Watchmen — Justice, Accountability, and Distopia

Film:Watchmen Poster

Watchmen, 2009

Starring Billy Crudup, Malin Akerman, Jackie Earle Haley, Jeffrey Dean Morgan, and Patrick Wilson.

Synopsis (from IMDB):

In a gritty and alternate 1985 the glory days of costumed vigilantes have been brought to a close by a government crackdown, but after one of the masked veterans is brutally murdered an investigation into the killer is initiated. The reunited heroes set out to prevent their own destruction, but in doing so discover a deeper and far more diabolical plot.

My Thoughts:

I am the type of person that enjoys lighthearted films, films that make me laugh and pick me up, films that inspire.  That being said, sometimes gritty, raw, and dark films can also inspire.  Watchmen is definitely a downer, as one can tell from the opening credits as the heroes fall from favor as society turns against them and they must go into hiding.  But there is a lot we can learn from these dark emotions that Watchmen so artfully invokes.

I have talked about justice before, but this film focuses so heavily on it that I feel it is important to discuss again.  In an ideal society government would function in a way to serve and protect its citizens.  Unfortunately in this universe, during World War II society needed assistance.  The Watchmen formed and were initially heralded as heroes, though soon were villianized as vigilantes.

Much of this had to do with the Watchmen wearing masks.  This anonymity gave the appearance of a lack of accountability as the public rallied crying “Who watches the Watchmen”?

O SON OF BEING! Bring thyself to account each day ere thou art summoned to a reckoning; for death, unheralded, shall come upon thee and thou shalt be called to give account for thy deeds. ~ Bahá’u’lláh

Accountability is important.  Afterall the film, as well as the graphic novel it is based on, showed that there were reasons for the people to be weary of the Watchmen.  They were just people too, afterall, and while some had noble intentions, others, like the Comedian, acted on more base instincts.

But the film does not stop on the surface level of accountability.  As we can see in the current economic crisis, people without masks can be just as wreckless as those who remain hidden.  In the movie this comes to light through the one living Watchman who had “gone public”.  He was viewed honorably and as a hero and a successful businessman, but he turned out to be the most deadly of all, whereas others like Night Owl had a strong moral compass that kept them accountable even masked.

I think that is a lesson we can all take to heart in our own lives and meditate on the true meaning of accountability.  For those who believe in God,ultimate accountability rests in His hands.  I think Watchmen really plays with the idea of loss of accountability.  This distopia lacked God, it lacked government, it lacked a social contract.  In that system it is little wonder that Ozymandias could see the sacrifice of several million people for peace as valid.  We can see how tragedy can unite people, and through unity peace can be achieved.  Maybe it was valid argument, but Ozymandias does not have the right to make that choice.

How can we build unity?  In a way that does not resort to destruction like it did in Watchmen.  I see this movie, and graphic novel as warning, a look into a world unchecked.  Some people see our world like that, but it does not have to be.  We can make good choices, and keep ourselves accountable.

I think I will end this post with a beautiful story from Persian culture about another Watchman.  I think it has a lot to do with seeing the end in the beginning, which was a theme of this film as well.  Rorschach could see there was something wrong before the others could, but he could not see the end as quickly as he would have liked.  Ozymandias believed the end was just.  Dr. Manhattan withdrew from humanity.  The difference, or perhaps similarity if you share Ozymandias’ point of view, is that the end in this scenario is good.   Perhaps the people should have listened to the Watchman, which watchman is up to you.  Without further ado, the story as recounted by Bahá’u’llá

There was once a lover who had sighed for long years in separation from his beloved, and wasted in the fire of remoteness. From the rule of love, his heart was empty of patience, and his body weary of his spirit; he reckoned life without her as a mockery, and time consumed him away. How many a day he found no rest in longing for her; how many a night the pain of her kept him from sleep; his body was worn to a sigh, his heart’s wound had turned him to a cry of sorrow. He had given a thousand lives for one taste of the cup of her presence, but it availed him not. The doctors knew no cure for him, and companions avoided his company; yea, physicians have no medicine for one sick of love, unless the favor of the beloved one deliver him.

