Posted by: thealienist | August 28, 2014

Heroes, Supermen, and Religion: Watchmen

I read Watchmen after a student in one of my classes wrote a paper diagnosing one of the characters in this graphic novel with antisocial personality disorder.  To be honest, it wasn’t the most convincing argument, but the student was an undergraduate and did an admirable job on the paper.  It piqued my interest and motivated me to read more.  I have since enjoyed the back-stories of some of the major characters in Before Watchmen.  The stories are satisfying and well-written.  The characters are very interesting and provoke challenging thoughts on law, ethics, vulnerability, and character.  As my favorite drive-in movie critic (Joe Bob Briggs) would say, “Check it out.”

As I was reading, a thought occurred to me.  Whether intended by the author or not, it seemed to me that many of the Watchmen were caricatures of people’s different views of God.  I won’t pretend that this is the only (or even the best) way to consider the novel, but it seems an interesting way to look at the various views of our world and our place in the world.

One of the entertaining aspects of Watchmen is the variety of worldviews expressed by the different heroes and the types of lives that they live.  If we view the “superhero” as types of “gods” that walk the earth and exert their will over it, the Watchmen provide a menagerie for our consideration.  I should be clear that the author of Watchmen takes great pains to show that all of their heroes (except one) are human and in no way transcendent of the human state.  They may be skilled in fighting, creating, or thinking, but their skills are simply human skills magnified.  In a way, this brings to mind the view that our conceptions of God are simply idealized human qualities.  This leads us to the characteristics and worldviews of some of the major characters.

The most cynical and amoral character in Watchmen is The Comedian.  He sees the world as absurd.  He sees the tragedies around him as signs of the meaninglessness of life.  In many ways, he is the Man-god.  In the absence of any objective meaning to life or to his actions, he is free to act as he wills and assign meaning as it suits him.  At times, he may be loyal, patriotic, and self-sacrificing, but at the next moment he will turn on his friends and his country.  We see glimpses of his strength and his will, but we never see these committed to a cause that transcends himself.  He represents the excitement and danger of the unformed chaos he sees in the universe.  Life ruled by The Comedian is short, brutal, and red of tooth and claw.

Rorschach is one of the most popular characters in Watchmen.  Some see little difference in character between Rorschach and The Comedian, though I think the difference is substantial and important.  Rorschach is obsessed with justice.  His fighting, observing, and reasoning skills are devoted to the idea that there are some things that simply are right and not up for a vote.  In this way, unlike The Comedian, he serves a higher calling.  The means he uses to pursue this calling, however, are brutal and punitive.  Rorschach is judge, jury, and executioner.  To allow the sentiments of others to obstruct justice is beyond his ability to tolerate.  In some ways, Rorschach functions as a caricature of the Old Testament God.  He is seen as inflexibly intent on obedience and punishment and uses his considerable skills to cruelly inflict suffering on evil-doers.  He is the one Watchman who we find protesting injustice and going to church.  We like Rorschach as he acts out our violent fantasies about overcoming mistreatment, seeing others pay for their crimes, and being feared by those who make us afraid.  As an image of God, however, he is too inflexible and cruel to elicit devotion.  Life ruled by Rorschach is ruled by fear.

Dr. Manhattan is a very interesting character in Watchmen.  Though starting out human, he has transcended his humanity in every respect.  With his practically unlimited power over time and space, he has lost his connection with human emotions, values, and interests.  He has become the coldly rational, infinitely powerful, omnipresent, omniscient, manipulator of the universe.  As such, he can be used by others for their own purposes (as he is by the U.S. government and by Ozymandias) or he can pursue his own designs, which have little connection to human interests.  He can be admired, feared, and hated, but he cannot be loved.  He is too alien.  He is too disinterested.  He is too much of an object and too little of a person.  This is many people’s view of the Judeo-Christian God.  Life ruled by Dr. Manhattan is a life of abandonment.  He is all-powerful, all-knowing, but beyond being bound by good and evil and certainly too remote to be concerned by us.

Ozymandias is character that would make Hitchcock proud.  In many ways, he seems to be the most normal and human of the Watchmen.  Not in his skills, which are honed to a degree not seen in any of the other still human Watchmen, but in his sentiments.  For most of the novel, he appears to be the one we would aspire to imitate.  He is intelligent, strong, agile, handsome, rich, politically and economically powerful, and insightful.  He is popular and socially gracious.  He is a good leader and manager.  All of this makes it more disappointing when the dark side of these qualities are revealed.  His ruthlessly pragmatic way of achieving the goals he sets tempt us to deny he has a conscience.  His ability to ignore the morality of the means by which he accomplishes his moral (?) ends makes him more of a monster than hero.  In many ways, he represents another popular image of the Judeo-Christian God.  One that is involved in micromanaging human affairs and manipulating others for his own private ends.  One who makes decisions based on what is best for all even if it ignores the welfare of individuals.  An individual for whom people are tools to be used and not independent lives to be respected.  Life ruled by Ozymandias is a life of uneasy comfort.  As long as your interests align with the greatest good (according to him) you will be cared for.  In the case that you fail to fit into his plan, you are disposable.

My favorite character in Watchmen is Nite Owl.  He has the human qualities that Ozymandias seems to have but ultimately proves deficient in.  He is not Ozymandias’ equal in any single skill, but exceeds all of the other male Watchmen in his ability to care for and sympathize with others.  He cares about justice (and was once a partner with Rorschach).  He is obedient to the law (up to a point) as shown by him hanging up his cowl when masked heroes were outlawed.  He valued doing good above serving justice.  Nite Owl is thus the most moral of Watchmen.  He is also frequently the lease effective of them, however.  He cares but he does not have the power to change much.  On the other hand, he is the only male Watchman who seems to be able to experience actual love.  His character is a third popular way of viewing God.  Caring, benevolent, but without sufficient power to ensure that good triumphs over evil.  Life ruled by Nite Owl is (similar to that of Ozymandias but for different reasons) a life of uneasy comfort.  You know you are cared for and will be helped to the limited extent that help is available.  But much of your life will be affected by chaotic forces beyond anybody’s ability to control.

This post is already too long.  I know that there are other Watchmen and Minutemen that have escaped my attention.  I will summarize my observations as follows:  Watchmen provides provocative illustrations of various images of God.  Theologically, each of the images is incomplete.  Still, taken together, they offer interesting examples of how we wish the world were run and how we wish we had powerful forces to protect us.  Watchmen shows the good and the bad of our wishes for meaning and protection.

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