Bryan Caplan  

Watchmen Non-Spoiler

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Sociology on One Foot... Systemic Risk, Seen and Unseen...
I give the Watchmen movie 3.5/4 stars.  This isn't because I'm a big fan of comic book movies.  Indeed, I greatly prefer Rachel Getting Married to the supposedly excellent Spiderman 2.

The deal-breaker, for me, is a simple question: "What exactly was the villain trying to do - and why?"  In most comic book movies, there's just no answer.  In Watchmen, in contrast, the villain's motivation and goal are frightening clear by the time the closing credits roll.  Indeed, I'm tempted to argue that movie's conclusion is even more tightly written than the book's - and that's saying a lot.

If you're still on the margin of whether to see it, here's what I'll say to change your mind: Watchmen may well be the most audacious literary challenge to utilitarianism ever written.  If you think it's just adolescent violence, you're missing the point.

BTW, if you're looking for in-depth exegesis of the graphic novel with a libertarian twist, check out Ross Levatter's V is for Veidt: A Watchmen Guide.  I've read the book ten times, and I don't think he missed a thing I noticed...


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COMMENTS (23 to date)
Isak writes:

I agree that most comic book movies do a poor job answering those questions. That is why I could not get into Batman Begins.

By the way, when you say it is a challenge to utilitarianism, do you say that because of the dairy?

RL writes:

BC: "if you're looking for in-depth exegesis of the graphic novel with a libertarian twist, check out Ross Levatter's V is for Veidt: A Watchmen Guide. I've read the book ten times, and I don't think he missed a thing I noticed..."

Here's hoping Bryan didn't miss anything...

:-)

Thanks VERY much for the plug.

On a more serious note, let me expand on Bryan's correct observation that my exegesis of the graphic novel has a "libertarian twist". Many claim Moore is extremely leftish, an anti-Thatcherite, but I don't think I had to stretch to create a libertarian reading. Bryan's post notes that a major theme of the story is deontologic vs consequentialist/utilitarian reasoning. I would only add that another major theme is that of Lord Acton: Power corrupts and absolute power tends to corrupt absolutely. Surely a libertarian theme.

Grant writes:

I interpreted it differently than Bryan.

I agree on the clash between consequentialist and utilitarian ethics, but I don't think its a damning of consequentialism per se. I think it goes beyond claiming one set of ethics to be the "correct" set. Consequentialism triumphs because it is popular, it is what most people choose (in this case a god chooses it). As Dr. Manhattan says, he neither condemns or condones it; it simply is.

Of course, there may have been a better way to achieve the desired ends of the antagonist. No one can deny that consequentialist "calculation" is often so difficult as to make it useless in many (most?) circumstances. If there was a better way, were the ends chosen wrong? That doesn't matter in the context of the story, because the event had already occurred and wasn't reversible. All that could be done was to choose between the remaining options: truth and justice for one man, or possibly saving vast numbers of lives.

moviegoer writes:

Bryan, I'm intrigued by this movie and am thinking about going to see it.

Should I read the graphic novel before seeing the movie? or will that just spoil it for me?

I know nothing about the story/background, which is one of the reasons it's intriguing, but also confusing as to whether it's worth seeing or not.

Thanks.

Lance writes:

I have read the graphic novel and disagree with your claim that the movie delivers its conclusion better than the graphic novel. Put short; the way I read the novel, every character had a specific purpose attributing to the plot, and ultimately, the conclusion- which the movie version neglected.

However, I will agree that the graphic novel does challenge utilitarianism in the sense that outcomes- worldly in the case of Watchmen- hinges not on a collective decision but on individual choice. My favorite example being Rorschach in the end of the novel, stating,"Never compromise".

Bob Murphy writes:

I had never even heard of this thing until I saw the previews. I thought they looked cool, and then when all the critics (especially the ones at Slate) said it was awful, I thought, "I bet I will like this so much that I'll buy the DVD."

Now Bryan's plug nudges me even further into going to see it.

Mosler writes:

Bob Murphy,

So, the recommendation of a borderline autistic Aspergery dweeb is enough for you to overlook terrible reviews by the critics? A dork who has read the book 10 times nonetheless, and who has read an "in-depth exegesis of the graphic novel"...

"The deal-breaker, for me, is a simple question: "What exactly was the villain trying to do - and why?" In most comic book movies, there's just no answer."

Big surprise, a borderline autistic Aspergery dweeb has trouble understanding the motives of bad men, let alone those of normal human beings. Isn't this why he's in economics? He can understand homo economicus better than he can real men.

