Recently “Le Messor” had a post here about “Things Geeks Aren’t Supposed to Think,” which included comments on Watchmen; in the comments section, somebody remarked, “I think people really took the wrong lesson from Watchmen.” That got my brain going in a bit of a different direction from what they intended, and the comment I began to draft in response quickly revealed that it wanted to be a post. So here we are. Following in the wake of Greg Hatcher’s dissection of points missed in media, I find myself adding to his list and rehashing some of it to hammer home the point again.
We’ll start with one that Greg covered, because it still pisses me off. Saying they “took the wrong lesson from Watchmen” is really understating the case. The audience generally missed the point completely, and one of the many reasons the movie was so disappointing is that the director also spectacularly missed the point of almost every scene, slavishly recreating the visuals while trampling all over the text.
Rorschach is supposed to be a howling indictment of the whole masked vigilante genre. He’s mentally ill, a broken man who feels only rage and sees the world with the depth and understanding of a child. He punishes what he deems evil without ever noticing that his own actions qualify for the label. He’s removed himself from humanity, and it shows in his increasing inability to speak or connect, as well as the fact that he literally stinks. Being a vigilante has destroyed him, taken every vestige of humanity from him, robbed him of the ability to hold a job or maintain a single friendship, all in service to his childish understanding of good and evil. He’s also overtly racist and has an appalling opinion of women.
He is not a hero, not a role model, not to be admired… and the fans shrieked “he’s sooooo KEWL! He’s a badass!”
Every single character in Watchmen is meant to express similar themes. The overriding message of Watchmen is that superheroes are damaged people working out their obsessions in costume, and their existence makes the world a worse place. A world with superheroes would devolve into a hellscape pretty quickly. We should be appalled, or feel pity or fear for these lost and broken people, but not admire them. And yet they were rendered shiny and godlike in the film adaptation, because that’s how the director and much of the audience sees them.
As an aside, When Moloch confronts Rorschach after The Comedian’s funeral, it’s meant to show us that the entire hero-villain dichotomy and never-ending conflict is a colossal waste of time that has robbed both men of their life and happiness. Moloch’s comment, “you know the cancer you get better from? That ain’t the kind I got” is intended to be gallows humor, and it’s funny; having Matt Frewer spit that line out with bitter anger is just one of the many little ways that Zack Snyder demonstrated his complete lack of understanding of the comic. But I digress.
The ridiculous title character in the green and yellow costume is really a bit of misdirection, a Trojan Horse to allow the filmmakers to tell a different story alongside the main one, and that story is simply how horrific and screwed-up the very concept of Batman & Robin really is.
They start by taking Batman & Robin’s relationship and cutting the clutter away, removing everything that distracts the audience from the central core of what’s going on. Where the Dynamic Duo are an adult man and his adoptive son, in Kick-Ass it’s a father and his daughter, eliminating all the salacious innuendo about why this man is hanging out with a little boy. With that element removed, we get a better look at the relationship, and it’s ugly.
The story of Batman & Robin, according to Kick-Ass, is the story of a man so bent on revenge that he turns his own child into a relentless sociopathic killing machine, robbing her of her life and endangering her at every opportunity in the process. She will never have a healthy relationship with anyone, never be a normal, stable person, will always see two blazing guns as the simple solution to any problem and will never shed a tear for anyone on her extensive list of murders. If she ever does face the blood on her hands, the guilt will destroy her… and all because her Daddy had a mad on and used her as a tool to deal with it.
And the audience screamed “She’s sooooo KEWL! She’s a badass!”
Mark Waid and Alex Ross’ legendary Kingdom Come series was intended to be a critique and condemnation of what they saw as a troubling trend in comics, the rise of morally ambiguous super-beings engaging in endless jousts to establish dominance, clashes of titans who pay very little regard toward the innocents they ostensibly intend to protect. The series was meant as a warning, but DC took it instead as a blueprint. I’m actually grateful that WB hasn’t done a film adaptation, because the last thing I want to hear is gleeful fanboys shrieking that Magog is “such a Badass!”