At last, the tree of his longing yielded the fruit of despair, and the fire of his hope fell to ashes. Then one night he could live no more, and he went out of his house and made for the marketplace. On a sudden, a watchman followed

after him. He broke into a run, with the watchman following; then other watchmen came together, and barred every passage to the weary one. And the wretched one cried from his heart, and ran here and there, and moaned to himself: “Surely this watchman is Izrá’íl, my angel of death, following so fast upon me; or he is a tyrant of men, seeking to harm me.” His feet carried him on, the one bleeding with the arrow of love, and his heart lamented. Then he came to a garden wall, and with untold pain he scaled it, for it proved very high; and forgetting his life, he threw himself down to the garden.

And there he beheld his beloved with a lamp in her hand, searching for a ring she had lost. When the heart-surrendered lover looked on his ravishing love, he drew a great breath and raised up his hands in prayer, crying: “O God! Give Thou glory to the watchman, and riches and long life. For the watchman was Gabriel, guiding this poor one; or he was Isráfíl, bringing life to this wretched one!”

Indeed, his words were true, for he had found many a secret justice in this seeming tyranny of the watchman, and seen how many a mercy lay hid behind the veil. Out of wrath, the guard had led him who was athirst in love’s desert to the sea of his loved one, and lit up the dark night of absence with the light of reunion. He had driven one who was afar, into the garden of nearness, had guided an ailing soul to the heart’s physician.

Now if the lover could have looked ahead, he would have blessed the watchman at the start, and prayed on his behalf, and he would have seen that tyranny as justice; but since the end was veiled to him, he moaned and made his plaint in the beginning. Yet those who journey in the garden land of knowledge, because they see the end in the beginning, see peace in war and friendliness in anger.

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2 thoughts on “Watchmen — Justice, Accountability, and Distopia

  1. The story at the end reminded me of a Zen story called The Farmer’s Luck:

    An old farmer had worked his crops for many years. One day his horse ran away. Upon hearing the news, his neighbors came to visit. “Such bad luck,” they said sympathetically. “Maybe,” the farmer replied.
    The next morning the horse returned, bringing with it three other wild horses. “Such good luck!” the neighbors exclaimed. “Maybe,” replied the old man.
    The following day, his son tried to ride one of the untamed horses, was thrown, and broke his leg. The neighbors again came to offer their sympathy on his misfortune. “Such bad luck,” they said sympathetically. “Maybe,” answered the farmer.
    The day after, military officials came to the village to draft young men into the army. Seeing that the son’s leg was broken, they passed him by. The neighbors congratulated the farmer on how well things had turned out. “Such good luck!” they exclaimed. “Maybe,” said the farmer.

    We are quick to label experiences as “good” or “bad”, but this has no meaning unless all the consequences are known. Just as the lover didn’t know that the outcome of being blocked and chased would be reunion with his loved one, most of the time we do not really know what the end result of our own actions will be, either. If we set out to do good, but it results in harm, are we accountable for the result, or for our intentions? It has to be both, and I think this is where religion and science can serve each other, as in the quote from Einstein in one of your comments on my blog. Only the type of thing we commonly refer to as “God” could possibly have the ability to really know our intentions. Ideally, then, religion guides us to have the right intentions. But good intentions are not enough if we do not know what the effects of our actions will be, and that is where we must look to science for guidance. Not really sure anymore where I’m going with this so I’ll just stop here.

    I would love to see you do a post on Batman: The Dark Knight. I watched it four months ago and still haven’t been able to sort out all the thoughts it generated!

    • Wow! That is an amazing story. I love it 🙂 Thank you so much for sharing it as well as your thoughts. It is true that because the world is so interconnected we will never really know the extent of the effects of our actions until the end. You could smile at a random person on the street and that could be just the small bit they needed to get through the day, and you may never know. We like to try to order and label and judge things as good or bad, but it is important to step back and realize that things can be both or neither or change and to be detached from the outcome.

      As for the Dark Knight, I will have to watch that one again. It is definitely a potent film and one worth reviewing (or whatever it is I do… I am still not sure what to call it).

      Thanks again for your insightful comment.

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