crowd started out as heroes-for-hire — talented men and women who got their narcissistic and financial fix by posing as the patriotic ideal and keeping private institutions, neighborhoods and even the country safe. Inevitably, due to the heavy-handed actions of Rorschach and a few others, public opinion turned against them.
The Watchmen were no longer seen as costumed adventurers, but dangerous masked vigilantes acting as judge, jury and executioner. Then again, one person’s vigilante is another person’s crime fighter.
And there’s the dilemma. If Rorschach, driven by a fierce sense of right and wrong, roams around the mean streets breaking bones and far worse, but at the same time some fairly heinous criminals are stopped in the process, where’s the harm? It’s a question the story poses again and again, and the distinction only grows dimmer as the plot moves forward.
Is a bad guy willing to commit a great wrong for all the right reasons worse than a good guy willing to fight for what’s right using the worst possible methods? And what about a detached god-like guy unwilling to do anything for any reason?
Moral ambiguity? Whatever
Enter the “Watchmen’s” lone hero who goes beyond the human mold: Dr. Manhattan. He’s the glowing blue man who started as a mere mortal, but gained the only true superpowers to be seen thanks to a nuclear physics experiment gone wrong.
Clairvoyance? Telekensis? Teleportation? Check. Check. Check. If he had a sense of humor, Dr. M would laugh at the concepts of time and space. No longer bound by the laws of physics or the notion of modesty, there’s not much on this planet or any other that he can’t do. Unfortunately for the rest of the population, there’s not much he wants to do, either.
Just as he-of-the-inkblot-mask sees the world as black and white absolutes that must be acted upon, Manhattan views it all from a detached laissez-faire perspective. His powers have left him so far removed from humanity that he’s hard pressed to care if one group of molecules is committing a crime against another group of molecules.
It’s Manhattan and Rorschach who bookend the scope of justice in an unjust society. Between their extremes lie the rest of the gang, each packing his or her own baggage unbefitting a superhero.
The motley mix
The Comedian, the late great government mercenary who checks out as soon as the story gets opens, help found the whole costume crusader movement. Gone but not forgotten in flashback, the man had a personal moral compass that vacillated roughly between jerk and full-fledged villain.
Ozymandias, otherwise known as the brains of the bunch, acts as a poster child for ego in overdrive. He’s the insufferable smart guy who’s just stupid enough to think that makes him better than everyone else. An overabundance of brawn and beauty just bolster ego-boy even more.
Rounding out the avenger assortment are the two closest examples of sympathetic characters to be found in “Watchmen,” the often-impotent Nite Owl II and the reluctant second-generation femme fatale Silk Spectre II. They’re both devoted to their questionable causes and weary of them at the same time.
It’s a love 'em or loath 'em group and they each live up (or down) to the dark drama around them, but whether film audiences are ready to embrace this nihilistic world of superless-heroes is yet to be seen. Moviegoers are used to having someone to root for in even the grittiest comic book tales, and “Watchmen” challenges them to wade through murky morals without a champion.