Truth, Justice and the American Way? Not according to today's superhero movies

Amy Peikoff's picture
Submitted by Amy Peikoff on Sat, 2009-03-07 04:00

*SPOILER ALERT* for The Dark Night and Watchmen

Today I saw "Watchmen."  Too much violence and blood for my taste (I looked away from the screen several times), and the violence used by the superheroes (even the real ones) was, at times, excessive, but overall I thought the film was well done.  In addition, from what I heard about the plot of the graphic novel from Bosch, the movie version actually has a better integrated, and therefore more dramatic plot line.  The acting was not on the level of The Dark Knight (no Heath Ledger in this movie), but it was a well made movie that would probably please fans of the graphic novel, to say the least.  From overhearing the conversations of people in line with us, we could tell that a few of them had seen the movie last night and decided to come back a second time today -- probably a good sign for those who want this movie to succeed.

I am not a professional movie reviewer, though, so let me get on to the main reason I'm writing a post about movies.  Both "The Dark Knight" and "Watchmen" dramatized a disturbing theme:  that civilized society cannot survive (or at least will be much worse off) if people know who was really responsible for horrible things that took place in the movies.  

At the end of The Dark Knight, Batman and Commissioner Gordon agree to tell the public that Batman killed people who were actually killed by Harvey Dent (Two Face).  They decided that allowing Gothamites to believe that Dent remained a hero, even in the face of great adversity, was more important than was their knowing truth.  Moreover, both Batman and Gordon were willing to destroy Batman's reputation and put him at risk of physical harm and prosecution, in order to maintain this illusion.  

Similarly, in Watchmen, one of the retired watchmen, Ozymandias, is the mastermind behind a WMD attack on NYC (and other big cities worldwide).  His plan: to kill millions of people, ascribe the attacks to Dr. Manhattan (whom had, up until that point, been perceived as a hero by the American public), and thereby give all the countries in the world (particularly the US and the USSR who, in the movie, were about to nuke each other) a common enemy and create world peace.  When three of the watchmen and Manhattan learn the truth, they are urged not to reveal it to the world, because then peace would be jeopardized.  Dr. Manhattan and two of the others agree to keep quiet, even though this is deceptive and results in unjustly blaming Dr. Manhattan for something he didn't do.  Again, the people of the civilized world cannot handle the truth.  They need a well-crafted lie to keep them on their best behavior.  

On a positive note, in both movies there were characters who protested.  In The Dark Knight, Gordon's son spoke out against the injustice that was being done to Batman.  He was just a kid, though, and therefore unable to do anything to stop the injustice from occurring.  In "Watchmen," Rorschach, whom I hear from Bosch is based on Steve Ditko's character, "The Question" (Ditko is a Rand fan), was a principled opponent of lies and deception, even in the face of "Armageddon".  The other two watchmen who were privy to the truth also protested at first, but ultimately agreed to keep quiet.  In both movies, unfortunately, deception and injustice for the sake of the "greater good" ultimately ruled the day.

Now that this theme has been dramatized in two superhero movies in as many years, I am wondering whether this is some sort of trend.  It would be nice to see sequels to these movies in which the record is set straight and humanity manages to survive, even when people know the truth.  But perhaps that's too much to ask of Hollywood?

( categories: )

If you listen to it recited in Old English

seymourblogger's picture

It is quite beautiful. Different. Understandable and lovely.


Marcus's picture

"Only a few hundred years ago people spoke like Chaucer Whan that Aprille wit its sores swota or some such that we all memorized in a certain era."

I wonder if they really did speak that differently or was it just that spelling had not yet been standardised?

Sure certain words have gone in and out of fashion, but we can still understand Shakespeare and the King James Bible as examples of modern English, having set the standard for it.

Chaucer was much earlier, but the modern climate that Shakespeare was born into must have come about at some point several hundred years in the past.

