Not All Heroes Have Extraordinary Power: the Politics of Power in HBO’s Watchmen

Many of the most popular recent science fiction and fantasy series depart from the comic book camp of our parents generation. They instead imagine unrealistic powers in realistic worlds, with powers that defy the laws of physics but are nonetheless consistent once their premise is granted. The science of shapeshifting or fire-breathing may be lacking, but the way opponents and political entities would respond is all too real. Most recent treatments of realistic sci-fi fantasy, including Lord of the RingsThe BoysGame of Thrones, Marvel movies, and the original Watchmen explore and mostly reaffirm the idea that power corrupts. One recent exception might be Damon Lindelof’s Watchmen

There are spoilers below, though I will start with the older examples first and then return to the recent treatment of Watchmen

POWER IN SCI FI/FANTASY

In J.R.R. Tolkein’s Lord of the Rings, a “ring of power” bestows its wearer with invisibility and the ability to dominate the wearers of all other rings. It was designed by a malevolent entity to rule over humans, elves, and dwarves. Repeatedly, powerful magic users in the series such as Gandalf and Galadriel refuse to wear the ring because it will tempt them with too much power. Those who think they can use the ring for their own purposes, without being corrupted by its power, are presented as corrupt or delusional. Gandalf gives the rings to the “little people” of the series, the hobbits, precisely because he thought they would be least tempted by power, having traditionally showing little interest in exercising influence over other regions of the world. Yet, in the end, even the hobbit protagonist is corrupted by power, and it is only a combination of forces outside of his control that the ring is luckily destroyed. 

Notwithstanding the message that power corrupts, Lord of the Rings suggests that once the true king of humans assumes power, he will repair much of the damage of the series’ evildoers. This strikes some readers as akin to the Green Lantern theory of politics: put the right people with the right intentions in power, and good consequences will follow. 

George R.R. Martin’s A Song of Ice and Fire (or the Game of Thrones tv show based on it) shows even greater skepticism than Lord of the Rings about exercise of power. Power resides where people believe it resides, rather than with dynasty, strength, piety, or justice. The antagonist dynasty of the series, the Lannisters, are able to prevail over the protagonist dynasty, the Starks, partly because they were willing to cut corners and ignore traditional codes of nobility. The Lannisters behead Ned Stark, whose foolish devotion to truth ultimately bestows far more negative consequences for the kingdom than a few lies or cut corners. His son, Rob Stark, is shown to be a fundamentally good person but equally unable to promote the good of society. On the show, Robb’s future wife asks if all of the Lannisters’ armed forces are responsible for the evil of the family, and deserved to die in the combat Robb wages. As she nurses the wounds of opposing soldiers, she asks what his plans were for the kingdom once he kills the Lannisters. Robb has no answers and it is unclear that whatever new regime is set up will be worth all of the blood spilled in the process of vanquishing a corrupt dynasty. The self-serving Queen Regent Cersei Lannister arms religious fundamentalists to remove her opponents from power, only to have the newly empowered religious fundamentalists use their tools of power against her. 

On the other side of the Game of Thrones world, Daenerys Targaryen uses her powerful dragons to be the “breaker of chains” and she liberates slave city after slave city. Emotionally, her crusade had tremendous appeal to many readers and viewers, including me. Yet, even some of the slaves do not want to be free, because they had a respected place in the old system. Despite her good intentions, the books asks whether she helps more people in the end due to the armed conflicts produced by her actions, as well as her mismanagement of the city states. The show’s ending – if not the unpublished book ending – has Daenerys embracing the madness of her incestuous family’s ancestors, inflicting wanton destruction on innocents and promising to inflict it on anyone who resists her plans for the world. Lord Varys, a eunuch advisor depicted as selflessly devoted to the good of the kingdom, states the power should be given only to those who do not want it. 

The Boys, released on Amazon Prime in July 2019, carries these themes over to the superhero world. While the public adores its caped crusaders, they are secretly manipulating the government to fund them as part of a military industrial complex. One superhero uses his position in the superhero organization to sexually assault a naive, idealistic new recruit. The most powerful hero of all even creates super villains so that he can obtain money and fame by fighting them. He refuses to save people if, by revealing the limits of his power, he creates difficulty in public relations. 

These themes abound in the modern comic book world. The 2003 series Invincible looks at what happens in a universe where Kryptonian-like super aliens use their power for imperialism. In the Captain America movie series, the government agency responsible for protecting the world creates war machines that target and eliminate people predisposed for criminal behavior – before they commit crimes. Captain America responds that “this isn’t freedom, this is fear,” and temporarily defeats the military-surveillance complex. Having learned to distrust such concentrations of power, Captain America refuses to cooperate with international governmental control of superheroes in the third movie in the Captain America trilogy.  

