Social control comes in many forms, ranging from government institutions such as the police and military, to private industry, to apparently neutral institutions such as medicine and education. Perhaps most insidious as a form of social control, is the very popular culture of society; apparently mindless entertainment reinforces social control even while it seeks or appears to question it. Superheroes have, in one manifestation or another, been a staple of culture for ages, with mythical figures like Heracles of ancient Greece dating to pre-literate cultures. The modern conception of the superhero is most commonly traced to the United States, particularly to the creation of Superman in 1938 and Batman in 1939. Since then, superheroes have been a staple of comics, particularly in the US. Since that time, superheroes have made the jump from page to screen, appearing in both television and movies.
The Watchmen film, released in 2009, is an adaptation of a comic series of the same name originally published in 1986 and '87. Despite its faithfulness to the original, the film differs from the comic in subtle yet important ways, particularly as regards the ideological messages. The comic attempted to critique the society of 1980's America, however, it ended up coming to support the same society it attempted to critique, as a result of the audience identification with one ideology in favor of another. The film, while it has attempted to remain as faithful to the comic as possible, presents important ideological distinctions in its argument. The comic ideologically supports radical conservativism or neo-liberalism. The film, however, suggests an ideology of nihilism to the audience. While nihilism is not out right a support of the status quo, in abandoning any belief or hope for action, nihilism comes to ideologically reinforce and support the status quo of society.
Watchmen is often regarded as the first truly postmodern comic for its attempt to realistically picture a world in which superheroes existed, it also attempted to shine a critical light on the society of the 1980's. In particular, the comic attempts to critique cold war posturing and rhetoric, particularly that of President Reagan, famed for declaring the Soviet Union to be an evil empire. The comic attempted to show that this rhetoric was building up to an almost inevitable nuclear war, one that could only be stopped by some drastic outside force. In the comic, the superhero Ozymandias unleashes a genetically engineered monster that appears as an alien from outer space on New York city, killing almost the entire population instantly. In this way, he averts nuclear war through directing the worlds attention elsewhere. The final success of this action is left deliberately ambiguous, in keeping with the ambiguity that pervades the entire story.
According to Wolf-Meyer, the Watchmen comic tried to present a view favorable to radical liberalism, favorable to the creation of a utopia at almost any cost. However, even while it attempted to present such a view, another view was received much more widely by the audience. This was the much more conservative viewpoint, that Ozymandias was the villain, his actions could in no way be forgiven, even if they did result in a utopia on earth. The audience, instead of identifying with Ozymandias and being moved to the view that he represents, generally identified with the character of Rorschach who opposed Ozymandias to the end, unwilling to compromise his beliefs even if it meant that the world would once more be on the brink of nuclear war.
The heroes of Watchmen can be read as emblematic of political ideologies: Rorschach is a radical conservative, Dr. Manhattan a conservative, Silk Specter indifferent or neutral, Dan Drieberg a liberal, and Veidt a radical liberal... Inevitably, as rorschach confronts Ocymandias, and Ozymandias' plans for achieving utopia at any costs, rorschach must act conservatively: Regardless of the effects that his actions might have on the new civilization that Ozymandias has helped to foster, they must be taken to conserve the Cold War dystopia that is the status quo. (Wolf-Meyer 508-9)
The audience widespread identification with Rorschach means that the audience has largely been persuaded that his view and actions were correct. In this way, though the comic attempted to critique the society of the time, it actually served ideologically to support it.
The comic, in this way, is an example of a rhetorical artifact that attempted to present one perspective or action, and the audience took it as supporting another (in this case) contradictory perspective or action. It is evident that the readers of the comic identified with Rorschach through his being placed at the center of the plot in the summary offered by Reynolds in Superheroes: A Modern Mythology. Further, it can be argued that the primary audience of the comic, being disaffected mail youth, most identified with a character who embodied the position they liked to see themselves in, that of Rorschach.
