See my preliminary (and somewhat reactionary) thoughts on this movie: https://shotgunwildatheart.wordpress.com/2009/03/09/watchmen-preliminary-discussions-warning-this-blog-contains-strong-language/
Streets stank of Fire. The void breathed hard on my heart turning its illusions to ice, shattering them. Was reborn then, free to scrawl own design on this morally blank world. – Rorschach , Watchmen chapter VI page 26.
Our struggle from the primal ooze, every childbirth, every personal sacrifice rendered meaningless, leading only to dust, tossed on the void-winds. – Adrian Veidt, Watchmen chapter XI page 22.
Man before God is the only alternative to man in the void. – Cornelius Van Til, Psychology of Religion pg. 73.
Since the dawn of mankind our species has been at constant war with our own finitude. When Adam and Eve ate the forbidden fruit they acknowledged their lordship over God thereby establishing a faux moral realm of neutrality in which they were free to act: a void.
The constant enemy man faces is his own nature; his own lack of god-hood. To admit this would disclose that he does not live in the void at all, but is rather a subject. A helpless and derivative being existing in total servitude to the true Lord of all reality. This, fallen man cannot and must not admit to. For eternity he will strive to cover up this blasphemy.
The Lord of the cosmos is a loving and gracious God. In His kindness, He has granted me and many others infinite forgiveness. He sent His one and only son to die a humiliating death that we foul beasts may arise from the void and regain our place as His righteous vice regents over the created realm.
There arises from this a basic dichotomy among men. We regenerate are pitted against those who cherish the void. All of our history can be understood in terms of this basic gospel message. It is with this in mind that R.J. Rushdoony wrote the following:
“The purpose of Biblical history is to trace the victory of Jesus Christ. That victory is not merely spiritual; it is also historical. Creation, man, and man’s body, all move in terms of a glorious destiny for which the whole creation groans and travails as it awaits the fullness of that glorious liberty of the sons of God (Rom. 8:18-23). The victory is historical and eschatological, and it is not the rejection of creation but it’s fulfillment.” – Rushdoony, The Biblical Philosophy of History pp. 25-26.
In opposition to this we find various different schools of humanist thought and historical interpretation.
Alan Moore, author of “The Watchmen” cherishes the void and wishes to maintain his own god-hood by denying the power of the cross in history. His novel, and the subsequent movie adaptation, demonstrate a clear understanding of what is at stake. Unfortunately his view of the matter is more accurate than many Christians would admit; a fact that compels me to write this review for purposes of education and warning.
Upon realizing possible implications of the theory of thermodynamics, the co-founder of communism, Frederick Engels writes:
“…we arrive at the conclusion that in some way, which it will later be the task of scientific research to demonstrate, the heat radiated into space must be able to become transformed into another form of motion, in which it can once more be stored up and rendered active. Thereby the chief difficulty in the way of the reconversion of extinct suns into incandescent vapour disappears.
For the rest, the eternally repeated succession of worlds in infinite time is only the logical complement to the co-existence of innumerable worlds in infinite space….It is an eternal cycle in which matter moves, a cycle that certainly only completes its orbit in periods of time for which our terrestrial year is no adequate measure, a cycle in which the time of highest development, the time of organic life and still more that of the life of beings conscious of nature and of themselves, is just as narrowly restricted as the space in which life and self-consciousness come into operation; a cycle in which every finite mode of existence of matter, whether it be sun or nebular vapour, single animal or genus of animals, chemical combination or dissociation, is equally transient, and wherein nothing is eternal but eternally changing, eternally moving matter and the laws according to which it moves and changes.” – Frederick Engels, Dialectics of Nature pp. 23-24.
To allow scientific principal to highlight a possible future end of man (as thermodynamics may) is to propose the death of man’s god-hood thereby destroying the illusion of the void. Engels cannot allow this and so, along with many pagan cultures of the past, he posits an eternal history of cyclical motion. An infinite nature of infinite causal events.
“…we have the certainty that matter remains eternally the same in all its transformations, that none of its attributes can ever be lost, and therefore, also, that with the same iron necessity that it will exterminate on the Earth its highest creation, the thinking mind, it must somewhere else at another time again produce it.” IBID p. 25
The Watchmen is a story with a complex message. Drawing upon the view of history highlighted by Engels; Alan Moore seeks to present a serious moral quandary to his characters having them ultimately resolve it in a way that preserves the void and demonstrates the foolishness of Christian society all in one stroke.
It all started, (according to Hollis Mason, the original Night Owl) in 1938: “The year when they invented the super-hero.” It was in 1938 (according to the story) that the first issue of Action Comics came out and people were fascinated by tales of super heroes. Riding this wave of enthusiasm, a “hooded vigilante” intervenes to stop a mugging.