At least the Austrians don't pretend to know things they don't.

Scott Wentland writes:

Though I think I'll see it again at some point and revise my rating, but I'd give it a 3.25/4 at this point.

I've only a couple minor complaints. Some of the characters felt more generic than they should, given that the story goes through a number of back stories. While the story itself is quite interesting, movies with superheroes are usually carried by their characters. Your complaint about villains in most comic book movies can be turned on the heroes of this movie: what exactly are they trying to do, and (more importantly) why?

I don't think their back stories really revealed why they decided to become masked superheroes in the first place. From what I gathered, they enjoyed kicking ass. And they stopped when the President told them too. Spiderman and other superheroes seemed not to care very much about what the police/politicians told them, in part because of their feeling of obligation to do the right thing, usually rooted in some life changing incident that feeds this stubborn obligation. Maybe I just missed something.

There are a number of other issues I’m still scratching my head about, but perhaps I was distracted by the amazing visuals throughout. It’s worth seeing, twice. My second time won’t be too far away.

cjc writes:

Something like 3.25/4 for me.

My complaint had to do with how the ending was handled. Not with the usual complaints about how it was changed from the book, but more with the build up to it. In the movie, the final event just sort of happens, whereas in the book there's an ongoing countdown to midnight that starts off each chapter. It's been many years since I've looked at the book, but I also remember there being a growing pool of blood as the clock winds down.

These elements give the progression of the book to the final event a sense of dread and foreboding that's more or less absent from the movie. Add in how the event in the movie is more or less bloodless, and you're not quite struck by the horror of the villain's actions. Instead, you're more likely to look at the outcome from, say, Stalin's quote about tragedy and statistics, and simply say, oh. There's less gut-level sense of wrongness in the face of the villain's utilitarian calculus.

Frederick Davies writes:

I have not read the comic, so I can only talk about the film, but I have to ask: why do you say it "may well be the most audacious literary challenge to utilitarianism ever written"? The utilitarians won in the end; Rorschach died. If for you being anti-utilitarian means you show those who oppose utilitarianism as loosers who die futile deaths, then you have a weird definition of it.

As for the film: too serious to be a parody, too comic to be taken seriously. 2/4.

Daniel M writes:

I found the moral of the story to be very un-libertarian.

The predominant lie of human history is that utopia can be built on the bodies of murder and deceit. We cannot even begin to measure the bloodshed this untruth is responsible for.

Watchmen claims the murder and deceit can work if the murderer and the deceiver are the most powerful and the smartest of society.

Sounds pretty statist to me.

Call me cynical, but I'd wager a real-life politician would take advantage of Mr. Blue's attacks to perform even more evil. The U.S. certainly didn't become a "hippy commune" after 9/11.

Jeff writes:

The conclusion in the book was a utilitarian version of Howard Roark's trial in the sense that everyone just goes, "oh he's right" and goes along it. Night Owl and Silk Spectre simply accept it and go have sex, no horror, no anger. Also the actual mechanism of the explosion was ridiculously convoluted (cloning psychics). Maybe to Alan Moore who claims to believe in magic this stuff can be taken for granted but it seemed tacked on to me.

In the film however the way they handled the "nothing ever ends" quote missed the mark. In the book Manhattan says it and it serves as a challenge to extreme utilitarianism with the journal serving as its exclaimation mark. If nothing ever ends than there are no ends to justify anything and only the means really exist. In the film the journal makes the "nothing ends" point all on its own.

jb writes:

Mosler,

If you invest that much time and invective in attacking a movie review, I suggest that you may want to treat your own personality disorder before spewing all over Bryan.

I haven't seen the movie yet, but I'm quite looking forward to it. The ending seems to be the most interesting part - some people love it, others hate it.

Niccolo writes:

Daniel M,


You definitely missed the point in the book. There really isn't much of a hero in this superhero comic. You can most easily identify with Nite Owl, but he's definitely no hero.


There are, however, multiple villains and anti-heroes - Veidt being the main one.


I haven't seen the movie yet - college keeps me too busy - but if they put the scene where Dr. Manhattan leaves Veidt completely deflated into the probability that his plan didn't work out in the long run, then I don't know what to say really...


You just aren't that observant, I guess.

Bob Murphy writes:

Mosler innocently asks:

"So, the recommendation of a borderline autistic Aspergery dweeb is enough for you to overlook terrible reviews by the critics? A dork who has read the book 10 times nonetheless, and who has read an "in-depth exegesis of the graphic novel"..."

