In theatrical or orchestral performances, an overture is often used to set the mood before the story begins. Through the use of music we're guided towards the themes of the work we're about to experience. A good overture can distill a piece of entertainment to its purest form. Such is the case for director Zack Snyder’s ‘Watchmen,’ the 2009 film adaptation of writer Alan Moore and artist Dave Gibbons' graphic novel masterpiece. Scored by the solemn paean of Bob Dylan’s “The Times, They Are a-Changin'" a series of slow, motion-comic-like vignettes over the opening credits provide us with a score of snapshots into the world of the titular characters, super heroes who make their mark on the chaotic events of the 20th century. Through the use of expert cinematography, scenes from the past which were only suggested in the original book are brought stunningly to life. In a scant five minutes, over four decades of history unravel. Let’s take a closer look at this fan-favorite sequence, scene by scene...
The story of the costumed vigilante begins in ‘Watchmen’ right around the time it does in our own timeline: with the appearance of Batman. Hollis Mason, the original Nite Owl, punches a masked mugger, protecting a wealthy couple and a stone-faced usher — immediately invoking visions of Thomas and Martha Wayne with their faithful valet Alfred Pennyworth on that night in Crime Alley. In fact, just above the opening credits text, one can make out a “Gotham Opera House” sign advertising a production of “Mefistofeles.” Coupled with the pearl necklace draped around the would-be victim’s neck in the background, this all calls back to the Crime Alley scene as later depicted on film in ‘Batman Begins.’ Driving the comparison home, posters of the cover of 1940’s ‘Batman’ #1 literally appear in the shot’s background, heralding the rise of the Super Hero in popular culture just as they make their debut on the streets. Could Nite-Owl’s intervention have prevented the birth of Batman himself? Perhaps a scan of this scene from left to right is meant to indicate a symbolic re-fictionalization of Batman’s story for the audience. We’ve had our time with the Dark Knight, and now it’s time to examine a world still not quite our own, but perhaps closer to it.
The very next image in this sequence is of Sally Jupiter, the original Silk Spectre, taking a publicity photo in stark contrast with a dour crowd of traditional police officers. The disparity shows just how attractive these costumed vigilantes are compared to traditional methods of peacekeeping, creating a sense of foreboding as the American public inevitably comes to favor glamour over order. It also enforces a disquieting idea: though Nite Owl may have spearheaded the vigilante movement in earnest, it takes no time at all for an ostensibly noble endeavor to become one of ego and self-promotion.
While some do it for righteousness, and others for fame, there’s an entirely separate beast afoot here in hero’s clothing. The Comedian’s cigar-chomping grin as he chokeholds a bank robber shows us exactly what his sobriquet implies in this still which bears the director’s name: it’s not about justice, or even glory -- it’s all just a laugh; the thrill that comes with beating the ever-loving snot out somebody, and society calling you a hero because those receiving that beating are believed to deserve it. The dual masks of the Comedian and the bank robber side-by-side as he grasps him almost lovingly illustrate that while they may be on opposite sides of justice, the way they get their kicks is not so different.
An iconic, necessary photo of the original Minutemen team all together, each posing in a way which reveals as much about themselves as the costumes they choose to wear. Nite-Owl’s head blocks the third digit in the year on the banner, suggesting a hopeful timelessness to their ideals. But as this sequence which so deeply mires these heroes in the inexorable march of time demonstrates, nothing could be further from the truth. Time is the enemy of us all, and not even the greatest of heroes are exempt.
As America heads into World War II, the world of ‘Watchmen’ continues to reflect our own. The nascent superhero archetype is quickly repurposed as a bastion of American values while we spread our ideals overseas in direct conflict with the Axis powers. The image of Silk Spectre riding the side of a bomber jet may as well be any number of early '40s comic covers on which characters advised young readers to keep our boys fighting by investing in war bonds.
Marking the end of the war, Silhouette stands in for a homebound sailor and steals a kiss from a parading nurse in ‘Watchmen’s’ own version of “V-J Day in Times Square,” one of the most famous pictures in history. As in real life, queerness has always existed in the shadow of the superhero genre, drawing from the necessity of living a double life in public to hide one’s true self. Here, Silhouette boldly displays her love of women in a public forum which may not be ready to accept it… much like the very concept of costumed heroes itself.
With the idealism of World War II behind America, life as a Super Hero takes a turn for the dark just as the nation begins to struggle with its own identity in a world where the line between hero and villain becomes increasingly murky. Dollar Bill, the first corporate-sponsored superhero, lies dead in the bank he was hired to protect as the paparazzi photographs his body. To the public, a hero’s loss is no less a spectacle than their victory. Our shame no less attractive than our pride.
Very visibly pregnant, Sally Jupiter’s retirement party is framed as Leonardo Da Vinci’s “Last Supper,” which may as well be a farewell to this first idealized age of heroism. Note how Hooded Justice and Captain Metropolis moon over each other on the far right, mirroring the looks of Silhouette and her nurse give each other on the opposite end, reinforcing the queer history of the superhero. And note especially who’s sitting in for Judas.