Perhaps the most obvious example of Olympic-level point-missing has to be Keith Giffen’s Lobo. Intended as a send-up of Wolverine and all the other grim & gritty over-the-top characters so popular at the time, Lobo is patently ridiculous, an absurd parody of the testosterone-fueled power fantasy so popular in the ’90s, a character that makes WWE wrestlers look restrained and reasonable. But it seems that Poe’s Law applies equally to characters like Lobo; unless it’s explicitly stated that it’s a joke, it’s impossible to tell the difference between an “extreme” comic character and a satire of one. Giffen spelled it out in Wizard Magazine: “I do hate Lobo. Of course I do. Lobo is a reprehensible character. How could anyone not hate him? The thing is, Lobo was created as an indictment of the sort of mindlessly violent characters you find in too many comics, and instead he became a role model for them. So I hate him, but that doesn’t mean I didn’t like telling stories about him.” Alex Ross hammered home the point of Lobo in Kingdom Come; he has the character wear a t-shirt reading “Bite Me, Fanboy.” The fans loved and embraced Lobo unironically; they thought he was “sooooo KEWL! Such a badass!”
It’s time to accept the fact: like satire, deconstruction is pointless, because no matter how hard you work at trying to show the audience how very very wrong and bleak and cynical and fascist these brightly-colored characters are, the audience will always get distracted by the shiny lights and ‘splosions and will think the monstrous, murderous, psychopaths are “KEWL!”
Francois Truffaut is often reported to have said it’s impossible to make an anti-war film, because film will always glorify violence and celebrate the brotherhood of soldiers. And that’s the problem with deconstruction in the comics. The excitement of the story makes the reader miss the point and admire the monster.
It’s a bit like the Seinfeld series; I’ve never heard any of the cast or writers admit it, but I always felt that there was a stealth message to the show. It’s not “a show about nothing”; it’s a show about four staggeringly selfish and narcissistic monsters who routinely do horrifically terrible things to other people, but the audience repeatedly forgives them and loves them and endorses their cruelty because the characters are likable. In this episode, for example, Jerry drugs his girlfriend so he can play with her vintage toy collection which she has declared off-limits. His friends are okay with it and join in the playtime.
Even when, in the finale, (spoilers for a 20-year-old show? Yeah, right!) the four were arrested for standing by and cracking jokes while witnessing a mugging, were dragged into court, the full depth of all their cavalier abuses throughout the series was catalogued, and the characters sent to prison for it, the audience still stays on their side for emotional reasons. We like them and think they’re funny; what’s a little negligent homicide among friends?
Another example of point-missing: In 1974, inspired by an episode of the Dick Cavett Show featuring the segregationist former Georgia Governor Lester Maddox and civil rights firebrand and football great Jim Brown, Randy Newman wrote a brutally sarcastic song about racist Southerners, called “Rednecks.” It was part of a whole album, Good Old Boys, written from the point of view of a desperately stupid drunken fool from Alabama, expressing his ignorant opinions and ironically condemning himself by his own words. The song ends with Newman, in character as the titular redneck, pointing out the hypocrisy and systemic racism of the supposedly enlightened Northerners. It is, like much of Newman’s output prior to his Pixar days, a staggering display of satirical brinksmanship, and naturally in these context-free and nuance-deficient days, it doesn’t work at all. In the end, Newman found that he had to stop performing “Rednecks” in concert, because the people he excoriated in the lyrics had embraced it; fiercely proud of their ignorance and hate, they gleefully sang along and cheered to lyrics like “we’re rednecks, and we don’t know our ass from a hole in the ground.” They missed the point of his criticism and adopted his insult as an endorsement. He had inadvertently given them a theme song. Malcolm Gladwell did a nice podcast about the story.
What baffles me about the phenomenon when it occurs in comics is that the core audience is allegedly supposed to be one that embraces concepts like truth and justice; we’re not supposed to shrug and forgive a rapist because he’s a good swimmer, we’re not supposed to overlook injustice on the basis of skin color or voting record. We’re not supposed to celebrate senseless violence. The message we were supposed to take away from all those comics was that there is right and wrong, good and evil, and we’re supposed to be on the side of right and good, not on the side of whoever is the bigger badass. Even if their style while committing multiple homicides does look sooooo KEWL!
I’m two episodes into The Boys on Amazon, and I’m afraid we’re going to miss the point yet again. The point they are obviously trying to make is that superheroes are essentially a fascistic power fantasy, that supremely powerful people who think they know best and use their power to enforce their vision will invariably become monsters. But as we’ve seen, there is a certain segment of the mob who are enamored of monsters and will happily embrace them, especially if they have shiny costumes and make things blow up good. I can see how easy it would be for them to make the Homelander an endorsement of the current anti-immigrant sentiments, a handsome and charming mouthpiece for xenophobia. I hope the producers managed to keep The Boys’ crew of alleged heroes awful and terrible, so that the audience does not admire them or embrace them as inspirational figures. I hope, but I’m not hopeful.
Me, I still prefer my fantasy worlds to be nicer than my real one and my heroes to be, well, heroic.