Come senators, congressmen, please heed the call/ Don’t stand in the doorway, don’t block up the hall/ For he that gets hurt will be he who has stalled/ There’s a battle outside ragin’/ It’ll soon shake your windows and rattle your walls/ For the times they are a-changin’
Those famous Bob Dylan lyrics set the scene for the changing times the viewer finds in Zack Snyder’s Watchmen. The year is 1985, but not your parents’ 1985. Richard Nixon is still president after triumphing in Vietnam thanks to Dr. Manhattan (Billy Crudup). However, it’s not all good news — the Cold War has escalated and the world is on the verge of nuclear Armageddon.
In this alternate universe, the superhero group the Watchmen have been forced into retirement. However, after one of their own Eddie Blake (Jeffrey Dean Morgan), the Comedian, is murdered, vigilante Rorschach (Jackie Earle Haley) concludes that someone must be trying to kill off the Watchmen.
He warns fellow Watchmen Dr. Manhattan/Jon Osterman (Billy Crudup), Silk Spectre/Laurie Jupiter (Malin Akerman), and Nite Owl/Dan Dreiberg (Patrick Wilson), who passes on the message to the now supremely successful Ozymandias/Adrian Veidt (Matthew Goode). Later, Dr. Manhattan, amid allegations he has caused the deaths of former friends, flees to Mars and Veidt narrowly escapes an assassination attempt. Rorschach’s theory appears true — someone is out to get the Watchmen.
That someone, Dreiberg and Rorschach discover, is their former comrade: Veidt. It was Veidt who killed the Comedian and framed Dr. Manhattan and Rorschach to distract their potential investigations into what was really going on. His master plan succeeds in the end. He bombs New York City and frames Dr. Manhattan. As a result, peace has been reached worldwide, but at what cost? A cost the general population will never fully know, that is, unless the New Frontiersman publishes Rorschach’s journal.
And with that, the audience is left with the universal question of the movie: is peace earned through mass murder and deceit really peace? Rorschach certainly says no. Veidt, on the other hand, believes he has done the world a great service.
The difference between Rorschach or Ozymandias is one of the more fascinating parts of the film, and their personalities are inextricable from their respective names. Rorschach is named after the famous psychological test of emotional functionality. At many points in the movie, Rorschach’s emotionality can be brought into question. However, in the end, it is he who feels the deaths of all those in New York City the most and it is he who is most outraged. In that instance, he passes the test he is named after better than any other character.
Ozymandias, on the other hand, is named after
Walter White a sonnet by Percy Bysshe Shelley. The famous line in the sonnet — “My name is Ozymandias, king of kings: Look on my works, ye Mighty, and despair!” — echoes Veidt’s thoughts exactly at the end of the movie. Thus, as important as the other characters are, Watchmen is really about the conflict between the aptly named Rorschach and Ozymandias — a conflict more complicated than that between pure good and pure evil.
In this sense, Watchmen succeeds greatly as a comic book movie because it does not oversimplify good-guys-versus-bad-guys or even what a happy ending is. We think of superheroes as being the quintessential moral and the villains that they face as being purely evil. However, much like how superheroes don’t exist, a purely good-versus-evil conflict doesn’t either. Watchmen digs into the darker parts of humanity throughout the movie and shows that there is no pure good and there is no pure evil in the world.
Rorschach and Ozymandias have the same goal: to save the world from nuclear holocaust, to save humanity from itself. It’s a morally strong goal, but both commit crimes along the way; obviously, Ozymandias more than Rorschach. This is where the Comedian, though only actually alive in the movie for about two minutes, becomes such an integral character. While all of the characters seem to struggle with morality and the human condition, he treats it all as a big joke. He knows that human morality does not exist nearly to the extent it should. So, instead of questioning this travesty, he plays along and laughs all along the way.
Dr. Manhattan, with the same knowledge of the human condition, chooses to distance himself as far as possible from it for most of the movie. His story shows us that there certainly is a problem — a problem with us. At one point the Comedian points out that “mankind’s been trying to kill each other off since the beginning of time”. At another point, Dr. Manhattan claims that even if everyone does die, “the universe will not even notice”.
Perhaps both points are valid. A cynic would certainly agree with all of the above. However, it doesn’t take a cynic to know that there is a dearth of morality in the world. Humans are killing other humans on a massive scale every day. Sometimes it takes something fake to make us realize just how wrong this is. In Watchmen, the audience is given a front row seat to the shortcomings of human morality in a way that is enjoyable — action, humor, and great lines all set unorthodoxly to some fantastic music — but also thought-provoking.
Yes, Bob Dylan was right: the times they are a-changin’. Always changing. As humans it is on us to make that change positive. There are no real superheroes or supervillains in this universe, but there are heroes and villains within each and every one of us. Watchmen shows us this and hopes we will figure out that the world would be a much better place if we all channeled our inner good. It could save the world, but then again, it’s all a big joke anyways.