...his popularity may be as simple as this: Rorschach is misanthropic, has poor social skills, and is ostracized by his peers and society; Veidt, on the other hand, is handsome, intelligent and bourgeois; Dr. Manhattan is omniscient and omnipotent, essentially a god. Who is an adolescent male reader supposed to identify with, and who is he most likely to identify with? (Wolf-Meyer 508)
From this identification once can easily see which view the audience has been persuaded by. In this way, an attempt at creating a complicated work with a multi-layered and nonlinear narrative that featured at least a reasonably realized view of multiple ideologies has come to serve one that was unintended. This is because identification is the foremost aspect of persuasion. Rhetoric, according to Burke, functions primarily as a result of identification or consubstantiation. So, argument or reason can fall short, particularly if the audience identifies, as in this case, with another view.
While the comic tried to argue for one perspective, and ended up arguing for another, the film, being once removed is acting in a different fashion. The film is not explicitly trying to argue against the danger of the cold war, or the fiery rhetoric of President Reagan. Such an argument, in 2009 would have little bearing on the audience. Instead, in treating the comic reverentially, the film has removed any explicit ideological view. It tries to present itself as pure entertainment, albeit one that is complicated and has something to say. Still, the film does function rhetorically, and is in response to societal issues. The film is a response to postmodernity in general, to the situation in contemporary society in which ambiguity seems to rule the day. The film is responding to the apprehension and angst that people feel as a result of the constant ambiguity and lack of any clear lines of power. This ambiguity and decentralization of power is the hallmark of postmodern society; a world in which the American government has confessed to and defended torture, in which multinational corporations seem bound by no law and to serve no one but themselves. Importantly, the film is also post 9/11 and the terrorist attacks of that day. This act remains largely incomprehensible to the American audience, it is, in fact, the kind of action that one would normally see in superhero comics undertaken by a super villain, or at least attempted before they are foiled in the nick of time by the hero. So, while the film may not be making an ideological argument in the narrow political sense of the word, in the broader, theoretical sense, it has no choice but to present an ideological viewpoint.
Likewise, the characters come to represent different things within the film than they do in the comic. Ozymandias is made more appealing, so, for all his machiavellian plotting and mass murder, he can be forgiven by the audience. He is, after all, striving against an impossible situation in trying to prevent for all time nuclear war. That it took the total destruction of New York, along with all inhabitants, is unfortunate but forgiveable. This is particularly in a film that comes after the terrorist attacks of 9/11. That an American audience can forgive and for some, identify with, a character who is responsible for the nuclear destruction of New York is troubling. It is revealing of the overall ideology of the film that some in the audience will identify with Ozymandias even is post 9/11 America, and that even those who do not identify with him are at least ready and willing to understand his apparent perspective and the reasons behind his actions.
Likewise, Rorschach is an obsessed sociopath, one who aggressively and viciously pursues his brand of justice. The film doesn't really offer either Rorschach or Ozymandias as a character to identify with. While Ozymandias may be the driving force behind the story, and Rorschach may be the audiences vessel, the perspective through which they see the world, the audience is asked to identify with Dan Dreiberg aka Nite Owl.
Nite Owl is not a voice of nihilism, or of any particularly extreme ideology. He is a man struggling in day to day life, nostalgic for a past that he sees as having had more meaning, desperate for any relationship. He's put on weight after having given up being a superhero, but is still trapped in his past. He continues to visit another elderly and retired superhero each week, to relive old stores of the glory days of the past. Even once he takes up being a hero again briefly, he is still largely living in the shadow of the past. In his inability to live in the present, he's rendered largely powerless. Importantly, at the end of the film, as in the comic, despite his disgust and revulsion at Ozymandias actions, he stands aside and agrees to keep the secret; agreeing that the world can't afford to ever know the truth. While Dreiberg is a likeable character, and easy to identify with, it is telling that the audience is asked to identify primarily with someone who is essentially powerless and driven by nostalgia. There is an implication in this, that the audience sees themselves as being powerless, lost in the world. For all of Nite Owl's ability as a superhero, he offers no particular solution to this feeling. Certainly he is capable of rescuing people from a burning building, or of dealing with thugs on the street, and even of dealing with the guards in a prison. In the context of the problems of the film however, nuclear war and global catastrophe, he is incapable of really acting. More so, though he does set out to stop Ozymandias, once confronted with his inability to stop him having been too late, he gives up and goes along with keeping quiet. He cannot deal with the real problems that face the world, so he goes along with the plan of a man responsible for mass murder, because that man has a means of dealing with the worlds problems.