ALAN MOORE’S WATCHMEN

When Alan Moore created the Watchmen graphic novel in the 1980s, he was reacting to the Pollyanna comic book universe of the times. Those who depict superheroes as vigilantes, like Spiderman’s J. Jonah Jameson, are often depicted as naysayers and cynics who interfere with good people doing good.

But Moore shows superheroes to be flawed or even tyrannical. President Richard Nixon uses the superheroes of the Watchmen to win the Vietnam War and more terms in office. The one superhero with godlike powers, the blue “Dr. Manhattan,” disintegrates Vietnamese opponents and is worshipped as a god by many in the country. Another superhero, the “Comedian,” torches the Vietnamese with a flamethrower even though Dr. Manhattan can win the war without any assistance. When the Comedian kills an ex-lover in front of Dr. Manhattan, the godlike entity fails to intervene, having lost touch with humanity.  Public protestors ask “who watches the Watchmen” and Nixon outlawed the heroes who helped him achieve his dominant position.

Another superhero of the Watchmen, Adrian Veidt (“Ozymandias”) uses his brilliance to stop impending nuclear war between the U.S. and the U.S.S.R. By developing technology to summon a giant alien squid in New York City, he kills 3 million people and causes the the two superpowers to cooperate in alliance against a common alien enemy. His utilitarian plan depended on secrecy. A superhero with a black and white moral code, “Rorschach,” insisted that the plot must be exposed and Veidt arrested. The other heroes reluctantly concede that Veidt was right and Rorschach asks to be killed. Only a right-wing publication gets a copy of Rorschach’s findings and puts it in a pile for cranks.

Even in a utilitarian moral code where one may sacrifice innocents and lie in pursuit of the greater good, it is unclear that Veidt used his powers for good. As the critics at Bald Move point out, the world might have been on the verge of nuclear war, but it might have also been on the verge of a breakthrough in international peace. It is possible that Veidt’s intervention prevented the U.S. and the U.S.S.R. from having an epiphany about through the normal course of international relations, without trans-dimensional intervention. HBO’s new Watchmen series shows, quite realistically, that as memories faded of the tragedy Veidt inflicted in New York City, people no longer cooperated against a common enemy, and new conflicts emerged. (This despite an occasional downpour of harmless but messy squids from the sky). It may be that society would have made further in social progress through normal political channels.

HBO’s WATCHMEN

Lindelof’s Watchmen received mixed reviews in part because it unapologetically wades into recent political controversies, and initially leaves out many of the original characters. Dr. Manhattan is thought to be meditating on Mars while refusing to answer any of the requests humans transmit to him. Veidt is isolated in a bizarre countryside estate estate surrounded by automaton clones. The first episode sets up a white nationalist terror group as the antagonists. It centers on a new protagonist, Angela Abar (“Sister Night”), and hints at a connection between her and the victims of the Tulsa race riots of 1921. A supporting character, Wade Tillman (“Looking Glass”), has an isolation chamber called “the pod” thought to be able to reveal whether police suspects are telling the truth (including about whether or not they are racist) by flashing images during an interrogation. A later episode reveals that an utterly jaded Laurie Juspeczyk (Silk Spectre) catches and prosecutes superhero wannabes for the FBI. She repeatedly belittles Tillman and, like many critics of the implicit association test, believes his pod does not actually work. 

Despite the controversy, the series is true to the original graphic novel’s nuanced take on power  and how superhero powers would be treated in a realistic social and political setting. Episode One begins with a striking depiction of the Tulsa race riots of 1921, where white supremacists attacked Black Wall Street, killing between dozens and hundreds of black citizens and injuring many more. In the alternate history of the series, the attack was carried out by white nationalists calling themselves the “7th Kavalry,” who invoke secret symbols of their “Cyclops” leader. In the 1980s, Robert Redford succeeded Richard Nixon’s prolonged presidency and offered reparations (dubbed “Redfordations” by critics) for descendants of Tulsa riot victims.  Working class white communities erected statues of Richard Nixon.

Fast forwarding to seven years ago, the 7th Kavalry wear Rorschach masks and attack the racially diverse police force and their families. In the present, the police officers wear masks to protect their identities, and headquarters demands permission before unlocking their firearms. The 7th Kavalry reveals itself again by attacking a masked police officer during a routine stop. Many of the events in the series are triggered by the hanging of the sheriff, played by Don Johnson, who was ostensibly dedicated to protecting the police and fighting the 7th Kavalry. 

