Thoughts On Watchmen
By Jacob Krueger
In my Monday class tonight a question came up about the difference between Message and Theme. It turns out a perfect example can be seen in the “Watchmen”. Theme is about the character’s journey. It reflects the want the character is pursuing, the value in that character that is being tested, and the way the character changes. Message is about the writer. It’s what the writer wants you to believe. And in execution it tends to be preachy and unengaging, because it’s all about PLOT and INFORMATION, rather than about a character on a journey. For example, “Watchmen” seems to have a very clear message that human beings are so consumed by hatred, that the only way to keep them from destroying each other is by giving them something even bigger to hate. Clearly, this is a fascinating idea. and could even become a theme of a film. Yet in this film, the execution is barely watchable. Why?
Partially it’s because the writers are completely overwhelmed by the exposition, trying so hard to fit in all the “information” they think their audience needs, that for half the movie they’re not telling any story at all. But part of this is just the symptom of a bigger problem: The film has a message that we discover loud and clear at the end, but no clearly articulated theme governing the storytelling to bring us to the point where we could accept the message. Though some of the PLOT and the characters WORDS reflect this message, the way the characters are changing and the values they represent are mostly tangential to it. In other words, the film is all MESSAGE and no THEME. Unlike message, theme reflects the journeys of the characters in the story, tying them together, making them feel related, and bringing both the characters and audience to a point of catharsis, where the fundamental ideas they represent are challenged, and ultimately either transformed, destroyed, or strengthened. Also, unlike message, theme explores the OPPOSITE side of the coin as well. Characters are allowed to fight both in support of and against the ideas of the theme throughout their entire journey, and may either transcend it or succumb to it in a way that leaves them expanded and transformed.
In this film, each character goes on an unrelated journey, and is only allowed to wrestle with the “message” at the very end, when the master plan is revealed. The result is a disjointed narrative that has nothing holding it together. For our purposes, we’re going to assume that the THEME of “Watchmen” (if it had one) would be the same as its message: ”The Only Way To Save Humanity From It’s Self Destructive Hatred Is To Give it Something Greater To Hate” A well structured movie would test this question by building its plot in a way that tests this theme at every turn. Its plot would force its characters to pursue alternative measures for saving humanity, tightening the noose as they met with failure or their successes were undone by humanity’s nature, until FINALLY they had no choice but either accept the truth as expressed in the theme, or to transcend it by saving humanity in spite of that realization. It would also force the characters to deal with their own hatred or capacity for hatred, and to confront the dark sides of themselves. ”Watchmen’s” characters never come close.
Spoiler alert: It would be hard to spoil a movie this unfocused, but if you haven’t seen it and plan to, you might want to stop reading.
MANHATTAN starts out passionately engaged in saving humanity, but withdrawn from his girlfriend. He then gets his feelings hurt when his girlfriend leaves him. Decides human life doesn’t matter at all. Then changes his mind and decides he does care about human life after all when he finds out his girlfriend’s father was the man who raped her mother (Why this leads him to care about humanity, I’m not sure). Returns to earth too late to save humanity (in fact, he’s been framed for a nuclear war), but in time to confront the bad guy. However, he discovers that world peace has sprung miraculously from the bad guy’s actions, as now the world has unified in its hatred of Manhattan and don’t want to destroy each other anymore. So he decides that the only thing that matters is the preservation of this myth (so much so that he decides to kill his friend to keep the secret of his innocence safe).
THEME: Caring more about saving the world than about your love life will make your girlfriend leave you. And then you won’t care about the world at all again, unless you find out she had a hard life, in which case you’ll start caring again, only to discover that the only real way to save the world is to trick them all into hating you, even if you have to kill your friend and allow millions of others to die in order to do so. Because the THEME controlling Manhattan’s journey is both unfocused and not closely tied to the theme of the movie, his character bounces all over the place, and for no apparent reason. A bunch of unrelated plot stuff happens, and then Manhattan gets the message, delivered to him not through his own experience building up to this moment of catharsis but through the words of another character, and exposition via TV screen. His personal journey with his girlfriend does not force him to confront this idea in any way (his own capacity for hate/his love for a human woman possibly capable of such hatred herself/etc). He neither exhausts the possibilities for saving humanity, nor tries and fails to accomplish them. The elements are there, but the theme fails to focus them. Therefore rather than feeling earned, the message feels superimposed.
The other characters are on even more tangential journeys. The NITE OWL is pursuing an (at first) unrequited love with Manhattan’s girlfriend and the question of whether or not to start fighting crime again. There’s some brief allusion to the idea that he may have stopped fighting crime because people turned their hate on him. But neither his decision to fight crime again nor his winning of the girl is really related to this theme of coming to terms with inescapable human hatred, falling victim to it or transcending it. He starts fighting crime again because it’s fun. And she falls for him because (as best I can tell) he’s emotionally available, and Manhattan isn’t. I don’t think I need to tell you that “emotional availability leads to happiness” is a LOUSY theme for an action movie, and not related in any way to the message that this movie pretends to be exploring. The closest the NITE OWL comes to wrestling with the theme of the movie is to get really sad at the end because he doesn’t want to accept human nature. Conceivably this could be a wonderful related theme for his character to wrestle with. But because the focus of his journey is on having fun again, and being emotionally available for the girl, his understanding of human nature is not really tested in an active way (he objects to COMEDIAN’S immoral ways but never does anything about them). His journey in no way prepares him to seriously confront the bad guy’s cynical idea of humanity, and therefore does little to draw the theme of this story into focus.
The SILK SPECTRE is on a journey of coming to grips with the fact that her mother was in love with a totally immoral guy who raped her, and that he is in fact her father. Again, fascinating stuff. But how it relates to any of the main action of the movie is beyond me. She’s also letting go of her emotionally unavailable boyfriend and trading him in for an emotionally available model. And, like the NITE OWL she’s learning to have fun again.
THEME: Finding a guy who’s available will lead you to happiness and reconnecting with who you really are. Again, a nice theme for a romantic comedy, but totally unrelated.
RORSCHACH: At least he hates people and is forced to confront his hatred and the brutality and awful nature of humanity. Bringing him to the point where he is the only person who believes enough in humanity to tell them to truth is a brilliant idea, and well integrated with theme. The problem is, nothing happens in the plot to bring him to this point. His whole journey is preparing him to agree with the bad guy– the humanity he sees is beyond redemption– without a glimpse of hope or goodness. A theme based story would have forced him to change, by coming to terms with what’s good about the world, and in this way become the voice hope, even in his destruction. Instead, his character behaves in ways that defy understanding. The writer hopes to create a powerful moment by having Manhattan destroy his friend. But the action has no value, because the journeys of these characters have not made it inevitable.
THE COMEDIAN: Dead by the end of the first scene, The Comedian is barely an active character in the movie because his story happens in the past, and therefore primarily functions as exposition. There are two exceptions, the moments when his story thematically intersects with that of the Bat and Manhattan, forcing them both to confront the dark side of their nature. These moments could have become the structure of a theme based story, but in this execution, nothing ever comes of them. Which is a shame because he’s the only character whose journey is truly related to the theme: a super hero who wants to save the world, but can’t seem to overcome the dark sides of himself.
The sad thing is that “Watchmen” already contains many of the elements that could have been woven into a strong movie, focused by a complex theme that draws us toward an inevitable conclusion. Even looking over the harsh criticism I have written above, you can probably see elements that could have been woven together to explore the theme of the movie and draw it into focus.
Take a minute and think about how these stories could have been refocused. What would YOUR structure look like for this film? And what would your theme be?