Kicking, screaming, and biting, the Moth is taken away to a mental hospital, ending the career of another Minuteman. Though a brief footnote in the ‘Watchmen’ saga -- albeit one expounded upon in writer Geoff Johns and artist Gary Frank’s ‘Doomsday Clock’ -- the Moth demonstrates a painful, discomfiting historical relationship between the genre and the mentally ill, simultaneously lambasting and romanticizing those who suffer from invisible ailments. Who’s to say whether a chemical imbalance can make one good or evil? And does codifying such distinctions through comics help, or hinder? It’s an unpleasant idea that anyone who’s enjoyed an Arkham Asylum story is eventually forced to reckon with.
The world wasn’t ready for Silhouette. She and her lover are found the victims of a grisly hate crime, their love for one another scandalized and vilified. As with queer themes in comics themselves in this era, a “moral panic” inspired a purge throughout the medium of any symbology which could be construed by whatever pop psychologist as “corrupting” America’s youth. The widespread censorship remained a plague on the entire medium for decades, one which original ‘Watchmen’ author Alan Moore has spent his entire career fighting against. The truth is that when we try to “sanitize” ideals which conflict with what are perceived as traditional values, the real people who exist in the margins are always made to suffer.
The next generation of heroes begins in a country that has never known peace. A young Rorschach’s hair is tousled by one of his mother’s “clients” as another sits reading a newspaper which bears the first evidence of the Cold War which will dominate their lives. As the entire world holds its breath for a cataclysm, nothing short of complete disaster may allow mankind to exhale.
It’s the Kennedy years. No longer do heroes fight in dingy alleys, but rather fight those deemed to be enemies by the government itself. Doctor Manhattan, the most powerful superhero who ever was, appears in a suit shaking the President’s hand. The reality merely hinted at in the pin-up days of war bonds is now fully realized: for heroes to exist unchallenged, they must be reduced to tools of the state itself.
In the very next scene, we see Kennedy’s presidency abruptly end in that infamous Dallas motorcade on November of 1963… but a slow pan to the right reveals his true killer to be the Comedian. That bullet to the head, however, might as well be Manhattan shaking his hand. These are not the actions of men fighting for their own ideals, but those taking orders from a grand and grim political game of shadow chess. The problem with marrying heroism to politics arises when politics fail to mirror what is right and just. It always fails.
A young Lauren Jupiter stands in the hallway as her parents fight, oblivious to her presence. The original Silk Spectre suit looms in the foreground, a reminder of what once was, and what still remains an unavoidable presence through Lauren’s life. A pan to the left shows a television broadcasting the complex horrors of the Vietnam War. The fight stands in for a shattering of the nuclear family ideal as the naïve optimism of post-War America falls apart in kind.
We see the Cuban Missile Crisis. Hippie war protestors, fired upon by riot squads. And a new vigilante stalking the night, leaving an ominous calling card at the scene where he rounds up those who break the law. One man, at least, fights stubbornly for the cause that Super Heroes took up at the very beginning. But in a world where our fears have become so much larger than back-alley muggings, is street vigilantism really meaningful in any way? Does it change anything at all? Perhaps, like the Rorschach Test itself, the truth is what you make of it.
And with that, the modern age of heroism begins. Largely sanitized and kept to heel by a powerful government, superheroes in the public eye are no more than the icons that Sally Jupiter envisioned all those years ago, here presenting Andy Warhol at a themed exhibition. A repeated, recolored Nite-Owl appears behind him in the style of his iconic Marilyn Monroe piece, with a Rorschach themed blot painting in the background reinforcing that even the most unimpeachable heroes are regarded as part of the pop culture zeitgeist. The idea of heroism itself -- of standing for anything at all -- is “Camp.”
Man sets foot on the moon, only to find Doctor Manhattan already there waiting for him, reflected in Neil Armstrong’s visor. Is the very idea of the super-powered hero one that cripples the human spirit? One which infantilizes us in the shadow of giants? One that reinforces complacency in a populace with reliance on the “Great Man” theory that the duty to save us falls not on our own shoulders, but those of rare, exceptional individuals? Maybe Lex Luthor has a point.
Ozymandias makes his debut in the film in front of Studio 54, a temple to hedonism and excess. Look upon my works, ye mighty, and dance. Superficially, Ozymandias seems like a symptom of an increasingly selfish culture — one which fully embraces the neutered futility of the superhero mantle for the social advantages it carries. We’ll learn that for Adrian Veidt, these trappings are but means to a greater end. In the meantime, however, at least he gets to party with David Bowie and Mick Jagger, who can be seen behind him.
Harkening back to the Golden Age of heroism, the new class poses for a picture of their own. The differences between the original lineup and this new one are staggering. Every member looks like they stepped out of an entirely different genre. The mission shared by the Minutemen of old is one which doesn’t even visually apply here, as chaotic forces all opposed attempt in vain to appear at least somewhat like an ordered group. Clearly, this house of cards will not stand.
Bob Dylan finishes playing his tune about the changing times. But the more they change, the more they stay the same. We witness a small television screen declaring that Richard Nixon has been elected President of the United States for a third term. The country is trapped in a vicious cycle as it circles the drain towards the long and endless night, unless the times can change for good.
Like Dylan sang, you better start swimming, or you’ll sink like a stone.