Although this article is based on the bestselling comic book series by Alan Moore and the 2009 film version of Watchmen, the question herein addresses the uncertainty of our future. It is assumed that you are familiar with the source material. If you are not, be warned that there will be spoilers!
Wars, decreasing resources, economic crises: is there really anything good left in this world? That’s the grim and somewhat relevant outlook on life in the alternative universe of Watchmen. At the center stands Dr. Manhattan, a man changed thoroughly by an accident in the laboratories where he worked. Once Dr. Jonathan Osterman was a nuclear physicist, while his father was, for most of his life, a watchmaker.
Time plays an important symbolic role in the understanding of this story. Armageddon, in the form of a nuclear conflict between the US and the USSR, is represented by a 12-hour clock; midnight signifies the end, while, at the beginning of the story, the clock is set to five to midnight.
“I have witnessed events so tiny and so fast, they can hardly be said to have occurred at all, but you, Adrian, you’re just a man.” These are the words Dr. Manhattan utters, before Adrian, aka Ozymandias, convinces him that destruction was the right path to peace. The puzzle is more complex of course. So before divulging more answers, a brief summary of the story might be a prerequisite.
From Blu-ray.com: “Set in an alternate ’80s America (where Richard Nixon is serving his fourth consecutive term as president after using superpowered “heroes” to swiftly win the Vietnam War), Watchmen opens with the death of Edward Blake (Jeffrey Dean Morgan), a washed-up nobody who means little to the policemen scraping his corpse off the sidewalk. However, to a borderline-psychotic vigilante named Rorschach (Jackie Earle Haley), Blake was actually the Comedian, a depraved superhero of sorts who made more than a fair share of enemies over the years. Convinced that Blake’s killer is plotting the murder of other former heroes, Rorschach sets out to warn his once triumphant, now scorned and dejected colleagues — Dan Dreiberg, aka the Nite Owl (Patrick Wilson), a stodgy coward who would rather stay out of sight; Laurie Jupiter, aka the Silk Spectre (Malin Akerman), a perpetually victimized failure who wraps her identity in whatever man she falls for; Adrian Veidt, aka Ozymandias (Matthew Goode), a wealthy, calculating entrepreneur whose greatest asset is his arrogance; and Doctor Manhattan (Billy Crudup), a scientist whose ability to manipulate matter has transformed him into an inhuman demigod. As Rorschach and the ex-heroes begin to uncover the roots of a terrifying conspiracy, the crime fighters encounter far more than they bargained for: a villain willing to sacrifice an entire city to see his twisted agenda come to fruition.”
The aforementioned quote is spoken toward the end, when the price for peace had already been paid. Through destruction itself, the survival of the human race is ensured. After the dissolving of the Watchmen group, each of these individuals went on to lead a seemingly normal life, far away from crime fighting and publicity. In fact, only Dr. Manhattan was continually condemned to come to terms with his superpowers, since none of the others had any. He can disassemble any man-made machine, down to its smallest components. He can crush a human being just by thinking it. After the accident that left him in this condition, he became another man — another creature altogether, even.
The Duality of Human Nature
Humans are neither good or evil; they are both throughout their lives. Everyone is guilty of some small transgression that is easily forgotten later in life. Many superheroes that we love and admire are led down that path by a tragedy or something for which they can’t forgive themselves. Ironically, Dr. Manhattan becomes alienated from humanity due to this powers. He looks down on humanity with a mild neglect. On one hand, he enjoys human company, while on the other hand, he simply doesn’t care to become involved anymore.
Just like time, especially from his perspective, life is also relative. While retreating on Mars to reminisce over his life so far, Dr. Manhattan realized that humanity was lost. The universe is so vast, he thought, that even the total annihilation of the human race would be an event so miniscule in the grand scheme of the cosmos. Now, in his almighty position, above the mortals of Earth, he doubted that human nature could ever really accommodate true, unconditional peace.
In a very dark scene, set in a flashback in Vietnam, we see the Comedian and Dr. Manhattan in a shady bar. A young Vietnamese girl approaches the Comedian, demanding they talk about the baby she was carrying. He just turns around to laugh in her face, telling her how he would forget her “horrible, sweaty, little piece-of-shit country” and leave. In anger, she attacks him with a broken bottle, wounding his face. The Comedian doesn’t hesitate to gun her down in cold blood. Meanwhile, Dr. Manhattan just stands by his side, watching, not getting involved. The ensuing dialogue reveals the truth about his nature.
“That’s right, and you know what? You watched me. You could have turned the gun to steam, the bullets to mercury, the bottle into goddamn snowflakes, but you didn’t, did you? You really don’t give a damn about human beings. You’re drifting out of touch, Doc. God help us all.”
Many would think Dr. Manhattan to be a God, almighty and all-knowing. What if God were indifferent about our future and our lives? He has the power to make the world a better place, but he “can’t change human nature.” In Steven Spielberg’s Schindler’s List, the character Stern uses a phrase from the Talmud, which fittingly describes the denouement of Watchmen: “Save one life, and you save the world entire.” This is something Ozymandias took to heart in the scheming of his sinister plan to improve the human condition.
Attempting to kill off all the Watchmen, starting with the Comedian, Ozymandias wanted to eliminate any threats to his plan. He was certain that sending millions to their deaths would be the best way to ensure peace. In his eyes, only extreme measures could shake humanity out of apathy. The question the comic book version asks is about the nature of choice, and how much it has an impact on the person you become. Ozymandias chooses to take responsibility for his actions, but he could do so because he knew they were also the beginning of peace.
Dr. Manhattan decides to leave our galaxy behind for a more peaceful one. He is saddened by the fact that his loved ones died of cancer, for which his radiation-soaked body was most certainly the cause. After accepting Ozymandias’s plan, he kills another fellow Watchman to ensure peace. The price they paid was already too high to ignore the outcome. Dr. Manhattan neither consented or condemned; he was simply indifferent, yet accepted the logic behind the falsified nuclear attack on New York. (This is changed from the original ending in the graphic novel, which involves a giant monster attacking the city.)
In Watchmen, we learn of the fine line between not caring, and cruel indifference. Expressing bad feelings is still better than showing no feelings at all. Dr. Manhattan shows neither remorse nor fear in the face of humanity. He just doesn’t care, even when his once-great love Janie Slater shows up in the middle of a TV show recording, proclaiming she has cancer. All he does is utter “I wasn’t told,” in a calm voice, with an unclear demeanor.
For those who have read, seen the film, or done both, the end will have a different meaning to each. The most pertinent question in the story doesn’t get answered. It’s left to the audience to come to terms with the vague morality presented by the characters. In an alternative world like the one in Watchmen, good and evil take on different shapes from what we are used to. In that world, good is not always entirely good, just as evil doesn’t imply outright malice.
Dr. Manhattan never truly feels love again after his accident. He knows it, he understands what it means, but he no longer enjoys it. That’s the price for becoming a nearly divine being. Watchmen is a visceral and brutal look at the cost of justice. Every scene in the film, and page of the graphic novel, leads to a strikingly honest ending. Does humanity really need to accept defeat before peace can be celebrated? There is a cost to everything, but not everything is worth its price.
CC licensed Flickr photo shared by Chris Pirillo