I think so sharon

seymourblogger's picture

Now that I live in a small town in the Ozarks with more churches - and bars - than people I have slowly come to that conclusion. If it weren't for the churches and the social life centered around them, the pressure to conform, I think the barbarians would be at the gates. Religion is what keeps them in line and I think we are fortunate that it does just that. Anarchy is sort of what they have in Iraq and Afghanistan and it doesn't work very well, does it?

Yes being tense is important

seymourblogger's picture

because then you can feel your feelings and analyze them.

A movie education would benefit you greatly, anyone. Perhaps then you could have some influence as to how Atlas could have been done and should have been done. From someone who does know films, and who did study with your father long ago, it was a mess. Everything.

A few films I've done and I have sprinkled them among my other blog posts too. I'm also doing some out of the box stuff on Rand which you probably won't like as it is far from mainstream objectivism. BTW I greatly admire her in so many ways. and I admire your father for the principled stand he took on the bailout of 2008. Rand would have said the same. Let them go down.

Nice to read you here.

I know what you mean

seymourblogger's picture

and I do feel the same. OUr language is always in flux. Only a few hundred years ago people spoke like Chaucer Whan that Aprille wit its sores swota or some such that we all memorized in a certain era. Whom is the latin acusative (sp?) form while English is not an inflected language but an agglutinative one (based on order). So whom is a sort of carry over. It has been "in flux" for a long time. As saussure tells us when a word in a language is in flux one or the other will become established. so that's what is happening. Language is not frozen in time. The only one I can think of at the moment is the old Chinese character writing. Now that the Chinese are moving to sound paired with the written word (pinyin is it called?), language will be cut loose from referents for them, which is exactly why they are mandating it. This is when the spin and the great hoax really begins for them. The character "wisdom" reveals the entire etymological origins of wisdom and it is a marvel to deconstruct. Do it. You will learn things you never expected to learn concerning the meaning of wisdom. The problem with Chinese characters is that few people ever mastered them, only learned men. and the language didn't change, it remained frozen in absolutes.

A pity as jane would say.

A little fast there, Michael

Ptgymatic's picture

This isn't a philosophical treatise, it is very casual writing, and don't we all get lax about those differences--not all grammatical differences, just some--under those circumstances?
YOU do. How do I know? You missed at least one other example of the same error in that post!

I happen to be in love with grammar, yes, quite smitten by it. I estimate its importance from its role in metaphysics, thought (can't put two words together without it!) and cognition (can't go into that here.) I FEEL the grammatical beauty of an eloquent expression, and I painstakingly study the more involved, yet seamlessly flowing architecture of elaborate constructions as if I were unwrapping a gift of lingerie!

I know how it hurts, (yes, other readers, it actually hurts us,) to listen and read the generally lackadaisical mis-constructions that fill our ears. I know how aggravating it is to be re-writing everybody's stuff for them in my head, and I know how frustrating it is to have to re-work statements just to rescue the intended meaning from its slipshod skin.

Grammar is in failing health, just as education, and philosophy are. Grammar needs its champions, and they, who must work from a base-camp few can even reach, must climb an uphill path that would daunt a saint. I've sloshed humor and sincere personal revelation together here, but I am sincere. It is a great cause.

Nonetheless, Michael, the battle for grammar isn't to be fought by pinpricks delivered whenever somebody in the crowd shows the wrong bit of skin! Honor your commitment to this great subject. Take yourself, as a champion of grammar, seriously. Wait for the main chance! And give little errors like this a(n annual) pass!


"Him had been perceived"??

Michael Hardy's picture

> whom had, up until that point,
> been perceived as a hero by
> the American public

Would you say "He had been perceived" or "Him had been perceived"?

Obviously the former, I think. So "who", not "whom" is appropriate here.

This pronoun is the subject of the verb "had". "Who" is used in subjects and "whom" in objects.

(I wouldn't mind if "whom" were abandoned altogether. I've continued for decades to be surprised that some people fail to understand grammar. I don't know how they do it.)

No less plausible...

Marcus's picture

...than any other Alien flick. Actually more plausible because there aren't really any Aliens.

