Thursday, March 19, 2009

Pop Philosophy vis-à-vis Watchmen

I wanted to put this youtube video in as my picture for this post, but I couldn't figure out how, so enjoy it here.

So, after seeing Watchmen for the second time, I thought I might follow up my one-word review of the movie with some philosophical assessment of the characters which comprise this gripping and psychologically conflicting movie. The way I see it, there are three main schools of ethical philosophical thought espoused by the costumed heroes that are the focal points of the Watchmen story: utilitarianism, moral absolutism, and nihilism. WARNING: THERE WILL BE SPOILERS.

The character at the forefront of the utilitarian "camp", for a lack of a better word, in this story is the retired hero turned media mogul Ozymandias. Ozzy sees a problem with the basic nature of humanity, one which he shares in common with The Comedian: people are essentially savage beings, and sooner or later without outside intervention we are going to destroy each other. Ozymandias therefore creates the ultimate utilitarian problem: the entire world is about to destroy itself, so, in order to save the lives of billions, he kills millions. Then, the other heroes who have discovered his plot (Silk Spectre II, Nite Owl II, Rorschach, and Dr. Manhattan) have to decide whether they do the so-called "right" thing and make Ozymandias pay for the murder of millions, or simply let him get away without in order to help ensure his new global peace. So, as in the philosophical ethic of utilitarianism, "the good" is seen not as that which we might find most morally pleasing, but that which ultimately is best for the greatest percentage of people, forcing us to ask ourselves if we could live with the deaths of millions if it were for the sake of world peace.

Then, in contrast to the utilitarianism of Ozymandias, we have the moral absolutism of Rorschach. Rorschach, psychologically disturbed though he might be, sees ethics in absolute categories of right and wrong, good and evil, black and white. To quote Rorschach, "Never compromise. Not even in the face of Armageddon." Matters of expediancy don't factor into his moral decisions, and there is no letting lesser evils go unpunished in order to bring in those who commit greater evils. Criminals are evil; therefore, criminals die. It's just as simple as that. And yet, within Rorschach increasing mental instability and paranoia, the reason the character is so compelling is that there is a little Rorschach in all of us. Whenever we see great injustices, or evil men hurting women and children, or people taking advantage of the weak and defenseless, there is a part of us that says "to hell with the system; this person should be dead." As human beings, we want justice, occasionally in extreme and violent ways.

Finally, we have the nihilists of the Watchmen universe: The Comedian & Dr. Manhattan. The interesting thing about these two is that they react to their belief that life is ultimately meaningless in entirely different ways. The Comedian sees all of human existence as one big joke. And, as a result, he becomes a parody of the darkness he sees in the heart of humanity. He lives a life seemingly composed of equal parts hedonism and pragmatism. He does what he wants, when he wants to do it as long as the personal risk is minimal and he can gain from the results. Dr. Manhattan, on the other hand, sees life to be a "highly overrated phenomenon", and as a result becomes increasingly detached from and unconcerned for human beings, to the point of leaving the planet to go live on Mars. Seeing his past, present, and future as one singular quantum moment, Dr. Manhattan becomes increasingly bored and depressed by human interaction, becoming in some cases little more than a passive observer, such as in the case of The Comedian and the Vietnamese woman who scars his face.

If you were to ask me what Watchmen was about, I'm honestly not sure I could give you an answer. The graphic novel is so indepth and has so many layers that it is difficult to sum up into a singular concept. Ultimately, I guess Watchmen is about life: the ways in which we live, we make the world a better place, and who we choose to become as we experience the world.

“The Promised Land always lies on the other side of a wilderness.”


Brint Montgomery said...


James said...

Good work. Any character(s) you identify more with?

The Wanderer said...

"Identify with" is a funny thing. I certainly wouldn't want to be one of the characters in Watchmen, but in a way I identify with all of them: I identify with Rorschach's desire for justice free from the shortcomings and inconsistencies of "The Law". I identify with Dr. Manhattan's increasing sense of detachment from the rest of humanity. I identify with the Comedian's belief that life is all a joke. I identify with Nite Owl II's desire for a world where the heroes are actually heroic.

Were I forced to pick a favorite character, however, I'd go with The Comedian. The psychological worldview that drives him is fascinating, and he's certainly not afraid to speak the truth.