Others were inspired and soon afterwards an alliance of colorful citizens assembled to fight crime. Over the years for various reasons, they retire or get themselves killed. Further adding to the doom of this group’s optimism was the horrific transformation of scientist Jon Osterman into the god-like character Dr. Manhattan. As Mason declares to Dr. Manhattan, “With someone like you around, the whole situation changes. You can do anything. All I got to offer is a good left hook.”
The introduction of Dr. Manhattan plays on a common humanistic theme that man will eventually be able to make himself into something more than “human” and escape the horrible notion of the true God once and for all. (See Erik J. Wielenberg‘s “Value and Virtue in a Godless Universe” specifically chapter 4.) This theme is prominent throughout the story as characters react to Dr. Manhattan and can be seen in his own dialogue. It is also crucial for the development of the main message in the film, demonstrating that man can become his own god.
The old group of heroes retire, but a new generation arises to take their place. Their actions, along with the strict control over society by the god-like Dr. Manhattan (who teleports people around and disintegrates them at will) causes political strife in the nation and eventually leads to legislation against all vigilantes. Some of the heroes go into hiding, some expose their identities in order to capitalize on them, and others remain legally active, working for the government.
In the background of this story, relations between the Soviet Union and America are declining. They face off over Afghanistan after America’s victory in Vietnam (thanks to Dr. Manhattan.) The harsh realities of this Cold-War world, as well as the anti-vigilante legislation, strike at the heart of the new alliance of heroes and eventually drives them apart.
The novel begins with the murder of one of these heroes, “The Comedian.” In response, Rorschach (who refused to quit adventuring despite the new law) launches an investigation. Being characteristically paranoid, he believes that someone is out to kill all the ex-superheroes. His suspicions prove true when someone tries to kill Adrian Veidt, aka: Ozymandias, the so called “smartest man in the world.” Events spiral out of control when Dr. Manhattan is driven into seclusion and Rorschach is arrested.
With three of the heroes disposed of, and an attempt on the life of a fourth, Night Owl and Ms. Jupiter dust off their old uniforms and go to spring Rorschach from prison. Meanwhile the Cold War escalates and nuclear war is immanent.
Night Owl and Ms. Jupiter (aka Silk Spectre II) rescue Rorschach and escape to safety. Upon arrival Jupiter finds Dr. Manhattan waiting for her. (The two were romantically involved and while in seclusion on Mars, Manhattan sensed Jupiter’s need for him prompting his return.) He teleports them both to Mars where Ms. Jupiter tries to persuade him to stop the impending nuclear war.
During this conversation, author Alan Moore makes his view of history and “meaning“ abundantly clear. It is difficult to see how Frederick Engels could disagree with much of the following dialogue between Manhattan and Jupiter:
Dr. M: I don’t think your life’s meaningless.
Ms. J: You don’t?
Dr. M: No.
Ms. J: But…listen, you’ve just been saying life is meaningless, so how can…?
Dr. M: I changed my mind.
Ms. J: But why?
Dr. M: Thermodynamic miracles…events with odds against so astronomical they’re effectively impossible, like oxygen spontaneously becoming gold. I long to observe such a thing. And yet, in each human coupling, a thousand million sperm vie for a single egg. Multiply those odds by countless generations against the odds of your ancestors being alive, meeting, siring this precise son, that exact daughter, until your mother loves a man she has every reason to hate, and of that union, of the thousand million children competing for fertilization it was you, only you, that emerged. To distill so specific a form from that chaos of improbability like turning air to gold. That is the crowning unlikelihood. The thermodynamic miracle.
Ms. J: But…if me, my birth, if that’s a thermodynamic miracle…I mean, you could say that about anybody in the world!
Dr M: Yes. Anybody in the world.
Here we find the ultimate attempt at fallen man to find meaning and purpose for himself from out of the chaos of the void. Earlier in the discussion, Dr. Manhattan discloses his disbelief in any creator. He says:
Perhaps the world is not made. Perhaps nothing is made. Perhaps it simply is, has been, will always be there…a clock without a craftsman. – Watchmen, chapter IV page 28.
Alan Moore puts this same concept in the mouth of Rorschach who supposed to be representing a different view of the world. We can see, however, that he has the exact humanistic and fallen view of history as Dr. Manhattan.
Existence is random. Has no pattern save what we imagine after staring at it for too long. No meaning save what we choose to impose. This rudderless world is not shaped by vague metaphysical forces. It is not God who kills the children. Not fate that butchers them or destiny that feeds them to the dogs. It’s us. Only us. Streets stank of fire. The void breathed hard on my heart, turning its illusions to ice, shattering them. Was reborn then, free to scrawl own design on this morally blank world. Was…Rorschach. – Watchmen, chapter VI page 26.
