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Watching the “Watchmen”: A Report from the Movies

Satya and Mirza Inayat Khan

A central theme that appears graffitied in the background of several scenes of director Zack Snyder’s new movie “Watchmen” is Socrates’ question from the Republic: “Who watches the watchmen?” As humanity struggles with looming nuclear disaster, the movie follows a set of characters who are equipped with superhuman strength, intellect, and/or the ability to rearrange matter. The heroes of “Watchmen” live with no authority strong enough—or relevant enough—to oversee them. Whether they help or harm the people around them depends on their individual and collective moral compasses, which are distorted by the violence that permeates their lives as well as their own pathos.

“Watchmen” is by turns silly and profound, original and clichéd. It is a science fiction movie that dwells in the past of American history with a nostalgic lens styled in the manner of a graphic novel. Spanning the 1940s through the 1980s, the timeline of events is based on reality, with a few twists—Nixon has remained president, and one bright blue member of the Watchmen is a major force of national security. Yet the injections of hovercraft and other technology ahead of our current time do nothing to update the central moral theme of the movie, which fixates on an old problem: the nuclear bomb and its ramifications as a tool to bring future peace at the cost of current sacrifice.

The characters’ morality is an expression of U.S. foreign policy set against the backdrops of the Manhattan Project, Vietnam, Afghanistan, and 9/11; although the latter event has not happened yet in the timeframe of the movie, the Twin Towers loom prominently in the skyline of every New York scene. These visual references coupled with the moral struggles of the Watchmen for the future of humanity call to mind a white paper from Dick Cheney’s Rebuilding American Defenses project, which states that, “… the process of transformation, even if it brings revolutionary change, is likely to be a long one, absent some catastrophic and catalyzing event—like a new Pearl Harbor.” Should one cause a major catastrophic event in order to hasten that transformation?

Although each of the Watchmen has a stereotypically different moral position, they do share one view. On some level each of the characters buys into a notion that violence can be used to bring about justice or create peace. It is their tool, whether for good or for evil, and either its use is relished or worse, it is simply unremarkable. The Watchmen accept their superiority and do not question the effects of the violence they enact except on the largest possible scale.
When Socrates is asked, “Who will watch the watchmen?” Plato replies that they will watch themselves. A “noble lie” must be told to the strong that they are better than the weak, and it therefore falls to them to protect those beneath them. In Plato’s ideal, the movie’s Watchmen would rule for the sake of justice and rightness, without questing for power or privilege, simply because they must.

The noble lie is a good one for the tarnished souls of “Watchmen,” but unfortunately they are not above the corruptions of absolute power. As we have already learned from the historical period it draws from so heavily, even a cataclysmic nuclear event is limited in the amount of transformation it can bring. The members of the watch who might bring it do not endure, no matter how noble their lie. Even after nuclear disaster, life continues on, and humanity’s struggle with its own nature begins anew. The quest for morality remains alive in each person, human and superhuman. We are never absolved of our own responsibility.

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13 March 2009

Tagged Under
chivalry, moral code, violence,
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