"Well, I guess they thought all that wouldn't fly by your regular movie-going person."

Re: Alien invasion...

MichaelB's picture

Well, I guess they thought all that wouldn't fly by your regular movie-going person.

Wikipedia is great. Here is the line from the comic book. Only some of it was in the movie. They stopped after he said "no":

"Dog carcass in alley this morning, tire tread on burst stomach. This city is afraid of me. I have seen its true face. The streets are extended gutters and the gutters are full of blood and when the drains finally scab over, all the vermin will drown. The accumulated filth of all their sex and murder will foam up about their waists and all the whores and politicians will look up and shout "Save us!"... and I'll look down and whisper "No." They had a choice, all of them. They could have followed in the footsteps of good men like my father or President Truman. Decent men who believed in a day's work for a day's pay. Instead they followed the droppings of lechers and communists and didn't realize that the trail led over a precipice until it was too late. Don't tell me they didn't have a choice. Now the whole world stands on the brink, staring down into bloodly Hell, all those liberals and intellectuals and smooth-talkers... and all of a sudden nobody can't think of anything to say. "

Alien Invasion...

Marcus's picture

"I guess the movie people thought they needed to hit other cities (I guess they figured many in the audience won't care if just NY got it, vs major cities around the world as well), and the fake alien invasion think won't fly."

Then they must have forgotten that the mutant brain thing that explodes in the book sends out brain waves that convince the citizens it's truly an alien inasion.

I haven't seen the film yet, but what disturbs me about the trailer is that it seems to show Rorschach saying he doesn't give a fuck about the people. "The people will ask for help and I will whisper, no." When in reality he's the only character in the book who cares enough to wants to stop the mass-murderer, but when he fails, to see justice being served.

Maybe the film-makers are doing a smear job on him.

Kinda of my review/comments

MichaelB's picture

Well, I read Watchmen when it first came out, and got the collection when it first came out. While I've enjoyed a lot of what Alan Moore has done, this is one of many times where I don't agree with him. I thought V was better as a comic then what they did in the movie. Moore can do some great comic book stories when he doesn't let his PoMo and similiar crap get in the way.

I found that the Watchmen movie a kind of 'mixed bag'. While overall faithful to the comic (the actors did a spot-on job of their characters, and a lot of scenes and dialogue was lifted almost verbatum), I found that some stuff was cut (understandable because of time), some stuff was altered (many times because of other things being cut), and some stuff was added (again, to make up for the stuff cut).

A few things were ALTERED, and I didn't like those alternations, because I felt it made some real changes. Some of those were:

* When The Comedian got his face cut in Vietnam, it was a lot more horrific then what is seen in the movie. Afterwards he wears a full-face leather mask, similiar to a gimp mask. But in the movie they show him still wearing just a domino mask (ie: riot scene in NY with Nite Owl & Comedian). Since they were so faithful with the look of everything, why not do this right??

* The fight between Ozy and The Comedian was way longer then in the comic. I saw no real purpose in that. I guess they figured they needed a kick-ass opening...

* the fight between Nite Owl & Silk Spectre and the street gang was both way longer in then in the comic, and a LOT more violent (no was killed or shot in that fight in the comic).

* Rorshacks's dispacting of the kidnapper did NOT happen that way in the comic. In the comic he chained him to the stove, gave him a hack saw, then dumped gasoline around the room and set it on fire (similiar to a scene in Mad Max). I frankly think the comic did it better and I think most audience members would have been more sympethetic to R doing that then what happened in the movie. I almost wondered if they did that so the audience won't have been as sympathetic toward R.

* Since you gave away the big ending, I'll let you know that in the comic, it was a little different (or maybe a whole lot different). Ozy only blew up NY, and made it look like a possible alien invasion, so the idea was to unite the US & USSR against a common threat: aliens. Sounds more doable then going after the god-like Dr. Manhattan. I guess the movie people thought they needed to hit other cities (I guess they figured many in the audience won't care if just NY got it, vs major cities around the world as well), and the fake alien invasion think won't fly. The rest happened as shown, expect Dr. Manhattan left because he was tired of dealing with us, and would go off and explore the universe.

