Upon a time, my son overheard me critiquing the movie WATCHMEN, and asked what I, supposing I had been hired as an author, would have done to revise the ending, or theme, or character arcs, to make the movie hale and sound?
How would I have filmed WATCHMEN?
It is a good question, worth pondering. My answer is: I would have filmed THE INCREDIBLES instead.
The comparison of the two films highlights the differences instructively.
Elsewhere I have described my admiration for WATCHMEN, as I watched it descent through the stages of reluctant admiration, mixed feelings, indifference, and then into a distaste deepening into contempt. I do not propose to repeat those observations here, nor perform that autopsy again.
Nor will I rob Alan Moore of the high praise of which his genius is due: he can be credited with inventing an entire genre and inspiring generation of epigones and imitators. This alone makes his name immortal, and elevates it above the crowded pantheon of lesser writers. He shares the empyrean throne along with such names as Thomas More, Edgar Alan Poe and Arthur Conan Doyle, along with Robert E Howard and JRR Tolkien (who invented the utopian, horror, detective, sword-and-sorcery, high fantasy).
But I will not doff my cap, but rather bite my thumb, at what Alan Moore here wrought. WATCHMAN is act of wanton deconstruction, desecration, and mockery of an entire genre. You have heard of antiheroes. Not until Alan Moore have we heard of antisuperheroes.
Let us compare. Both films have the same theme. In WATCHMAN, the supers are forced into retirement by the government; in INCREDIBLES, by out-of-control trial lawyers. Elastigirl becomes a housewife and raises three children, whereas Silk Specter becomes a paramour, fornicating with Doctor Manhattan, the human hydrogen bomb, at the behest of the government in order to keep him happy and under control. Mr Incredible becomes an insurance agent, trying to help a helpless little old lady on a fixed income, whereas Rorschach becomes a vigilante, trying to harm and terrify a harmless little old man who used to be a supervillain, now dying of cancer. Mr Incredible sees the world in simple terms of right and wrong, and the movie presents this as a correct view. Rorschach sees the world in stark terms of black and white, with no grays nor fine distinctions, and the movie presents this as utter insanity.
The plot is also parallel. A misunderstood and brilliant little boy, Buddy/Syndrome in INCREDIBLES and Adrian Veidt/Ozymandian in WATCHMAN, grows up wanting to be a superhero before the practice is outlawed. Both begin systematically killing supers (Gazerbeam, the Comedian) as part of a scheme to erect a pretend threat. Ozymandias’s motive is to terrify the Americans into making an alliance with the Soviets in order to prevent a thermonuclear war; Syndrome’s motive is to deconstruct and destroy the idea of superheroics, first by pretending to be one, then by giving his inventions to everyone, so that all men by being super are none of them super. Ironically, this is the motive of Alan Moore as well: to destroy the idea of all things superheroic by destroying the glamor.
Other parallels or echoes can be found. Elastigirl frets that Mr Incredible is committing adultery with Mirage; a fear that is false. Doctor Manhattan does not frets that Silk Specter is committing adultery with Nite Owl because, lacking free will, he really cannot fret about anything, and, technically, it is not adultery if one is cheating on one’s unwed paramour. The wholesome and natural nature of the worry of Elastigirl is contrasted with the unnatural and greasy nature of Silk Specter’s love triangle.
Mr Incredible, like Nite Owl, is overweight and out of shape and missing his glory days; and when an opportunity comes for a superhero mission, Mr Incredible lifts weights, gets in shape, buys a new car. Nite Owl is sexually impotent unless he is in his superhero costume.
And, in the final scene, when The Incredibles successfully halt the attack on the city by the Omnidroid, two pleasant old geezers, voiced by Stan and Ollie of Disney fame, are grateful, and compliment the act as ‘Old School’. Everyone is saved.
By contrast, when Nite Owl uses his Owl Ship to save tenants from a burning tenement, the old lady saved is cross and nasty, and Nite Owl swears at her. But not to worry: the old lady, and everyone else in New York, dies in the last reel.
For the Watchmen halt nothing and save no one: Ozymandias successfully kills millions of innocent people, and walks away not only unpunished, but indeed the heroes are punished. Dr Manhattan explodes the head of Rorschach, the hero, not Ozymandias, the villain, in a particularly sadistic and pointless act of Alan Moore sticking his thumb in the reader’s eye, just to emphasize the point that everything is pointless. Dr Manhattan then goes into outer space to create a new Earth and a new Adam and Eve. Whether this is meant to mock God for being indifferent to evil, or mock men who dare to play at being god, the event is greasy and unappealing either way. Since Rorschach already mailed his journal containing his suspicions to Rush Limbaugh of Fox News (or its equivalent) it is even odds that the plot of Ozymandias will be revealed anyway, and the end of the Cold War for which Ozymandias hoped be thwarted.