Yes. Some of my favorite movies were panned by the critics.

You're saying I should trust the judgment of someone who has a passing familiarity with the story versus someone who apparently loves it?

And Bryan Caplan is 100 times cooler than a movie reviewer for Slate. (Note that I am not complimenting Bryan with that statement.)

Jimbo writes:

I'm totally new to the watchmen franchise and like Bob had never heard of it until the previews.

Should I read the graphic novel before watching the movie, or go in fresh?

Blackadder writes:

In the movie (and the book), Nixon is able to end the war in Vietnam by deploying Dr. Manhattan against the Viet Cong. This, apparently, so ingratiates him with the American public that they repeal the 22nd Amendment and elect him to five consecutive terms.

To put it mildly, this strikes me as implausible. If the problem with Vietnam was that the American army was being out gunned, then having Dr. Manhattan get involved might have made a difference. But as American didn't lose Vietnam due to a lack of firepower, the supposition that Dr. Manhattan would have turned the tide is unrealistic.

I think Dr. Manhattan could have played a useful part in something like the Cuban Missile Crisis. So maybe the whole thing would have been more plausible from a political perspective if it were Kennedy who was still President in 1985, though obviously this wouldn't have fit in with Moore's political preconceptions.

Alex Silva writes:

Bryan,

Thanks for the tip. I'll hopefully be going to see the movie real soon. I would say that the gospels, particularly the passion narrative, are the most audacious literary challenge to utilitarianism ever written.

RL writes:

"I would say that the gospels, particularly the passion narrative, are the most audacious literary challenge to utilitarianism ever written."

ALSO made into a major motion picture!! :-)

John Fast writes:

Mosler writes:
the recommendation of a borderline autistic Aspergery dweeb

Of course: who better to evaluate a comic book superhero story?

RL writes:
Many claim Moore is extremely leftish, an anti-Thatcherite, but I don't think I had to stretch to create a libertarian reading.

Moore is indeed anti-Thatcherite, and he is also a "left-libertarian" or "left-anarchist." So he's at least halfway right about things.

I would only add that another major theme is that of Lord Acton: Power corrupts and absolute power tends to corrupt absolutely.

Except that the most powerful character in the book is Dr Manhattan, and I didn't see him as being corrupted. (Of course you might also say that Dr Manhattan is also the most constrained character in the book, but I'm skeptical.)

Frederick Davies writes:
The utilitarians won in the end; Rorschach died. If for you being anti-utilitarian means you show those who oppose utilitarianism as loosers who die futile deaths, then you have a weird definition of it.

1. I sympathize with you completely, and I don't agree with your argument. Do you think the movie _Glory_ was pro-slavery because it showed the officers and men of the 54th Massachusetts all dying at the end? Did you think _Valkyrie_ was pro-Nazi because it showed the members of the anti-Hitler plot dying?

2. Rorschach died and I'm not sure it was futile. Remember the "dairy."

3. One of my best friends believes it's possible, based on the way it was drawn, that Rorschach might be able to reconstitute himself exactly the way Dr Manhattan did.

That's my preferred interpretation! Imagine a super-Rorschach! It would be like the Michael Fleischer episodes of _The Spectre_!


Daniel M writes:
I found the moral of the story to be very un-libertarian. The predominant lie of human history is that utopia can be built on the bodies of murder and deceit.

I believe one of Moore's themes is whether "sailing to utopia on a raft built of human corpses" is a bad thing, i.e. not worth doing even if it works. I also think he's saying that he thinks it might work and he is in moral agony over that fact.

I'd wager a real-life politician would take advantage of Mr. Blue's attacks to perform even more evil. The U.S. certainly didn't become a "hippy commune" after 9/11.

I am impressed because that's something I think Moore missed, or at least didn't deal with. Imagine Richard Nixon with "PATRIOT" Act powers. That's far worse than, say, the Michael Fleischer version of The Spectre.

8 writes:

I thought Dr. Manhattan helped win Vietnam because the U.S. broke the nuclear balance and could invade North Vietnam with impunity.

blabla writes:

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MHodak writes:

Not having read the book, I could approach this film as I would approach any movie sui generis. I gave it high marks for its characters and rich visual texture and atmospherics. The plot could have been much tighter, the music a little more subtle, and a few wholes filled in. I wasn't as struck by the utilitarian implications as I was by the public choice questions it raised.

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