Other characters in the film offer more explicit philosophies behind their actions. The two most important ones are Rorschach and The Comedian. Rorschach, is a misanthropic sociopath. He sees only terrible things in the world, and so he lashes out vainly. His philosophy is summed up in his opening voice over.
Dog carcass in alley this morning, tire tread on burst stomach. This city is afraid of me. I have seen its true face. The streets are extended gutters and the gutters are full of blood and when the drains finally scab over, all the vermin will drown. The accumulated filth of all their sex and murder will foam up about their waists and all the whores and politicians will look up and shout “Save Us!” and I'll look down and whisper “no.” (Watchmen)
He cares nothing for the people of the world, indeed, he views all people as evil. He acts to punish evil, but not out of choice, but because he must. In addition to being a sociopath, he is obsessed. His actions are driven by mental disorder. Even while he appears to hold to a stringent moral code, he doesn't really have one, since he's incapable of making choices for himself. The character offers nothing but nihilism to the audience, and offers as the only means of escaping nihilism insanity that removes free will and individual choice. Still, his insanity is on one level a rejection of postmodern society. Unable to cope with the world, he has surrendered insanity. Lacking choice, any need to actually cope with the world is removed from him. In this way, he does not act at all, he simply moves. He is not a man who thinks, but an animal who moves.
Despite dying within the first few moments of the film, The Comedian offers another, competing perspective on how to deal with postmodern society. In his case, where Rorschach has gone insane, The Comedian has embraced nihilism. His name sums it all up, for him, the entire world is a joke. He has seen so many terrible things in the world, that he simply becomes one of the terrible things of the world himself, murdering a woman he got pregnant while fighting in Viet Nam without a second thought, simply because she cut his face. When Dr. Manhattan asks him about it, he correctly points out that Dr. Manhattan was fully capable of stopping it, of disintegrating the bullet in mid flight and chose not to act at all but to simply stand there and let the woman die. In this way, The Comedian is an existential ironist, his only purpose is to in his way, eradicate any real meaning.
The ironist's burden is to annihilate any meaning in the world, for to allow the possibility of any true heroism or any real tragedy would be to admit that the ironist's superior, belittling judgement does not, after all, reach everywhere. (Kukkonen 201)
The ideology of the ironist is nihilism, that there is no value or meaning in anything. The Comedian's actions embody this, even while he makes pretense of being a hero, and is indeed sanctioned by the government to act as one, he is also a murderer, rapist and general thug. He is distinguished from the criminals he goes after solely because he is sanctioned to do so. That the Comedian is sanctioned to behave as he does by the government implies that there is no meaning or value to be found in the state either. The state, in sanctioning his activities has become an accomplice to them, and taken for itself his own philosophy of nihilism.
If Ozymandias is a machiavellian megalomaniac who thinks nothing of the wholesale slaughter of millions of people, Rorschach is an obsessed sociopath, and The Comedian has embraced nihilism as his philosophy, what of Nite Owl who is after all, the one the audience is asked to identify with? As previously stated, he is powerless before the world, still, he acts from conscious choice, and tries to do the right thing. The problem here, is that even within the film, Nite Owl is not the real person or character, Dan Dreiberg, the man inside the suit is the real person. For Dreiberg, at least in the present time of the film, donning the costume isn't just about putting on a uniform before doing his job. After all, he is forbidden by law from acting as a costumed hero. For him, putting on the costume then, is about being someone else, about escaping into nostalgia. It is Nite Owl, however, who acts, and not Dreiberg. Indeed, Dreiberg is incapable of acting in any meaningful way when he doesn't have his costume on. He is even incapable of forming real human relationships without the costume.