In fact, I was so bothered by these alterations I had to pull out my copy of Watchmen when I got home to verify if I was remembering some things correctly.

For what its worth, there is a lot of good Ditko work out there. As noted, he had done several new comics recently, with more on the way. I recommend people check out The Mocker graphic novel, and prehaps Static. While Static has too much talking heads, both are well done stories with some good philisophic discussions. See the link Bosch gave on how to order it. For more purely philisophic stuff from Ditko, get the recent Avenging World collection.

Thanks, Bosch...

Jameson's picture

... If only I had time to write the screenplay. Smiling

New Mr. A?

mckeever's picture


I'll be putting my cheque in the mail on Tuesday.

Lie and the world lies with you.
Tell the truth, and the world lies about you.

-Oscar Wilde

Jameson, here's the site to

Bosch Fawstin's picture

Jameson, here's the site to order Ditko's work, and below is an image of the cover with the new

Mr. A short. [Mr. A is on the top left panel, throwing his black and white card]

Where can we get it, Bosch?

Jameson's picture

Love to read it...

Frank Miller was interested

Bosch Fawstin's picture

Frank Miller was interested in working on a Mr. A story with Ditko some time back and unfortunately, according to Miller in the book Eisner/Miller, Ditko responded with 'Mr. A's time has passed.' I don't think Mr. A's time will ever pass, and would have loved to have seen a collaboration between them on it. As a matter of fact, there is a new, Mr. A short by Ditko available now, which belies Ditko's reason for not working on it with Miller, maybe it was the idea of collaboration, if so, I can relate.

Mr. A: Where Art Thou?

mckeever's picture

In case some don't know, here's what I meant with my flagpole crack:

Lie and the world lies with you.

Tell the truth, and the world lies about you.

-Oscar Wilde

"a disturbing theme: that

mckeever's picture

"a disturbing theme: that civilized society cannot survive (or at least will be much worse off) if people know who was really responsible for horrible things that took place in the movies".

Hmmm. I understand what you are saying, but I took away a slightly different message from Dark Knight: that heroes don't really exist; that they are a necessary "god".

I've read Watchmen, but that was about 22 or 23 years ago, so I've almost totally forgotten the story. However, based on Amy's description above, Watchmen seems to supply the complement: that VILLAINS don't really exist, but that they are a necessary lie (i.e., Dr. Manhattan isn't really a villain).

Taken together, the two films mean: there are neither heroes nor villains. In other words: there is neither virtue nor vice; neither good nor evil. In other words: nihilism, moral subjectivism.

But isn't Batman a hero? Nope, not in the opinion of the author: Batman, says the author through a character in the move (perhaps the character was Batman himself) is not a hero but a "Dark Knight".

Rorschach? He's 'crazy', not a hero, in the view of the author.

All of which is to say: it's time for Mr. A, finally, to take to the screen. I want to see him leave that little bastard to drop from the the name of justice.

Lie and the world lies with you.

Tell the truth, and the world lies about you.

-Oscar Wilde


Amy Peikoff's picture

Thanks for reading it -- didn't really intend it as a review.  I don't think I'm capable of writing a review because I've seen relatively few movies and haven't thought enough about what makes a movie good as a whole.

I like the Dark Knight for its portrayal of a classy superhero -- although I wish Batman would get rid of his rule about never killing the bad guys.  I also like the Dark Knight for its presentation of the worst kind of evil.  Some of the Joker's lines are just brilliant in their description of the epitome of evil: sheer chaos for the sake of chaos, action without purpose or rules of any kind.  And of course Heath Ledger did an amazing job.  However I found The Dark Knight difficult to watch because I was tense and on the edge of my seat for most of the movie, even the second time around.  That, some might say, means it's good.  And maybe they're right.

