Wednesday, September 10, 2008

The Clockwork Despair of Watchmen

It's 1985. Richard Nixon is still president of the United States. The Soviet Union is making aggressive moves, threatening nuclear doomsday. Everyone drives electric cars. And superheroes are real. Sort of.

Published between 1986 and '87, Watchmen is the only graphic novel on Time magazine's top 100 English-language novels list. Winner of the prestigious Hugo award, Watchmen was written by Alan Moore, illustrated/lettered by David Gibbons, and colored by John Higgins.

It's also coming to the silver screen in March 2009 as a big budget Hollywood movie, which has led me to investigate Watchmen further. I plan to post a lengthier review and critique as the film release date approaches, but for now consider this my first impressions/mini-review. By the way, any media we encounter is open to critical and fair evaluation, especially when it garners wide attention in popular culture.

Although superheroes are a reality in the world of Watchmen, only one of them - possibly two - really has anything close to "powers," while the rest are mere mortals serving as vigilantes for various reasons. The characters have interesting and at times disturbing psychological profiles, filled in by flashbacks.

There is the no-compromising Rorschach, who believes in good and evil, but has a number of psychological problems.

There is Jon Osterman, alias Dr. Manhattan, who, through a freak accident (yeah, it's a comic book after all) has become a real superman of sorts. He also happens to have worldview inclinations favoring deism.

Ozymandias (Adrian Veidt) is a retired superhero, purportedly the smartest man in the world, who views the human predicament as dire, but has a plan to save the world, so to speak. Veidt happens to be driven by ideas comparable to those of the human potential movement.

The Comedian is amoral, recognizing the frailty and apparent hopelessness of the human condition, he's in it to have as much "fun" as he can while it lasts. But he sees the bleak end game of humanity.

What interests me in particular has to do with the philosophies and worldviews behind Watchmen. In short, the underlying worldview present through much of Watchmen is that of nihilism or what I refer to as the hopeless worldview. Nihilism sees life and existence as meaningless and undirected. I argue that nihilism is actually the logical conclusion of atheism as well as deism.

In the case of deism, god is said to have crafted the universe much like a watchmaker crafts a timepiece, but then the craftsman - god - has left it to run on its own. The title of the graphic novel, of course, is possibly suggestive of deism given the greater context of the ideas and story.

But one need not merely guess at the deism of Watchmen by the title alone, as there are a number of more explicit references indicative of the deism underlying the story such as one segment that reads, "the cold, distant God ... Had he been there once, but now departed?" The nihilism is present seemingly throughout the narrative, beginning with Rorschach's opening journal entry, despite the fact that at one point Rorschach says, "Nothing is hopeless. Not while there's life."

Blaise Pascal argued that the greatness and wretchedness evident in human beings is a puzzle that only Christianity adequately solves (see my article on this argument). Watchmen definitely plays up the wretchedness of human beings at the expense of human greatness. Only one character appears to have real hope for humanity, but his worldview is based on human potential, leaving God out of the picture completely.

In the end, Watchmen offers a clockwork universe of despair. In this sense it is in some ways accurate of the true nature of the human condition - fallen, depraved, and hopeless. "Meaningless! Meaningless!" says the Teacher of Ecclesiastes. "Utterly meaningless! Everything is meaningless" (Ecclesiastes 1:2).

But Watchmen leaves out the conclusion of the Teacher of Ecclesiastes; namely, that there is hope and meaning, but only if it is rightly focused on God and His truth. Through Christ we have hope, not despair. The "God who is there" is also the God who cares and is active in His creation. He is not merely a watchmaker, but sustains the universe moment-by-moment, working His providence and guiding a purposeful history.

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