By Mark RodgersIs there a Watchmaker? That is one of the fundamental questions considered in the recently released Watchmen. Unfortunately, the answers to the movie’s most important philosophical questions reveal a postmodern worldview bereft of God and a rooted morality. This is disturbing, given that the movie has grossed more than $135 million worldwide after its second weekend, with its core audience being young, formative men between the ages of 18 and 30. The film’s message to this key demographic is precisely the opposite of what is needed to help us navigate the moral and economic challenges we are facing.
Based on the 1986–87 limited-series comic book by Alan Moore and Dave Gibbons, Watchmen follows a group of former superheroes who investigate a conspiracy against them. The story takes place in an alternative-history 1985, with Nixon still in the White House and tensions escalating between the United States and the Soviet Union. What the Watchmen soon discover is a Machiavellian plot by one of their own to end the Cold War and prevent nuclear war by destroying the world’s main cities with exploding energy reactors. Superhero and scientist Dr. Manhattan is framed, providing a scapegoat and common enemy unifying the United States and Soviet Union.
A distinct worldview permeates the film. In this alternative reality, global catastrophe looms but society has banished the Watchmen, forcing their disbandment and leaving the state, moral corruption, and the Cold War to grow in their absence. The ensuing showdown is a result of man’s doing, and he is left alone to navigate a way out of the mess he has made.Agnostic at best about a universal Watchmaker, the film and novel communicate a view of man’s moral muddle that is thoroughly postmodern. The god-like Dr. Manhattan asks, “Who makes the world? Perhaps the world is not made. Perhaps nothing is made. Perhaps it simply is, has been, will always be there — a clock without a craftsman.” Rorschach, the most morally absolute of the crusaders, says, “Looked at the sky, through smoke heavy with human fat, and God was not there. The cold, suffocating dark goes on forever, and we are alone. . . . Born from oblivion, bear children hell-bound as ourselves, go into oblivion. There is nothing else.”In the film’s climax, Dr. Manhattan confronts the “villain,” Ozymandias, who masterminded the killing of millions of people to save the rest of humanity from nuclear annihilation. Despite being set up as the fall guy, Dr. Manhattan simply tells him, “I understand without condoning or condemning.” In this postmodern worldview, the killing of millions transcends right and wrong.Although Moore has disassociated himself from the movie and is absent from its credits, his worldview has shaped the film. Whereas Stan Lee introduced the human superhero with the angst-ridden teen-age Spiderman, Moore is credited with resurrecting comic-book heroes as the protagonists of postmodern parables, as he did in the environmentally minded Swamp Thing series in 1983. He is one of the most acclaimed, consequential, and prolific writers of our time: Four of his comic-book series have been turned into feature films, including V for Vendetta, which he says is about “fascism and anarchy.”Moore shapes our worldview through his work; who or what has shaped his? A Rasputin-bearded British recluse, Moore was 17 years old when he was kicked out of school for dealing LSD. He is a self-proclaimed anarchist and occultist. According to Moore, the first date given in Watchmen is October 12, the birthday of Aleister Crowley, possibly the most notorious occultist in the 20th century.“My real interest in Crowley . . . only goes back to ’94, when I became seriously interested in magic. But obviously, I’d known about Crowley ever since I was twelve, when I had my spate of reading Dennis Wheatley occult paperbacks and being told that Aleister Crowley was the wickedest man in the world,” says Moore, who notes that there are references to Crowley in V for Vendetta as well.What can we take away from the example of Moore’s proficiency and profitability?Every story — whether a novel, film, song, or video game — embodies, communicates, and shapes our worldview. Good stories well told sell, even if the worldviews in which they are rooted are as distorted as Moore’s. This is critical to understand: In a postmodern culture, where all truth is subjective and rational debate is passé, story is one of the few avenues left to explore what is true about human nature and the universe in which we live.And just as story is upstream from culture, culture is upstream from politics. As the Scottish writer Andrew Fletcher said, “Let me make the songs of a nation, and I care not who makes its laws.” Creating and killing a few thousand human embryos to find a cure for cancer is no different from Ozymandias’s killing millions of people to avert nuclear disaster. Peter Singer could have written this script.So what is our response? Complain, censure, critique, and criticize; that is the easy way. But a harder road to take is to commit ourselves to creating positive cultural products that displace the bad. If you don’t like Moore’s worldview, then do what C. S. Lewis and his Inklings did. J. R. R. Tolkien wrote that Lewis advised him, “If they won’t write the kinds of books we want to read, we shall have to write them ourselves.” They followed Michelangelo’s example — they criticized by creating.If you don’t like the culture around you, then Lord of the Rings and Narnia should be your movie models — but not in the way you might think. The film screen is the great siren, but story is upstream from the script. Walden Media has been successful turning Newbery Award-winning books into films for families and children, among them The Chronicles of Narnia. And a good number of the highest-grossing movies have been based on comics. Comics are a unique seedbed for film, since they are basically storyboards waiting to be produced. And unlike a script, which can cost more than $100,000 to create, a graphic novel can be produced for tens of thousands of dollars and still be profitable, whether a film is produced or not.Culture communicates what we love and what we hate as a society. For those concerned about the moral abyss swirling around us, comics may be one of the more underappreciated and unexpected redemptive agents left to guide us. Let’s stop complaining about our culture and start creating products that are true, good, and beautiful for our common good.— Mark Rodgers is principal of the Clapham Group, an organization committed to promoting the good, true, and beautiful in the public arenas of politics, policy, and pop culture.