Please note! This essay has been submitted by a student.
In Alan Moore’s Watchmen, he and artist Dave Gibbons reformulate the genre of superheroes. Illustrating an alternate reality that closely reflects the world of the 1980s, in which superheroes exist, Watchmen rewrites significant historical events from the war in Vietnam to Watergate. In this setting, the dividing line between good and bad results in all the characters meshing together in a hazy world of ethics. The story portrays no definitive answer as to who is right and wrong, the villain and the hero. Each major character symbolizes a different system of morality, each no better or worse than the other. The superhero novel differentiates from its predecessors as each “hero” (excluding Dr. Manhattan) has no powers, they’re utterly human. Like other humans, they struggle through various obstacles life has to offer from bullying to adultery. Yet what sets them apart is their minds and morality, each deep down desires to be a hero, and is what ultimately leads to them taking on the role. Moore creates these characters to establish a realistic world; by examining the differing morals and actions of three Watchmen, Dr. Manhattan, Rorschach, and Ozymandias, the reader can see that the novel creates a complex and opaque world that aims to debase the morally pure superhero novels that came before Watchmen.
Rorschach, a major character in Watchmen, narrates a considerable portion of the novel. In his narrations, he exposes the reader to his take on the cruel world that surrounds him through a multitude of journal entries. He embraces it and works tirelessly to expunge the evil he sees all around him. Rorschach symbolizes a black and white moral, hence his mask, a fabric that constantly shifts shapes in black and white yet never mixes; to him, no action lies in between. Being the spawn of an abusive prostitute who directly tells him she “shoulda had the abortion” (Moore, 182), he was raised into his famed demented personality. Without restraint, he punishes those who cross him as evil, while respecting the law. That is until he comes across a case that killed whatever remained of Walter Kovacs, the face that hides behind the shape-shifting mask. A gruesome kidnapping and murder of six-year-old Blaire Roche, Rorschach killed both the dog that devoured Blaire and Walter Kovacs, having come to the realization that he was “too soft on scum… Let them live” (Moore, 192). Said transformation results in him leaving the kidnapper chained up in his burning house with a saw to save himself, which he fails to do, as Rorschach stood outside the flames feeling “cleansed” (Moore, 204), as he listened to the screams as the kidnapper burned to a crisp. His means of handling justice differs from that of traditional superheroes, it contains depth, anguish, and a harsh uncompromising gruesomeness that superheroes that preceded Watchmen simply would not have the stomach or the desire to replicate.
In the matter of Ozymandias’s plan for world peace, Rorschach is the only member of the Watchmen who rebels against how it is executed. As aforementioned, his moral is black and white, good and bad with no in-between. Though Ozymandias’s actions resulted in peace among warring countries, millions of lives were slaughtered in order to achieve so. In Rorschach’s mind, such a deed was black, no matter how white the outcome was. His morals hinder him from letting the lie of an alien attack be responsible for the deaths of millions of lives live on. Being a man who never compromises, he would rather die than allow an action of grey morality go unpunished, and so Dr. Manhattan ended his life. Superheroes prior to Watchmen have shown cases of sacrifice, yet them doing so is always for the greater good. However, Rorschach’s own morals could not let him see past the grey, and so he chose to die rather than a peaceful world built on a horrible lie.
While Rorschach represents an extreme morality, Dr. Manhattan represents another. A survivor of a nuclear accident, Dr. Manhattan possesses an infinite arsenal of abilities, from telekinesis to seeing past/present/and future all at once, he is essentially a god. Despite an infinite measure of abilities, his one flaw is a borderless moral. He sees neither good nor bad, but however, an ongoing timeline with meaningless events. As a result, stands by while injustices ensue without interference. While in Vietnam, he stood idly by while The Comedian is about to shoot a woman pregnant with his child, simply saying “Blake don’t … do it” (Moore, 56-57) and shows no sign of shock, horror, or support as The Comedian guns her down. Despite his ability to easily “change the gun into steam, or the bullets into mercury” (Moore, 57) and his knowledge of the present, Dr. Manhattan displays a disregard for human life. His indifference towards humans vastly contrasts from that of traditional superheroes, that in which if they were to possess his set of abilities, would use their power to rescue the pregnant woman and subdue The Comedian. It is his indifference towards humans that set Dr. Manhattan back from being the ultimate superhero.
Though Dr. Manhattan possesses an inability to choose between right or wrong, he weighs the factors in which the outcome of an event poses of importance. Thus explains why he will ignore simple crimes, yet worked with the government to prevent a nuclear apocalypse. When he learns of Ozymandias’s use of his own powers to execute said nuclear fallout, he came to realize the consequential good in actions of Ozymandias and saw no value in undoing what he had done. When Ozymandias asks Dr. Manhattan if in the end what he did was right, he simply replies that “nothing ever ends” (Moore, 409). He neither praises nor condemns him, only implying that human’s actions hold no purpose or finality, and reestablishes his neutrality in the moral spectrum. Dr. Manhattan’s cosmic perception of the insignificance of human actions that allow injustices to occur disconnects him from superheroes prior to Watchmen who do possess superpowers.
While Rorschach and Dr. Manhattan represent two opposites of morality, Ozymandias personifies the grey area of the spectrum. No example is better than his successful plan of faking an alien invasion to be responsible for the deaths of millions in order to establish world peace. Referring to his vision for the world as a “dazzling transformation” (Moore, 373) conveys his perception of his actions as morally correct despite his responsibility for the death of millions. When Night Owl confronts him and his plans, Ozymandias replies “Hitler said people swallow lies easily, providing they’re big enough” (Moore, 374), he believes that though there will be suffering, even of those who are innocent, the outcome of a greater good condones the partial global genocide. Notice when referencing Hitler, both men, though blind to the death and suffering enforced when enacting their plans, believed it was for the greater good. Although he achieved establishing world peace, Ozymandias did so in a manner that superheroes outside of Watchmen would never hope to recreate. Ozymandias defied what was expected of a hero, and achieved the good through doing the unspeakable.
Alan Moore’s Watchmen offers no correct morality, only the extremity through the actions of the major characters. Being morally grey, the characters take the novel in a direction that supersedes the ethically pure superhero novels published prior and leads into a dark and rather realistic setting. Dr. Manhattan’s infinite abilities and view of time render his view on suffering as insignificant compared to the universe. Rorschach, however, is tremendously affected by suffering, his rigid views on the black and white in the world render him unable to refrain from interfering with evil. And Ozymandias wants what’s best for the world, yet will resort to any means necessary in order to do so. Watchmen is not your traditional superhero novel, which in the past was predominantly good vs evil, but its uniqueness is what makes it so valuable to the superhero genre.