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.