A reasonable question about Watchmen

An e-mail from a reader which asks an entirely fair question, and one which I wondered if I wouldn’t get from somebody:

Are you sure you want to recommend (and so enthusiastically!) … Watchmen?  It’s one thing to set such evil images before your own eyes, but must you also encourage others to do the same?  (See Psalm 101:3).  Do you really want to reward the makers of this film with your money?

I respect this question, and I do not take its points lightly. What I can say is that if I thought the film was intended to be, or best understood as, a cheap piece of trashy violence, I would neither see it nor recommend it. I don’t waste a second of my time with junk like the Saw films or Friday the 13th or Hostel or things like this. Nor does a sheen of “art” excuse everything; The English Patient is a beautifully done piece of garbage, in my opinion, which ultimately says that committing adultery is worth dying for, if it means you’re following your heart.

I’ll note, again, that I spent some time tonight listening to my priest discuss enthusiastically the Orthodox Christian merits of The Matrix, a movie which contains much violence and disturbing imagery. The Passion of the Christ is, of course, notorious for its level of gore, which I would argue exceeds that of Watchmen. The Mission, one of the most profoundly Christian movies I’ve ever seen, contains extensive nudity and quite a bit of violence interspersed with religious imagery, particularly at the end. (Don’t tell me that the nudity, being non-sexual, makes it okay; that didn’t keep parents from having their kids excused from watching it when my English teacher showed it in class my senior year of high school.)

Let’s not even talk about Shakespeare and Hamlet’s “country matters.” Or most opera.

This begs the question — what is the merit of Watchmen? I would argue that it is, at its core, a movie which suggests that whether or not God exists, we’re best off assuming He does and that He’s watching rather than deciding He doesn’t and putting ourselves in His place. This is as yet, shall we say, under-theorized, but this is part of why I say, go see it, and then we’ll talk.

At one point, a Jewish character in the movie, who has invented a superhero identity for himself, asks another superhero whose identity has heavily American patriotic overtones and who is breaking up a riot too violently for the other’s taste, “Whatever happened to the American dream?” and the patriotic hero replies, “It came true. You’re looking at him.” Now, when you realize that the way a couple of Jewish kids from Cleveland tried to actualize the American dream for themselves by inventing the first widely-known superhero who himself had American patriotic overtones (I am referring to neither a bird nor a plane), you understand what this scene is actually about. If Superman were to actually exist in real life, and be American (something explicitly said in the film), it would be monstrous; it would be an establishment of other gods in the place of the True God; it would be chiliasm. It would lead to the destruction of everything we claim to hold dear as Americans and as Christians.

All of this aside, however, one must follow their own conscience, and I don’t encourage anybody to seek out things which would make them stumble or to go against their better judgment. Do not go see it if that would be the case.

I’ll also point out that the movie is rated R, it is rated R for good reason, and that needs to be respected — in other words, it is not a movie to which I advise anybody to bring their kids. As with the source material, the violence and sexual material is used to explore, and comment upon, both the themes of the story as well as the medium through which the story is being told. I will qualify here that I don’t have a lot of perspective on how old somebody would need to be to be able to deal with this; as I said earlier, my first encounter with the source material was at age 13 or thereabouts. Then again, my first book was Carl Sagan’s Cosmos, which I read at the age of 4.


6 Responses to “A reasonable question about <i>Watchmen</i>”

  1. 1 fullbodytransplant 12 March 2009 at 7:43 am

    Wow. Cosmos at 4? Props.

    Check out this Watchmen marquee. The Squid is all in your head:



  2. 2 Anna 12 March 2009 at 7:44 am

    I have to admit that my enthusiasm for seeing the movie has been tempered considerably by some of the reviews I’ve read. Not from film critics, but from regular people’s blogs. Example:

    • 3 Richard Barrett 12 March 2009 at 8:29 am

      I don’t totally disagree with where that particular reviewer is coming from, but I also don’t completely agree. There’s an essay coming about my take on it, but I need to see it again first so I can have another pass at some of the details. A key moment in the film has one character saying, “If God saw what any of us did that night, He didn’t mind”, which, on reflection, ties directly into how the ending works and the overall shape of how the movie tells the story.

      The same priest extolling the virtues of The Matrix last night also went on a bit about Nietzsche, saying that there is quite a bit of Patristic understanding embedded in Nietzsche — but you have to look at it through the lens of Christ being the fulfillment of what he’s talking about, and that there isn’t just nothingness at the end. This is not wholly unrelated to how I would characterize Watchmen — but, again, a longer piece on this is forthcoming.

  3. 4 Sbdn. Lucas 12 March 2009 at 12:40 pm

    I think this post brooks a good discussion: for the Christian, in art _does_ the end justify the means? If so, at what point do the means become inexcusable by the end, however good?

  4. 5 Richard Barrett 12 March 2009 at 2:52 pm

    It’s a good question, one for which I’m not sure there is an easy answer. Artists who are Christians may or may not be the right people to ask, either; that’s what we call a “conflict of interest.” There’s potentially too much of the “fellow traveler” to be willing to see sharp lines, in other words. I freely acknowledge that as a potential shortcoming of my own point of view, coming from experiences in acting, singing, writing, and everything in between, and having experiences and friendships with all of the different kinds of people one encounters in those circles.

    Still, some version of this question exists for virtually every facet of our existence. Some Orthodox Christians would claim that the Kinsey Institute at Indiana University shouldn’t exist; on the other hand, I know Orthodox Christians who use their library and archives for research purposes towards what are intended to be works of Christian scholarship.

    It’s a discussion worth having, certainly.

  5. 6 Sbdn. Lucas 12 March 2009 at 3:20 pm

    On this topic, I think I am only qualified to ask questions! In that vein, a further point: I have often heard it said, “if it causes you to stumble, then don’t watch/read/listen to it”.

    I believe this to be true, but often misunderstood. I would suggest that the understanding of ‘stumbling’ is often mistaken as only applying to immediate reactions, whereas the long view should be kept firmly in mind.

    If I partake of (for lack of a better catch-all) some art form, and do not perceive an immediate passionate response, I feel this piece must have passed the ’cause of stumbling’ test. It requires, I would posit, more wisdom to discern whether the subject would cause more subtle, long-term damage.

    This is nothing revelatory, but I find it often overlooked in these discussions.

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