In the final reel of THE INCREDIBLES, the supers are back, and have resumed their proper place and role defending humanity, and protecting the type of life which allows a family to go to a High School track meet on a weekend. Violet has overcome her shyness; Dash is allowed to try out for sports; and even Jack-Jack has powers and a domino mask.
In WATCHMAN, the supers are either monsters (Ozymandias, Dr Manhattan) who have either symbolically or wholly lost their humanity, or murdered by the monsters The (Comedian, Rorschach), or living in hiding (Silk Specter, Nite Owl) and in any case, saving no one, and having no place and no role in society, which is slowly slouching into destruction anyway.
In THE INCREDIBLES, the villain pays the price for his villainy. Syndrome, jealous of the normal family life of Mr Incredible, attempts to kidnap Jack-Jack. Mr Incredible without a thought sacrifices his new car, a symbol of the glamor of heroism, to save his child, where his true love and true duty rests; and Syndrome is snagged by the hem of his cape, a symbol of his false desire to have the glamor of heroism without the heart and spirit of a hero, and is drawn into and killed by the engines of his own super-jet. Their suburban house, which was in a way a false front where they pretended, because of the ingratitude of the surrounding society, to be non-super, is destroyed in a ball of fire. The family itself is protected under Violet’s forcefield (a symbol of her love and confidence), where they are gathered, hugging each other, and the reaction of the destruction of all their worldly goods is to laugh. Because a family is not worldly goods, and the falsehood of their old life is swept away.
In WATCHMAN, the end theme and symbolism is the opposite. The Cold War is ended, and a new world order will emerge, based entirely on a lie concocted by Ozymandias, that is, the threat posed, in the movie, by Dr Manhattan (in the comic book it was alien invaders). But his dream of world peace is also a lie, because the halfwitted assistant in the rightwing tabloid paper where Rorschach sent his journal might arbitrarily decide to pick it up and publish it. Rorschach’s belief in simple right and wrong is a lie, since, like the mask he himself wears, there are no patterns in the universe, all is chaos, only the human mind tricks itself into seeing meaning there. The cynical poise of the Comedian, who regards life as a pointless joke and laughs at it, also is a lie, since he dies tormented by moral confusion — he had discovered the plan of Ozymandias and could not decide if it were right or wrong to use evil means to achieve good ends — and blubbering in tears.
The iconic imagine, oft repeated in the graphic novel as in the film, was the Comedian’s happy face pin streaked with blood, as clear a symbol as anyone can wish that happiness is to be rejected as a shallow and grossly ironic falsehood, since reality is nothing but bloodshed.
THE INCREDIBLES was a glorification of superiority, here shown to be not what the world applauds, but simple family life. Syndrome wants the glory of heroism without the heart of heroism; Mr Incredible starts with the glory, and regrets it loss for the first half of the film, and then realizes that the greatest adventure of all is the love of his wife and kids, and adventure his blindness almost caused him to miss.
In sum, THE INCREDIBLES was about life, about hope and happiness, and about everything.
In sum, WATCHMAN was a glorification of nihilism, failure, and meaninglessness. All acts of heroism are acts of self deception that end in death and despair.
One story is about life, about totality; the other story is about death, about nothingness. One is a story, and one is an antistory.
What is an antistory? For that matter, what is a story? Why tell them?
WATCHMAN, in effect, asks the question why we tell stories about heroes at all? His take is fairly clear from the tone of the work, but Mr Moore has said as much in interviews: he says that hero worship is dangerous, the cult of personality is dangerous. He regards it as irresponsible to admire a superior and heroic figure. The power such admiration grants to others is akin to a self imposed slavery. He says no one is special.
Moore, like most intellectuals of his generation, and all the halfwits of ours, think that superiority implies an innate right to rule and control the inferiors. This is the pagan view, the view of Marx and Nietzsche and every other half-baked philosopher the halfwits admire upholds. The civilized view, the chivalrous view, the Christian view, is precisely the opposite.
In the chivalrous view, the strong protect the weak because the weak, no matter how lowly and humble, are still the image and likeness of the divine, mirrors of heaven; and strength is not to be used for oneself.
In the chivalrous view, the superman receives no reward for his valor, for he does all his work anonymously, not even telling the girls he loves. The super strength of the comic superman means that the rules of morality hold him more strictly. In the Nietzsche view, being the superman means you are immune from normal morality: you must conquer, rape, and slay the weak. Here we can see that penniless men who penned a funnybook, Jerry Siegel and Joe Shuster, are wiser and deeper than that celebrated European intellectual, Nietzsche.
Moore, like most of the intellectuals of his generation, rejected the chivalrous and Christian ethos, and therefore rejected the solution to the problem of power. The idea of the strong using their strength for the benefit of the weak, or the wise using their wisdom for the benefit of the foolish, or the rich for the poor, we all dismissed as an excuse, a justification, an intellectual superstructure, a lie. The only way to prevent the abuse of strength and riches was not to use such things with good judgment. The only way to prevent the abuse of strength was to eliminate all strength, eliminate all judgment, make all handsome princes into cads, make all heroes into figures of contempt.
