I recently saw Watchmen on DVD. Like so many movies today, it is a mixture of superb special effects, solid writing and acting, and unspeakably gruesome and wholly unnecessary violence – along, of course, with an equally gratuitous sex scene or two. (In this it is like the late-1980s comic book on which it is based.) Of course, we are never supposed to criticize such things. “It is Art – causa finita est!” The Coliseum isn’t really evidence of decadence, you see, as long as the gladiators’ dialogue is well-written and artfully spoken.
Anyway, that’s not my theme here.
If you haven’t seen the movie, I don’t think I’ll spoil it for you by noting that it is a superhero saga about the temptations and alleged moral ambiguities entailed by having super powers – “Who watches the Watchmen?” and all that. I say “alleged” because I don’t think the story’s key examples are ambiguous at all: they’re just flatly immoral actions, even if done for what a consequentialist might regard as good reasons. The most important examples involve the last twenty minutes or so of the movie, which I won’t describe (for the sake of those who plan to watch it) except to say that they entail mass murder and deception on a gigantic scale perpetrated so as to secure world peace. There are other actions performed by the character Rorschach which are portrayed as harsh but just – Rorschach is the one firmly anti-consequentialist voice throughout the movie, and is apparently supposed to be something like its “moral center” – but which are in reality unjust acts of vigilantism.
To be sure, the movie does not clearly endorse even Rorschach’s actions and attitudes; the emphasis throughout is on chin-pulling ambiguity. Like Dr. Manhattan (the most powerful and aloofly “god-like” of the Watchmen), we’re supposed to “understand” rather than either “condone” or “condemn.”
Now, here’s what I don’t get. The movie takes place in an alternate-universe 1985 in which Richard Nixon is in his fifth term, has imposed an authoritarian political order (even shutting down the Watchmen when they no longer served his purposes), and has brought the country to the brink of nuclear war with the Soviet Union. We are clearly supposed to despise this alternate reality “Tricky Dick” as much as lefties despised the real McCoy. Moreover, in the DVD commentary, some of those involved in the making of the movie and/or original comic book series claim that the story has clear relevance both to the time in which the series first appeared (the 1980s) and to the time the movie was made (late 2000s) – that is to say, to the Reagan and Thatcher years and to the Bush years. (Thatcher is relevant because Alan Moore and Dave Gibbons, creators of the comic series, are both Brits.) Clearly we’re supposed to despise Reagan, Thatcher, and Bush too, at least in the view of these commentators. And we all know why: because they’re “war-mongers” who “endangered our civil liberties” and perpetrated “illegal wars,” “torture,” and the like all in the name of freedom and justice. And though the forces they opposed – Communists and jihadists – were indeed evil, somehow Nixon, Reagan, Thatcher, and Bush were all almost as bad or even just as bad, indeed maybe even worse.
This standard left-wing/”civil libertarian” line on recent history is familiar enough, and I’m not going to debate it (or the details of the Cold War, Vietnam, the Iraq War, Gitmo, etc.) here. I don’t buy it for a second, but suppose for the sake of argument that it were true. The thing is this. Why is it that we’re supposed unequivocally to condemn and despise Nixon, Reagan, Thatcher, and Bush as moral monsters, and yet when some of the “heroes” in a movie like Watchmen carry out acts far more heinous than anything these real-world statesmen have been accused of, we are supposed to “understand,” or at least to revel in the purported moral ambiguities? Why must we scoff at the “simplistic” “cowboy” rhetoric of Reagan and Bush and yet sympathize when Rorschach (who despises “liberals” as soft on crime and who in one absolutely horrific scene hacks a child-killer’s face to grisly pieces) is characterized as “lovable” and the “favorite” of fans of the comic book and movie (as one of the voices in the DVD commentary puts it)?
I think some conservative writer or other made a similar point about The Dark Knight, which also has as one of its themes the morally problematic nature of the superhero’s methods. (And it explores the theme with much greater plausibility too, since all Batman does is monitor a bunch of private cell phone calls or some such thing – nothing like the mass murder or even harm of innocents is ever contemplated, much less carried out.) But Watchmen invites such questions all the more, given not only the far more heinous nature of some of the “heroes’” actions, but also the subtle-as-a-sledgehammer smearing of Nixon precisely in the course of emphasizing the “moral complexity” of “super-heroic” mass murder of innocents for the “greater good.” (I say “smearing” not because Nixon was innocent of wrongdoing or even a good president – he was neither – but because there is no reason whatsoever to think either that he was capable of the degree of authoritarianism the movie has him imposing, or that he would be blasé about the prospect of nuclear war, as the movie makes him out to be.) Why the double standard?
Saying “It’s just a movie, that’s why” is no answer. No one comes away from The Dark Knight thinking there is any ambiguity in the Joker’s actions or empathizing with him in any way – he’s just evil, and that’s that, despite his being only a movie villain. Fantasy is not in this case, or in the case of movies about serial killers or dictators, thought to license speculation about whether such deeds are possibly defensible after all. But we are supposed solemnly to ponder Batman’s morally questionable actions – spying on the citizens of Gotham and thus violating their civil liberties for the sake of stopping a terrorist act and nabbing its perpetrators, not to mention beating up and scaring the crap out of various hoodlums in order to get information – and indeed we’re expected to sympathize with his plight. “The choice he makes is a morally dangerous one and yet what other choice does he have?” Etc. Yet when someone in the Bush administration roughs up some terrorists or monitors their phone calls, we’re supposed to see in him, not Batman, but the Joker. What gives?
The point is not “See, those damn hypocritical liberals are at it again.” It might be hypocrisy; perhaps lefty movie fans and comic book readers who see moral ambiguity in the actions of the Watchmen but pretend to see only evil in the far lesser “crimes” of Nixon, Reagan, Bush, et al. are merely letting their blind hatred for the latter cloud their judgment. But maybe not. Maybe there’s consistency at the moral level, and some aesthetic consideration underlies the difference in reactions. Again, the mere fact that the one case is pure fantasy cannot be the explanation, but some other feature might be. Perhaps it is the “distance” that a work of fiction provides: Had Nixon, Reagan, Thatcher, and Bush been fictional characters, perhaps the lefties who now see no moral ambiguity in their actions would have seen it; and perhaps lefties of the future who read about these conservative statesmen only as historical personages will be more inclined to cut them some slack. By the same token, were Watchmen-type superheroes real, perhaps those who see moral ambiguity in their actions would not see it. Maybe the comic-book-devouring Howard Zinn fan who now thinks the fictional Rorschach is “lovable” would regard a real-life version as a despicable fascist.
And yet this “aesthetic distance” theory does seem to collapse back into the inconsistency theory; the Howard Zinn fan is unlikely to find a purely fictional Pinochet-style right-wing dictator at all sympathetic, no matter how “complex” his actions and circumstances. And if “aesthetic distance” would not alter his attitudes in that case, why does it in the superhero case?
“Just askin’,” really. I don’t claim to know the answer.