Watchmen, a confused and gruesome film, is disturbing in several ways. Disturbing because of the gratuitous carnage, which seems visibly intent on pushing the envelope of what is acceptable violence in a mainstream film. Disturbing because it is considered a mainstream film, yet it seems to be advancing a sort of twisted Nietzsche-inspired misanthropic nihilism found more commonly in counter culture's dark side. And disturbing because, while we couldn't make sense of it and we found it pretty immoral as a film (sorry, but the needless cannibalism of children was just ridiculous and awful), we still found ourselves admiring some scenes and wanting to give it a chance.
Some critics, like Manohla Dargis on her review of Oldboy or Roger Ebert on his review of Caligula, get all moralistic on films. And usually the PPCC dismissively snorts when we read such reviews: "Tut, tut," we think. "Cinema is an art form, not a spiritual practice!" It's all make-believe anyway, so what's the problem? But then there are some films which challenge this notion, because they advance troubling ideas (e.g. the beautifully-made Jab Jab Phool Khile which advances a Luddite, sexist message) or because they were made in troubling circumstances (e.g. the stuntman's death during the famed chariot race scene in Ben Hur, which, according to the urban legend, was kept in the final release). Watchmen is neither of these things - mostly because (1) we couldn't figure out what, exactly, it was trying to say, and (2) as far as we know, no one was hurt in the making of the film.
Purportedly about the lives and times of a group of (very) morally ambiguous superheroes during an alternative 1985 in New York City, it is a bloated murder mystery following two ex-superheroes, the aging, nerdy Nite Owl II (Patrick Wilson) and the cryptic Rorschach (Jackie Earle Haley), as they attempt to discover who killed their former colleague, The Comedian (Jeffrey Dean Morgan). The solution to the mystery - when we found out who killed him and why - advances the film's only straightforward philosophical message: that sometimes you need to kill millions in order to save billions. Uh... what? So much for the entire history of moral philosophy and welfare economics! A.O. Scott of the New York Times confirms our general feelings about that (as usual):
"This idea is sickening but also, finally, unpersuasive, because it is rooted in a view of human behavior that is fundamentally immature, self-pitying and sentimental."
But surely, we thought, this film is about more than just that. After all, weaving into the main mystery narrative are a series of increasingly disturbing and odd back stories for each superhero, the most interesting of which are The Comedian himself and Dr. Manhattan (Billy Crudup). The most fascinating and weird aspects of these back stories are the ways in which they seem to be a criticism of American imperialism and the Nietzschean American "Superhero". Superheroics (lower case s) are a particularly American cultural art form - the idea of non-divine mortals with superpowers who engage in vigilante justice - and this film isn't the first time we've seen modern American culture criticized via its obsession with superheroics (see The Incredibles). Yet while The Incredibles was, well, a children's movie and so obviously a lot more positive and politically inoffensive (and also, ironically, a lot more philosophically coherent), Watchmen tackles the darkest side of American culture: its triumphalism, imperialism, militarism. Even its conspiracy theories! That is, there are incredibly troubling scenes - such as when an enormous Dr. Manhattan (this film's most obvious Superhero in the Nietzschean "beyond good and evil" sense and superhero in the "I have superpowers" sense) marches through the Vietnamese countryside, using his cosmic death ray to make the fleeing Vietcong soldiers explode into fireworks of gore (to Ride of the Valkyries, no less!); or when the assassination of JFK (similarly disgustingly detailed, in all its gore) pulls back to reveal The Comedian as the assassin. These scenes seemed to intimate at a direct criticism of the Pax Americana: showing that, in a world where military interventions run rampant (ahem, ahem), only a nuclear dystopia can result. (And this is a mainstream American film?!) There's a wonderfully surreal scene where The Comedian disperses a mob of rioting hippies by firing a bazooka at them and, at the shocked dismay of Nite Owl II, he declares himself "the American ideal!"
Superhero man says: "Now I am become death, the destroyer of worlds." (Meanwhile superhero girl had nothing to do. Sigh. As usual.)
It is this subplot that is the most interesting, aesthetically and philosophically, and we wish they had kept focus on the frightening figures of The Comedian and Dr. Manhattan. The mystery and its final, silly climax was just a waste of time. And our criticism of the violence extends to this as well: as disgusting and awful as it was to watch the scenes in Vietnam or the riots, it still drove home an important point (i.e. the brutality of the Pax Americana, and how it's hidden from the mainstream American public). The violence during the murder mystery - that is, scenes such as Rorschach's backstory or time in prison - was needless, its only clear aim being to show us how "hardcore" Rorschach was.
The most inspired scene - and a good example of "well-used" violence in film - was the transformation of Dr. Manhattan. With background music reminiscent of haunting Philip Glass and a dispassionate voice-over from Dr. Manhattan, we watch the stereotypical "scientist becomes inadvertent test subject of his own crazy theories" scene. Except since this time it's about building the atom bomb - that is, the Manhattan Project - it is very affecting to watch his violent transformation into a Superhero "beyond good and evil". After Dr. Manhattan is literally pulled apart by the nuclear energy, he gains a radically new perspective of reality - completely informed by quantum physics - where time is truly relative. This has troubling moral consequences, as Dr. Manhattan watches himself grow further and further away from humanity as he can no longer relate to human perceptions. (Hmm, a criticism of Oppenheimer?) As this happens, he begins to lose sight of morality. (For example, a follow-up scene where The Comedian kills a pregnant Vietnamese woman and Dr. Manhattan kills the witnesses who are about to attack them. When Dr. Manhattan confronts The Comedian, appalled at what has happened, the latter asks why he made the witnesses explode rather than their guns.)
Overall: too violent, too long, too unfocused and too grim. This could have been a great, troubling film, and instead it's just troubling.