Thus in the dialogue between Ms. Jupiter and Dr. Manhattan we find this concept of “meaning emerging from the void” made manifest. This ideology has had profound effects on human action throughout history leading to all sorts of institutionalized depravity. (1)
When all notion of God is done away with in favor of the void then it is only the power of man that can dictate what is right and wrong. As Rorschach says, after accepting the void he was then free to scrawl his own design on a morally blank world.
While Ms. Jupiter is on Mars with Dr. Manhattan; Night Owl and Rorschach discover that Adrian Veidt (Ozymandias) is the man behind the conspiracy to dispose of the heroes. They track him to his fortress in Antarctica where Veidt quickly overpowers them and lays out his plan.
He had genetically engineered a giant, psychic squid which he hoped to teleport into downtown New York. Upon arrival the squid would die (the fate of all teleported objects) and release a psychic wave, killing millions. This,Veidt hoped, would cause the world to unite in peaceful cooperation against what they perceived as a common, extra-terrestrial, threat. His plan was successful, having been carried out strategically, leaving Night Owl and Rorschach helpless to stop it.
Dr. Manhattan and Ms. Jupiter teleport from Mars to New York where they see the massive devastation and the remains of the squid. Dr. Manhattan quickly figures out the source of the problem and teleports them both to Antarctica where they meet up with the others.
After assessing the situation, the group of heroes decide collectively to keep silent about the true nature of the disaster, preferring to hide the truth rather than risk the new-found peace. All of them, except for Rorschach, who stubbornly walks out of the fortress. He is brutally murdered by the god-like Dr. Manhattan.
From watching the movie, Rorschach’s intentions were unclear since his diatribe about a meaningless universe was left out while his words about God were left in. It lead the viewer to think initially that perhaps this, coupled with his frequent discussion of the depravity of society, meant that Rorschach’s character was displaying a sort of Christian ethic.
After reading the novel, it is abundantly clear that he was simply holding (however righteously) to his own higher standard of morality. If Rorschach could violently impose his will on the world, then so could Dr. Manhattan, and in the end, it looked as if Rorschach was consistent in this view. He didn’t try to run or stop his own murder (not that he could have.) He literally accepted that his view of morality and Dr. Manhattan’s were different, and Manhattan had the power to enforce whatever he wanted.
The closing dialogue between Veidt and Manhattan is especially telling:
V: I know I’ve struggled across the backs of murdered innocents to save humanity…but someone had to take the weight of that awful, necessary crime. I’d hoped you’d understand, unlike Rorschach…
M: …yes I understand, without condoning or condemning. Human affairs cannot be my concern. I’m leaving this galaxy for one less complicated.
V: But you’d regained interest in Human life…
M: Yes, I have. I think perhaps I’ll create some. Good bye Adrian.
V: Jon, wait, before you leave…I did the right thing, didn’t I? It all worked out in the end.
M: In the end? Nothing ends Adrian. Nothing ever ends.
Well, I thank God that Engels, Moore, and Dr. Manhattan were wrong or else this travesty of a novel may have gone on indefinitely. To spiral on and on forever, spawning, destroying, then re-spawning consciousness would be utter Hell. In the end, that is all the chaotic void turns out to be. The death of all possible meaning and all possible freedom or happiness.
Perhaps the final joke will be on Alan Moore after all, because, just like the stranded mariner in a particular sub-story running throughout the “Watchmen” novel…he will in the end become the very thing he hated the most. He will gain total interdependence from God…thus integrating himself fully and consistently into the void…destroying all possibility of rational existence for the rest of eternity. (2)
If he screams loud enough in Hell, I wonder if Dr. Manhattan will save him?
(1): This depravity includes modern trends in the art world. Humanism and postmodernism have drastically affected the way modern artists view language, meaning, beauty and art. The Wikipedia entry for Alan Moore notes that he is considered a pioneer for applying “formalist sensibilities” to the genre. This is clearly an example of his formalist (postmodern and existential) sensibilities being displayed through the moral convictions of his characters.
(2): This is a somewhat controversial view of Hell. I’ll not take a dogmatic stand on it for now. I will admit that due to God’s nature, no creature, even those in Hell can fully escape His Lordship. I believe He will abstain His providential blessings from those in Hell to such a degree that they can no longer make sense of the myriad of experiences their brains encounter and will be reduced to an infinite state of pure existentialism where all that exists is the “now.” A “now” filled with pain, humility, dishonor, and incoherent thought. Such is the true nature of the void.