Watchmen is, I think, worth watching.  Good plot, well done visually, some likeable characters, good casting.  My biggest problem was the excessive violence and the gratuitous portrayal of it onscreen.  Obviously I'm not judging it as a work of philosophy, just as thought-provoking entertainment.

For what it's worth, there were only two times in the movie where I thought Rorschach's use of force was excessive:  first (and some might take issue with me on this) when he killed the kidnapper's dogs (dogs are dogs and what happened wasn't their fault); and second, when he broke a guy's finger AFTER the guy had already given Rorschach all the information he needed.  Otherwise, Rorschach used violence appropriately, in contrast to Laurie and Dan, who overdid it on at least one occasion.



Thanks for the review,

Aaron's picture

Thanks for the review, comments and warnings. 'Watchmen' wasn't high on my list to see, and I'm certainly not any more eager to see it now.

Interesting point about a key type of bad philosophy between it and 'The Dark Knight'. I've defended TDK from some who condemned it as wholly evil or nihilistic, as it is mixed and has some distinct good points - e.g. showing the extreme hypocrisy of the Joker and especially the powerful ferry scene. However, I agree that of the parts exemplifying bad philosophy, the ending of condemning Batman for Dent's killings was particularly detestable. I think it's more destructive than even the general portrayal that superheroes have to be altruists ('Iron Man' and a few lesser instances withstanding), if only because that portrayal is so common we probably expect it from hero movies by now. Also, that hiding of those responsible for evil deeds - holding up false heroes and tarnishing real ones - also struck me as more senseless. Even assuming one wanted to abandon objective reality and falsely exonerate Dent - why on earth would they not pin blame for a handful of unwitnessed deaths on Batman - instead of the same person indirectly responsible for dozens of other deaths the same night, the Joker? Even embracing dishonesty (which other parts of the movie admittedly did), it takes a step beyond to heap false blame on the hero instead of tallying it up to the wrong villian.


Great point, Landon!

Wayne Simmons's picture

Exactly why I thought he wanted to die. Fuck them! They can live with the compromise, he won't. This was my immediate thought while watching the film. Bravo to him. Since, Dr Manhattan, has been deified in the film, all the better that Rorschach lives up to his own moral standard.

Why Rorscach had to die

Landon Erp's picture

There's one main reason. His moral code called for high objective standards and no compromise. Moore realized that a person like this would never go along with the plan as formulated by Veidt and by implication had to die.


Never mistake contempt for compassion, or power lust for ambition.

Super Hero Babylon

why did Rorschach have to

katietigerhead's picture

why did Rorschach have to die though? : (

P.S. The actor who plays

Bosch Fawstin's picture

P.S. The actor who plays Rorschach is Jackie Earl Haley, not 'Harley'

Two things for Marcus:

Bosch Fawstin's picture

Two things for Marcus: Rorschach has his own code, his own idea about justice, divorced from the law, especially as it stands in his world, since if he abided by the law, he would never put on his mask and do what he does, since masked heroes were outlawed. Regarding his dealings with Moloch, I think that was his own way of keeping that seemingly former villain in check and afraid.

And of course Alan Moore would say that 'people should think of Rorschach as being a 'nut', Moore thinks *Mr. Question* was a nut, that Ditko's philosophy, Objectivism, was nutty. Moore is someone who praised Ditko for standing his ground and actually having a philosophy [Objectivism], but then dismissing Rand and her philosophy with:

'It was a "white supremacist dreams of the master race," burnt in an early-20th century form.' -from an interview with 'Comic Book Artist'
Who's the 'nut'?

Marcus, before you go any

Bosch Fawstin's picture

Marcus, before you go any further about what those of us who like Rorschach are supporting, even by implication, keep in mind that the Rorschach character is Alan Moore's twisted version of Steve Ditko's The Question, and that in spite of that, the character is still the strongest in the piece. Moore was attempting to cut The Question down to size, literally, making Rorschach a short man who wears elevator shoes, among other cheap shots at Ditko's, and ultimately Rand's, heroes. So keep that in mind when you recoil from the character, you may be able to appreciate the good he does even more.