The solution was to change all stories into jeering.
THE INCREDIBLES, in effect, asks why we have heroes if the hero makes us, the normal civilians, feel like boobs? The scientific genius with no superpowers, Syndrome, attempts to equal the powers of the supers and fails; his plan is to make everyone super, so as to eliminate all superiority.
Now, this should cause every viewer a slight twinge of anxiety, because, as a democratic society, we cherish equality, and we actually do tell ourselves that everyone is special. But, as Dash Parr so aptly says, when everyone is special, no one is.
The point of telling stories, in ancient Greece as well as in the modern comic book, about demigods is not to propose that some men are superior to others, and that the superiors should rule.
The pagans had a simple rule about tales of the demigods: they were tragic, and came to bad ends. Every son of a god, from Achilles to Agamemnon, has some flaw which slowly upends his life, and he dies, each being shot by a coward or axed by a woman. This was to eliminate the jealousy one might feel toward’s one’s superiors, and also to show that those superiors were in turn inferior to the gods, to whom to challenge was hubris.
The Americas also has a simple rule: our tales are not tragic because our demigods come to good ends as long as they stay good. The tragedy in the life of Batman or Wonder Woman, or Superman comes at the beginning of life, not at the end, be it being orphaned, being exiled, or both. They do not rule the worlds they save, but serve them.
We tell such tales to tell our children how to treat power, that is, as an opportunity to serve and love those who lack power. It is meant to display the profound and profoundly beautiful mystical ideals of Western civilization, that wealth and pomp and power are false when sought for themselves, and that simpler things, love and family, are the path to paradise. Since we are raised in the West, we often cannot see how deeply odd and deeply radical this profession of faith is.
The pagans tell tragic tales of super beings in order to harden the young against jealousy toward their superiors, and to teach them to be stoical and content with their lot in life. Let no man misunderstand me: I admire the pagans. The short and tragic life of the noble and stoic hero is a thing to admire, to ogle with wonder, and to salute. But it is grim and sad and meant to be. If you have no taste for Greek tragedies, read Conan of Cimmeria stories: Robert E Howard captured the mood and theme well enough. Life is short and death is bitter, so do not waste tears weeping, but die like men.
Alan Moore, and the intellectuals of his generation, and the halfwits of ours, follow neither the noble and grim path of the pagan hero, nor the noble and transcendental vision of the chivalrous knight. What they do instead is sneer.
They sneer, they belittle, they berate, they roll their oh-so-sophisticated eyes, and shake their heads at normal and wholesome mysticism and call it impractical, unreal. They look at the mythology of the anonymous knight, let us say, of Nite Owl, but give him an erectile dysfunction, and make his acts of heroism a byproduct of a subconscious sublimation of erotic desire. See? All the heroism evaporates. He is the helpless victim of his buried neurotic impulses.
The concept is meant to stain and betray the image of Blue Beetle, or Batman, or any other caped vigilante, so that you, the reader, will not be able to see Batman again without bursting into laughter. And when you look at Green Hornet and Kato, you are meant to see that as homosexual lust in disguise, or racism, or whatever is needed to ruin your enjoyment of the tale. Superman is now an image of the establishment, the atom bomb, the square. A more realistic vision of the Superman, by their lights, is a naked blue man slowly losing all sympathy with humanity and all interest in earth, because supermen are beyond good and evil, and they can kill the hero and spare the villain with the same arbitrary power as any act of blind nature. The superman lacks all free will, and it trapped like a fly in amber in the unchanging future he foretells. Dr Manhattan is as helpless as Nite Owl.
Reality, for them, is defined a pointless failure. Their heroes have no tragic flaws because one needs an heroic character to mar with a tragic flaw in order for it to be a flaw.
Stories about helpless inhuman and neurotic persons with superpowers do not teach the stoicism and dignity of the pagan heroes. They teach whining and whinging. They certain do not teach chivalry and love of the knightly heroes.
All the do is detract from an ability to enjoy stories, either pagan or Christian, and rob the reader of any useful signposts and maps to guide him through life, and quench the northern star of high ideals.
Stories that exist only to ruin other stories are not satires. Satires have the same purpose as the stick which moves the ass who is not lured by the carrot. Satires exist within a moral framework to mock insincere and false professions in the framework: mocking Tartuffe, or the bad popes Dante placed in hell, does not mock Christianity but Phariseeism, the most ancient enemy of Christianity.
Stories that exist only to ruin other stories are anti-stories. They exist only in the modern age, where we live in a post-Christian hence post-rational, post-modern civilization, where the mental energy and intellectual activity of our lettered classes are preoccupied with uprooting all old growth of civilization, toppling its walls, and reducing us to a level below where the ancient pagans began. The antistory can only exist at the time of de-evolution.