9/11 in Reverse: A Review of the Watchmen

Nicholas Powers Mar 30, 2009

Early in the Watchmen movie, super-hero turned tycoon Ozymandias tells reporters he is creating endless renewable fuel to make war over energy obsolete. As U.S. and Soviet tanks race to the Afghan border he wistfully says, “It doesn’t take a political scientist to see our Cold War is not ideological it’s based upon fear of not having enough.” As he speaks we see behind him the Twin Towers.

Why this detail? It doesn’t appear in the original 1986 Watchmen print series. The Towers are digitally placed to foreshadow the last scene when Ozymandias uses that experimental energy to blast a hole in lower Manhattan. The U.S. and Soviet Union believe that Dr. Manhattan, a physicist vaporized in a laboratory accident and resurrected as a glowing demigod, has attacked humanity. Ozymandias watches news reports of tanks rolling home and missiles cooling. Raising his arms in triumph, he says this global terror will induce a final peace.

In real life, it almost did. The movie’s ending reflects the months after 9/11 when Democrats and Republicans sang “God Bless America” on the capitol steps. Headlines grieved. Governments sent condolences. Rubble was sifted for family. Flags worn like bandages. It was that morbid peace that director Jack Snyder of “300” fame was alluding to when he inserted the Towers into the film.

Snyder’s gesture follows Watchmen writer Allen Moore who first set these characters within history.  In the opening montage, we see our costumed heroes in slow motion scenes of classic Americana. Hippies slip flowers in soldier’s gun barrels. The violent jingoist the Comedian creeps away after shooting JFK. These heroes kill, one is a rapist, another plots to massacre millions. Moore wrote scarred characters whose powers alienated them from humanity. He grew up in the 1960’s era of apple-cheeked comics and said in an interview he deconstructed superheroes to purge himself of nostalgia.

Yet it is exactly that state of false innocence that Moore sets up as the ultimate triumph. As Ozymandias plots to trick the world with a false catastrophe the Comedian learns about his scheme. Before he breaks, a hired assassin  throws the Comedian to his death, leaving a mystery shrouded murder. Another Watchmen, the vigilante Rorschach, whose mask shifts like a dark fog is the film’s symbol of moral absolutism as he doggedly follows the clues that lead to the conspiracy. He journals his findings and leaves it in a newspaper office before going with other Watchmen to confront Ozymandias.

In his secret fortress, Ozymandias confesses but dares them to make it public and risk a return to world war. “Will you expose me? Undoing the peace millions died for,” he teases. They won’t save for Rorschach who storms out and his confronted by Dr. Manhattan who warns him to stop but the man tears off his mask and yells, “Of course, must protect utopia. One more body amongst foundations makes little difference. Well…do it!” Dr. Manhattan vaporizes him, leaving an abstract blood stain that like a Rorschach test we can see his death as a moral necessity or a crime against truth.

But truth is a crime in utopia. At the newspaper, the editor tells his cub reporter to find a story who in turn sifts the slush bin and finds Rorschach’s journal. The small book is of course the image of repressed truth that, as Freud taught us, will always find a find a reader. If the Watchmen were lengthened you would see our cub-reporter seized with fear and fever of the truth of this letter.

When the film lit movie screens men of a certain age packed the seats. The Watchmen graphic novel along with The Dark Knight were seminal texts of 1980’s youth. Unlike Moore who wrote to purge himself of nostalgia, we never had it. Our generation grew up in the mire of disillusionment. Sitting through the movie, I got the queasy feeling that the brouhaha over the film was that it gave our immature cynicism a big budget. The one faith we do have, even after Moore deconstructed the hero, is our belief in villains.

It’s fitting that Snyder used the Twin Towers to foreshadow cataclysm because some people believe they found a real world Rorschah’s journal. A man who stood on line with me and sat a few seats away had a 9/11 Truth shirt on. It was appropriate as both movie and conspiracy theory share the plot of the puppet master. Maybe it’s the symptom of a cynical generation to be desperate, like Rorschach, for a story of simple good and evil, a story that creates moral clarity. It’s why Truthers can yell on the Bill Maher show, wave bold signs at Ground Zero and cower others by the sheer force of certainty; they just know.

Truthers eagerly fight non-existent enemies and take pride in the very social ridicule they need to feel righteous. Conspiracy theorists never find the enemy because they look for a cabal in the backroom instead of the open air of our silent complicity. In Argentina’s Dirty War people were disappeared from a list everyone knew. In American slavery human beings were sold alongside horses and cattle. Power is always out in the open.

Maybe the failure of the Watchmen is that it’s the wrong lesson for the wrong generation. It reinforces a juvenile image of power, one reflected in internet movies like The Obama Deception that explain the economic collapse is a plot of the Bilderburg group. But every day more men sleep in the street, more families move into tents and hundreds of thousands of people lose their jobs each month. It’s not a secret how or why it happened. But for many it’s easier to live in an imaginary war where a master villain creates a New World Order, just like the movies, except for the conspiracy audience the lights never come on.

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