It is not terribly surprising that Zach Synder’s film adaptation of Alan Moore’s “unfilmable” graphic novel Watchmen is receiving a mixed critical review.
The film’s subject material is intense and uncomfortable, and at nearly three hours long it is not afraid to make significant demands of its viewers.
Watchmen directly asks what no other superhero movie has ever had the courage or audacity to posit: Is society actually worth saving? In this sense Watchmen is not just about the flawed psychologies of its costumed adventurers; it is perhaps the first superhero movie to take the concept of universal sin seriously.
The traditional superhero film employs a formulaic template: Evil threatens the established social order until good intervenes. The roles of good and evil are clearly and easily defined. This simple narrative structure is built on two premises that, until recently, have gone unchallenged in the genre.
The first is the unambiguous coupling of the hero with the moral good and the villain with moral evil. Films like last year’s Ironman and, even more directly, The Dark Knight pushed against this premise and thrust the hero/villain relationship into a much more complicated world of moral ambiguity.
The second premise, though, has until now remained virtually unassailable, and it is this element that makes Watchmen so interesting and so difficult to digest. The second premise is that society is worth saving, that the social order under threat is worthy of salvation.
In most previous superhero films the desire to uphold the social order is simply taken as a given – society is good and it must be saved from the threat of evil. But in Watchmen the immediate crisis of mutually assured nuclear destruction is not caused by one discreet individual; there is no named villain.
Instead, the threat is posed by the morally bankrupt social order itself. Evil is not external to the social order; it is characteristic of it. As Watchmen member Rorschach states, “The world will look up and shout ‘Save us!’... And I'll whisper ‘No.’”
Even The Dark Knight, for all its stylized noir leanings, could not commit itself to such a radical vision of human sinfulness. This is made clear towards the film’s conclusion, when the Joker plants explosive devices aboard two separate ferries. The Joker provides each boat with the detonation device for the other’s bomb. The first boat to trigger the device will kill the passengers of the other boat, with the assurance that the Joker will spare their lives. If neither boat acts the Joker promises to detonate both bombs, killing all passengers. After some tense moments the passengers on both boats take the moral high ground; they are willing to sacrifice their own lives to avoid murder.
In The Dark Knight the social order is capable of generating its own redemptive moment when given the opportunity. Conversely, in Watchmen society is wholly incapable of such self-redemption, to the point that salvation must be violently inflicted upon them by external force.
The film leaves us to wonder what this all means. In a particularly poignant moment in the film, the hero Night Owl looks out on a murderous rampage by the sadistic hero (and his co-Watchman) The Comedian and asks, “What happened to the American Dream?” The Comedian responds, “It came true. You’re looking at it.”
In our current world of political discourse and economic crises, perhaps The Comedian’s response hits a little too close to home. Situated between a “war on terror” and world-wide economic collapse we inhabit a time where sin feels omnipresent. What we lack is a robust way to speak about it. We’ve lost the Niebuhrian sense of ourselves as our own most vexing problem. And yet just as the neo-orthodox theologians resurrected the notion of human sin in response to world war, so too must we find new ways to name and speak of our experiences.
In a certain way, films like this are the first steps in such a process because they show a world saturated in sin – a world that is sometimes uncomfortably too like our own.
Watchmen offers no easy answers, though. After all, the dominant narrative voice that structures most of the action is that of Rorschach, in every sense an absolutist and a fascist. We might think of Watchmen as the first segment of a traditional jeremiad, a literary text lamenting the moral failure of society and warning of its ultimate collapse without immediate and genuine repentance – but given the extreme pessimism of Watchmen’s anthropology one must wonder whether society, even when violently compelled, is capable of sustaining the momentum towards such repentance.
The unsettled feeling many experience leaving the cinema may come from the fact that this film, perhaps for the first time in the superhero genre, hints that it might already be too late to stop the Doomsday Clock.
(c) Kevin Boyd is Director of Field Education and Church Relations at the University of Chicago Divinity School. For the past several years he has served as Resident Chaplain at Rush University Medical Center.
With grateful acknowledgements to Sightings, and the Martin Marty Center  at the University of Chicago Divinity School, Illinois, USA.