"Another snub at anarchy..."

Marcus's picture

Well, actually the writer Alan Moore is pro-Anarchy. V for vendetta showed that, and here he explains it explicitly.

  As for the underlying

sharon's picture


As for the underlying themes in both,"The Dark Knight", and "Watchmen". Seems to me this means Religion is the lie that people need to keep them from anarchy. Jon (God) is watching.

Ah, another snub at anarchy. ;] Well, I'm curious to see this movie now. I feel left out.




Wayne Simmons's picture

I too watched this film today. I enjoyed it specifically because of the Rorschach character. During the movie I figured out that this character, Walter Kovacs (Rorschach), was modeled after Mr.A. I've never been a comic book fan. My Objectivist spider senses must have been on high alert. I cheered inside when, Rorschach, stood up to Jon and Ozymandias.

Yes the violence was over-the-top at times but when Rorschach took the axe to that child murderer I must say he got what he deserved.

And, Laurie Jupiter, was hot, hot, hot!

As for the underlying themes in both,"The Dark Knight", and "Watchmen". Seems to me this means Religion is the lie that people need to keep them from anarchy. Jon (God) is watching.


Marcus's picture

I haven't seen the film, but I am reading the graphic novel. From the beginning it is shown that Rorschach is a homophobe and a bit of a fascist. He seems to believe everyone else (except himself) should follow the letter of the law. For example at one stage he berates another character (Moloch?) for possesing illegal drugs and a gun without a licence.

Alan Moore has said people should think of Rorschach as being a 'nut'. Unfortunately, he is.

Rorschach is definitely my

Jeremy's picture

Rorschach is definitely my favorite character from the graphic novel. I'm not alone in this, every fan I know thinks he's one of the best characters (not just heroes) in comic book history. I read Watchmen a long time ago, then read it again recently, and in between never forgot Rorschach's unbendable, unshakeable courage
and conviction.  Haven't seen the movie yet, but I heard some major plot devices had been removed/altered.  I was wondering if the movie held true to Rorschach's original fate? 

As far as The Dark Knight, well, the title implies the intended lesson: the hero that fights violence with violence must necessarily be sullied by his actions and embrace his darkness and the need to protect Gotham from its own dark, ugly truths, blah blah blah.  The movie had some astonishingly cool scenes (the Pencil Trick, anyone?) and Heath Ledger was a perfect picture of evil and chaos and drooling beast-hood, but I just couldn't get over Christian Bale's rasping, ridiculous moaning.  And why did they replace the cutesy girl-next-door Katie Holmes with that pooch Maggie Whatshername? I laughed my heart out when she got detonated like the Lusitania.

I went in looking forward to

Bosch Fawstin's picture

I went in looking forward to hearing and seeing Rorschach above all, and it delivered that big time, with Jack Earle Harley bringing it all to the role. No matter Alan Moore's intention, [the writer of the graphic novel] of twisting Ditko's The Question into his Rorschach, the character is the truest of all in the book and the film, and without him, the story doesn't work and has no guts. It's a good film whose ending surpasses Moore's original. I do like violence in film, especially against those who deserve it, but it was gratuitous at times. I also hope this is not a trend where comic book heroes feel that part of their mission is to protect the masses not only from the bad guys, but also from the truth.

My Condolences

Landon Erp's picture

Watchmen and specifically Rorschach was the whole reason I was warning against all the Objectivists who couldn't stop praising V for Vendetta. Both stories come from the same writer and tend to share some of the same flaws. I'm going to watch it but I know what I'm in for.

On a side note Rorschach scared me away from Objectivism for at least a full year after I heard about it. I was a huge Steve Ditko fan and initially Rorschach did the job of scaring me off very well. It was against my initial better judgements that I even picked up Atlas Shrugged at all. Sometimes I wonder how many people in that place didn't go against their better judgements.


Never mistake contempt for compassion, or power lust for ambition.

Super Hero Babylon

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