The Dark Individualism of Watchmen

Ten years ago, Zack Snyder directed the blockbuster Watchmen, which attempted to show the tragedy of freedom and individualism in post-war America. The film depicts an America first producing, then destroying heroes, as our new technological powers promise to end historical conflicts while also threatening to end life on earth. It’s a story of democratic ambition and disillusionment, and uniquely able to disclose the dark passions overrunning our fearful new digital world.

Snyder’s movie is based on Alan Moore’s graphic novel (1987), a combination of paranoid left-wing politics and Tocquevillian warnings that America is headed for crisis. Moore’s Tocquevillian insight was that mankind would resolve its divisions and crises by forcing unity or annihilation. Our grand idea—equality—abhors any distinctions, even between God and mankind. We want one simple idea to solve all our conflicts. The result, however, is not power and concord, but despairing individualism. Watchmen describes this historical transformation hoping to fend off our temptation, nihilism.

Left-wing revolutionary hysteria in Watchmen resembles the present day. Compare Moore’s anti-Reagan paranoia (dramatized as anti-Nixon paranoia) and Trump paranoia. Look around America: You’ll recognize the heroism-and-hysteria story that Moore tells so persuasively. The media, indeed, are devoted to nothing but stoking this ongoing crisis.

So the first thing to learn from Moore is the psychology of individualism, the agony of freedom. The story’s protagonists believe themselves to be victims of democratic society, but at the same time call upon the public to empower them to do justice against their oligarchic antagonists. It resembles the attitude of many social justice activists today.

Moore describes the structure of our crisis from our own experience. We’re all democrats at heart. We all believe government requires the consent of the governed. Our politics is founded on fundamental moral equality, but its results constantly baffle us. We see majority rule isn’t working—we see ourselves, the majority, divided into hatefully partisan camps. We do not blame ourselves—instead, we suspect what we really have in America is minority rule. So after the injury of democratic failure, we suffer the insult of being played for suckers by oligarchs.

The left blames evil billionaires—old, white, Republican men. The right blames the evil federal government—cultural Marxists playing with trillions of dollars. Both are essentially illiberal conspiracy theories: Both make a lot of sense. Why? Because whatever we publicly think we want, whoever we elect, it never gets done! So we increasingly mistrust our political institutions. Meanwhile, various unpopular things do get done—both markets and government reward a minority among us. So the angry majority increasingly turns to Trump and Sanders to get relief—or else revenge. Moore depicts both together as a despotic, centrist Nixon who serves five terms.

But Moore has more to offer than the structure of our democratic impotence. He asks himself, how did we get here? Are we heroes or monsters? The answer lies in our history, which the story traces from the good war, WW II, to the bad war, Vietnam.

The second thing to learn from Moore is how our democratic instincts foster a kind of fanaticism about heroes. We can see it in Watchmen‘s plot: A crazy reactionary, the last fanatic of justice, Rorschach (Jackie Earle Healy) investigates his conspiracy theory. Someone’s killing heroes, starting with The Comedian (Jeffrey Dean Morgan), a U.S. government agent and member of Rorschach’s old vigilante team, the Watchmen.

Rorschach sparks a return to action of the retired heroes, leading to a Wagnerian twilight of heroes battle over mankind’s freedom and fate. Moore and Snyder thus reveal the double meaning of plot. It’s not just events coming to pass, full of danger and harm, it’s secrets being revealed. Storytelling, poetry, film—is discovering the truth.

Rorschach’s investigation is narrated in parallel with the fantastic history of these heroes, starting before WW II, when America loved heroes! We thus learn about their past, how they pursued various understandings of freedom, and their tragedies. As American power grows, society turns on them and they are eventually outlawed, since their heroism limits the freedom of ordinary citizens.

The Comedian belonged to the first vigilante team, The Minutemen. Hope springs from suffering and, in the Great Depression, when America feared world war, vigilantes fought urban crime. They would restore justice and individual freedom. But they champion the people in other ways, too. They are flamboyant individualists, publicly making a show of themselves with costumes, press conferences, even corporate sponsorship and government sanction.

Heroes change with American individualism, become more sophisticated. A first god emerges, Dr. Manhattan (Billy Crudup). A nuclear physicist working for the government, he acquires divine powers after being trapped accidentally in a reactor during an experiment. He’s the embodiment of America’s nuclear power, a living symbol of disembodied knowledge. He is Stephen Hawking poeticized. He doesn’t much care about people—or America. Knowledge offers freedom from human—but slavery to cosmic—laws.

A second god emerges afterward, Ozymandias (Matthew Goode), taking the Egyptian pharaoh’s name. He’s got super-human strength and intelligence, appearing as a Greek ideal of manliness, and makes himself vastly rich through increasingly complicated corporations. Snyder shows him with David Bowie at Studio 54. In the glamorous disco age, freedom includes ambiguous sexuality—the shape-shifting flight from one’s nature and identity. To be everything for everyone is to overcome chance. Don’t we see that vision of cosmic divinity in our society and individualism?

In Moore’s left-wing politics, Ozymandias represents globalized capitalism. He’s beautiful, heroically strong, and, beyond beauty, his political intelligence outclasses Dr. Manhattan’s scientific intelligence. Ozymandias’s beauty symbolizes control over television—the ultimate in global glamour is not Hollywood, but Silicon Valley CEOs like Steve Jobs who start far more powerful celebrity cults. Ozymandias hints at a future of continuous surveillance and control over information through a man-machine combination that turns memory into predictions of the future.

