Morality and Competing Ideologies in Watchmen
Despite it being a superhero story, within the graphic novel Watchmen there is no clear assertion of who is to be considered a hero and who is to be considered a villain. Rather, there is a spectrum of morally grey characters, and what is deemed a right or wrong action is transformed greatly depending on each character’s perception. By looking at the conflicting beliefs and actions of three characters in Watchmen, Dr. Manhattan, Rorschach, and Ozymandias, we can see that the novel creates a complex and often ambiguous world meant to subvert the pure, morally good superhero narratives that preceded it.
Dr. Manhattan does not see things as good or evil, just as meaningless events in an endless timeline, and as a result allows injustices to occur without concern. In Vietnam, when Dr. Manhattan sees the Comedian about to shoot a pregnant woman, he says, “Blake don’t . . .” (56) and “. . . do it.”(57) is carried over to the next panel. The placing of this dialogue makes it look as though Dr. Manhattan is telling Blake to do it in the second panel, the same panel where we see his gun firing. Seeing the duality of Dr. Manhattan telling Blake “dont” and then “do it” blurs the meaning of his words and allows us to consider that perhaps he really did not care to stop Blake. While he is not in support of Blake, he is also not horrified as a normal human would be. Blake points out that Dr. Manhattan was entirely capable of stopping him if he really wanted to, making him just as responsible for the pregnant woman’s death. Dr. Manhattan’s apathy and flimsy attempt at opposing Blake shows the truth about his disregard for human life. In the last chapter of Watchmen, Ozymandias asks Dr. Manhattan if he did the right thing in the end and Dr. Manhattan replies,“Nothing ever ends” (409). What is considered good and what is considered evil depends on the effects those things have. From Dr. Manhattan’s perspective, human suffering does not have any effect on the universe and therefore doesn’t matter. By saying, “Nothing ever ends.”(409), he is explaining that there is no final meaning or purpose to any human actions. He is not encouraging or condemning Ozymandias’s actions with this statement, but remaining neutral just like the universe itself. These two scenes are examples of how Dr. Manhattan’s superhuman perception of the world creates a disconnect from human morality, leading him to allow injustices to occur.
Rorschach has an extremely rigid moral stance which he enforces in his work as a vigilante. His mask itself is a symbol of this. “Black and white. Moving. Changing shape . . . but not mixing. No gray.”(188). The binary of black and white is the same as the binary of good and evil in Rorschach’s mind. His simplistic way of speaking also reflects his simplistic way of categorizing the world into good and evil. Interestingly, Rorschach’s calling to fight crime does not come from a belief that he is morally superior and therefore qualified to judge the world, but from hatred and guilt for the evils humans are capable of. “I took the remains of the unwanted dress . . . and I made a face that I could bear to look at in the mirror.” (188). Here, Rorschach talks about the creation of his mask, and we can see that becoming a vigilante was a sort of atonement for him. He cannot bear to look at himself in the mirror as a normal person who is complacent despite knowing all of the horrors that are taking place in the world. As Rorschach, he is able to do something about it. In this way, Rorschach is the opposite of Dr. Manhattan. He is deeply invested in human suffering rather than indifferent and his stance is harsh and uncompromising rather than vague.
While Rorschach and Dr. Manhattan represent two different extremes, Ozymandias epitomizes the moral grey area. There is not better example of this than his faked alien invasion, meant to unite earth and save humans from destroying each other. He describes what he will do to the world as “A dazzling transformation.” (373). The positive connotations of this statement reveal that he sees his plan as morally right despite the fact that he will kill millions of people. He is correct in assuming that his plan will better the political situation in the world, and he believes that this justifies the consequences. Rorschach frequently hurts and kills criminals, but defends the innocent. Ozymandias believes that any suffering, even innocent suffering can be condoned if it leads to a greater good. When asked about his plan by Nite Owl, Ozymandias says, “Hitler said people swallow lies easily, provided they’re big enough.”(374). His quoting of Hitler reminds us of how Ozymandias is similar to the dictator: both believed they were bettering the world through the use of genocide. The comparison to Hitler shows us just how blind to suffering and death that Ozymandias is when it serves his plan for the world.
The graphic novel Watchmen provides us no correct take on morality, with each character having vastly different views on what is right and wrong. The morally grey characters create a novel which subverts the typical morally pure superhero stories which preceded it in favor of a dark and complicated, more realistic world. Dr. Manhattan perceives time on a much more vast scale than humans, and it therefore indifferent to human suffering as nothing truly matters compared against the size of the universe. Rorschach is the opposite: he is deeply affected by human suffering. He has rigid ideas of good and evil and cannot bear to stand by while there is evil he is capable of stopping. Ozymandias wants to do good for humanity, but will employ very extreme and harmful tactics to achieve it, as we can see in his faked alien invasion plan. Watchmen is anything but a simple good vs. evil story, which is exactly why it is such a valuable commentary on the superhero genre.
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