This is perhaps most telling when Laurie Jupiter comes to Dreiberg seeking solace and companionship after Dr. Manhattan has left earth for Mars. He tries to console her, and they attempt to make love afterward, but both of them are unable to consummate the act at all. Later that night though, when they have both donned their old costumes, they are finally able to have sex and form a deep bond. Their friendship up until this point has been based entirely on their mutual nostalgia for their pasts as superheroes. After this, they seem to have turned a corner, basing their relationship on something in the world and not in nostalgia. However, they are not the ones who have formed a relationship, their costumed alter egos have formed a relationship. They remain trapped in the past, incapable of acting at all. Whereas, according to Morris, Batman and Superman are in fact their real identities and Bruce Wayne and Clark Kent are in fact the false alter egos, Dreiberg and Jupiter are the real people. Nite Owl and Silk Specter are simply characters, not even of their own creation; in the case of Dreiberg, Nite Owl was originally the costumed identity of Hollis Mason, and in the case of Laurie, Silk Specter was originally the costume of her mother Sally. Neither of them has even managed to create their own superhero identity, but have taken on the identity of another. In this way, while both Dreiberg and Laurie Jupiter are characters the audience identifies with, they represent nothing. In representing nothing and in being powerless, they come to represent nihilism. However, where The Comedian represents a radical nihilism that seeks to actively destroy meaning and prove that the world truly is meaningless and valueless, Dreiberg and Jupiter both represent a much more passive nihilism. They don't try and prove that the world is meaningless. Instead, they embody the utter meaninglessness of the world in their very being.
While there has been a tendency to link nihilism or the culture of deconstruction to postmodernism, the two are not synonymous. Indeed, nihilism is a response to conditions in postmodern society. While the culture of deconstruction, according to Moore, embraces the breakdown of boundaries and hierarchies present in postmodernism, it does so with no intention of actually changing anything. Instead, it embraces this breakdown solely as it can be used to represent reckless nihilistic abandon. Just as Moore asserts that some portions of the punk music movement embraced nihilism and the culture of deconstruction as a response to postmodernity, so to does the Watchmen film embrace and suggest nihilism as a response postmodernity.
In this way, the film actively rejects the salvation narrative. According to Wanzo, the salvation narrative is worth critiquing in the late twentieth and early twenty first centuries.
...resist the pleasures of the salvation narrative. Christian and superhero narratives similarly offer fantastic narratives of grand salvation in return for believing in the ideality of some moral arbiter of right and wrong. As superhero narratives have evolved, they have interrogated the pleasures offered by the belief in an ideal arbiter and a salvation mythos. Interrogations of the pleasures offered by those narratives are not out of place in the late twentieth- and early twenty-first centuries, as the Christian right rises in power and pushes for Christian ideology to be coterminous with the state. Revisionist superhero narratives provide a critique of the moral logic that runs through religious and national fables, suggestion that the construction of the citizenship ideals is often shaped by fear. (Wanzo 96)
While both the comic and the film can be read as critiquing the drive to utopia and the intrinsic salvation narrative in such a story, the film, in embracing nihilism, is going a step further. It does not simply critique the salvation narrative, or even reject it, but suggests that the alternative to the salvation narrative is nothing whatsoever. That rather than strive for utopia, people should instead do nothing, strive for nothing.
This is where the films ideology is most problematic. In embracing nihilism, it is also embracing the dystopian status quo that currently exists. The difference between this and Wolf-Meyer's conclusion that identification with Rorschach is identification with the conservative ideology that he represents in the comic, is one of how the ideology serves the state. The conservative ideology of the comic explicitly serves the state, and suggests that people actively work to maintain the status quo. The film, however, does not do this. Instead, it suggests doing nothing, and just allowing things to continue. The cost of embracing such an ideology is that other people will continue to act. Those in power will continue to act to preserve and strengthen their power, and those who embrace nihilism will be none the wiser. This is because according to nihilism, no one, not those in power nor those out of power are capable of making any difference whatsoever.
The film then, precisely because it appears as entertainment that suggests no values to the audience is in fact discourse that serves power. The film is a part of the ideological apparatus through which the conditions of society are most subtly maintained. This form of control also resists ready critique. While it is far from impossible to critique this ideological discourse, even the critique seems to have little power. The particular ideology of the film makes the critique all that more difficult, because according to nihilism, no critique will ever matter or amount to anything. In this way, the ideology of the film accounts for the very criticism it demands. This is what most clearly marks the film as being ideological, that any critique is always-already accounted for. The critique of nihilism and response to the critique are all subsumed within the ideology itself.
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