As Dr. Manhattan abandons petty humanity—his apolitical thought is an ancient form of freedom—Ozymandias prepares to rule mankind indirectly, which offers a modern form of freedom. Why indirectly? Both think man essentially irrational and mankind mad, for delusions of freedom at the collective level lead to war. Power makes people dangerous, not wiser. So Ozymandias starts a small, fake nuclear war to avoid global nuclear war. He unites mankind against a fake common enemy—Dr. Manhattan. This allows people the illusion of freedom even as they serve his purpose. (Reagan similarly, but more benignly told the United Nations that only aliens would unite mankind.)

Ozymandias, the poetic image of our techno-oligarchs, decides to take over the future from an undeserving, unreliable mankind. Since he has a body, Ozymandias cannot afford Dr. Manhattan’s cosmic indifference. He acts indirectly, through conspiracies—creating the plot Rorschach’s trying to resolve.

America has failed her heroes, but heroes will not fail: History and individualism meet in a new form of oligarchy seeking to rule all mankind through a noble lie. Natural and political science agree, freedom from nuclear war trumps individual freedom (political rights). So Dr. Manhattan not only eventually acquiesces in Ozymandias’s plan, but kills on his behalf.

Moore’s left-wing politics makes him fear a new oligarchy, one beyond totalitarian political control. Instead, he’s anxious that rational control of the population will flow from technology, bringing the end of history. As Marx said, the machine, not man is the agent of revolution. Moore prefers ordinary human heroes, who are trying to deal with tragedy, since they know they cannot become gods.

The Comedian connects the Watchmen to the Minutemen. He was America’s favorite patriot, so the government started asking him to do horrifying things. A dark Captain America, he did everything he was asked, out of patriotism. It ended in cruelty: War crimes in Vietnam, violence against protesters in the streets of American cities. He ended up hating people naive enough to believe patriotism equals justice. Used and self-abused, he hated the America he served, since the elites were not themselves patriotic. The Comedian thinks everything’s a joke because he betrayed himself—he became the monster he started out fighting.

This overwrought criticism of American power and manliness makes a philosophical point: Americans are immoderate. We lack self-control, quickly leaping from desperation to enthusiasm, from contentment to hysteria, without much in-between. We often think freedom means being creatures of our desires. We think we’re free to wage war because we’re moral. Hence civil unrest and foreign policy catastrophes. The 1960s proved we’re not born winners.

The Comedian has only one friend, Rorschach. They fought together. He believes in justice, which mostly means obeying the laws, which The Comedian enforced. But eventually the laws prohibited vigilantes—that is, everyman heroes. Order is essential to the system; justice isn’t—so the government outlawed Rorschach while making The Comedian a celebrity. He learned America would never love justice as much as he does, nor reward him for it, so he went crazy. He wanted above all freedom from fear and violence for common people, so he freed himself from the laws to achieve it. He’s violent in defense of decency, because decency is itself not enough, and decent people are often defenseless.

Rorschach’s a reactionary tragic hero—think Taxi Driver—who hates underworld criminals and the system both. He’s the audience substitute—he symbolizes middle class anger at injustice. He’s our dark side. Moore thinks America’s about freedom, not justice, so he’s eventually killed. He was free to tell the truth as a crazy hobo, warning: “The end is nigh.” But Rorschach in the end wants to tell the truth about Ozymandias’s conspiracy to deceive America—this he isn’t free to do! Consider today: don’t our technological geniuses desire censorship of populist madmen who hate oligarchs above all?

Moore’s ultimately on the side of the American people. He warns individualism leads to technological slavery. In Watchmen, America’s not free ultimately to ignore Rorschach’s warning. There are limits to self-delusion for a free people. His journal is ultimately published, at least giving America a fighting chance. Freedom of speech is constitutive to America, because it helps us remember power isn’t morality. For us to be free, the most powerful among us must remain vulnerable to suspicion and scandal.

Watchmen depicts the future of American heroism through a couple: Nite Owl II and Silk Spectre II. As the names suggest, they are Watchmen descendants of Minutemen. They rose to meet the spotlight only to be outlawed. They also bear the burden of their predecessors, whose lives included much ugliness. They’re like Zack Snyder, jaded Gen-X heirs to Boomer hubris, coming to warn us Millennials: We’ll have to deal with a lot of disappointment.

With these two, Moore and Snyder conclude their description of the American future on a moderately hopeful note, but they still have warnings to issue. Eroticism, the typical Boomer promise of personal freedom, is dying, partly because of abuse. Our two heroes can only make love after they fight crime. They first need heroic freedom, risking their lives, facing death, to be able to be natural. Life is otherwise too secure, and too disappointing. Indeed, in our own times, surprised social scientists tell us what our poets prophesied: people are having less sex and more anger (online) and depression (offline). Sexual violence itself is on the rise for the same reason. Since we’re sophisticated, we do it with consent, as kink. America glamorizes kink, as does Watchmen, because being normal drives us crazy. The only grace note is, Leonard Cohen’s Hallellujah plays when they make love. 

These two lovers dedicate themselves to fighting crime even though they learn the system is rigged from Rorschach. They’re not suicidal like him, because justice is not the only thing that matters. Freedom matters, too, and it requires hope that things will get better, and hence the personal experience of what’s good, to give substance to that hope. The lesson is that is no forgetting our mortality—it spurs us on—and can drive us mad.

At his best, Snyder tells us that personal love is necessary to have faith and, therefore, a future. That’s another way of conquering chance. Or else how to withstand a future where we’re seemingly helpless to make a difference, since everything is controlled by human and computerized intelligence far beyond our own? 

Readers who want to hear more about Zack Snyder and Watchmen are invited to listen to my recent podcast with Sonny Bunch.