The 7th Kavalry are later revealed to be politically connected powers who believe Veidt engineered Redford’s election illicitly (something Veidt himself claimed in a recording). The sheriff turns out to be a member who keeps his grandfather’s Klan robes in his closet. Senator Joe Keene, like the sheriff, publicly condemns the 7th Kavalry but secretly leads them. He tells a kidnapped Laurie Juspeczyk “We’re not racists. We’re about restoring balance in those times when our country forgets those principles on which it was founded. Because the scales have tipped way too far and it is extremely difficult to be a white man in America right now. So I’m thinking, I might try being a blue one” – Dr. Manhattan. Like many white nationalists today, 7th Kavalry frame their efforts as fighting reverse racism, despite identifying with racist organizations and symbols going back to one of the reprehensible days in Tulsa’s history.

In an initially separate plot thread, Adrian Veidt lives in a Garden of Eden created by Dr. Manhattan. Dr. Manhattan initially tried to create a new world on Europa like a god, but rejected the experience. Like beings of godlike power in other fantasy novels, Dr. Manhattan traded his power for humanity, and chose to live among humans as a human, with no memory of his power. Manhattan offers his Garden of Eden to Veidt. Craving appreciation for his role in saving the world in 1985, he delights at the idea of being worshipped by Manhattan’s sentient humanlike creatures. As the series progresses, it is obvious that Veidt finds the godlike experience equally vacuous and escapes to Earth.

Veidt’s daughter “Lady Trieu,” however, seems to inherit his old craving for to be mankind’s savior, and be appreciated and worshipped by humanity. She manipulates the 7th Kavalry into capturing Dr. Manhattan to acquire his powers. With her trillion dollar fortune and high tech wonders, Trieu uses her technology to kill them and then Dr. Manhattan so that she can use his powers for good, mentioning the disappearance of nuclear weapons in particular. Veidt plans to stop her because “Anyone who seeks to attain the power of a god must be prevented at all costs from attaining it,” She’s a “raging narcissist whose ambition knows no limits…It takes one to know one.”

In an earlier episode’s flashback, Dr. Manhattan tells his future wife, Angela Abar (“Sister Night”), that he can transfer his powers to another being, but would never do so without his/her consent. He sets up a mechanism for this power to be transferred. Her grandfather, revealed to be the classic Watchmen hero “Hooded Justice” says that Dr. Manhattan “was a good man. But considering what he could do, he could have done more.” The last shot of the series suggests she accepts the transfer of power.

Thus, the Watchman breaks from the original comic and the Lord of Rings tradition of “destroying the ring of power,” and instead giving the ring to a good character who might be able handle it.  Abar has shown no indication that she wished to be worshipped or admired for her abilities like Lady Trieu. The show does not make it clear what Angela intends to do with the power. Although she had not been craving it, she ultimately welcomed the power that might worry Lord Varys from Game of Thrones – a power that Dr. Manhattan himself gave up. Would she disintegrate nuclear weapons, as young Lady Trieu wished to do, but with a desire for justice rather than personal acclaim? Would she only use it to fight villains with superhuman powers or resources, like the Seventh Kalvalry and Lady Trieu? As with Lindelof’s LOST and Leftovers, the episode resolves some mysteries while bringing up new ones. 

Even if she uses Dr. Manhattan’s powers for purposes she deems to be good, like causing nuclear weapons to vanish, she runs into the same paradox as Veidt. By using otherworldly powers to resolve national and international political problems, would she create the best attainable world? Or would she dampen the ability of humans to develop the social ethos and political institutions that would solve their problems? Would the development of human societies, untampered with by superheroes, lead to a more sustainable good than the intervention of miracles?  Laurie quips to Veidt – after he saves the world (again?) from Lady Trieu that the world always seems to be on the verge of ending, but it never does. One of the protagonists of the series (Laurie) pooh-poohs Veidt’s superhero intervention while another (Angela) welcomes the most powerful superhero abilities of all.

Like many other cable series, Watchmen is rife with moral ambiguity. Besides the debate over the corrupting influence of power, the series equivocates on hiding one’s identity behind a mask. On the one hand, Veidt gives one of the people on Europa a mask because “masks make people mean” and he wanted an adversary. Police masks could be a way to prevent police accountability. Angela’s father warns her about people wearing masks. On the other hand, Hooded Justice, an African American, was only able to be accepted as a superhero by leading people to believe that, under his mask, he was white.  The mainly well-meaning heroes of Watchmen, including Sister Night and Looking Glass, also wear masks. When Dr. Manhattan assumes a human form to live among humans, one could view his noble choice as hiding behind a mask.

For all of the camp, there is a reason why the Avengers never used their powers to stage a coup or set up a utopia. Their extra-worldly powers are reserved for extra-worldly threats that ordinary humans cannot possibly cope with. Ordinary humans may solve their own political and social problems poorly, but they at least have the potential to cope with them through their own political and social institutions. You don’t have to wear a cape to be a hero, and perhaps you do not even need extraordinary power, either.

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