Categorization of Watchmen (2009) in the Apocalyptic and Neo-apocalyptic Narratives
By: Chen Runfeng
Some recent researchers classify the modern apocalyptic narrative in two forms: apocalyptic and neo-apocalyptic (post-apocalyptic) narratives. Wojcik recognizes the characterization of apocalyptic narrative as the “meaningful, transformative, and supernatural event” (1997, as cited in Renner, 2012, p. 204), compared with the neo-apocalyptic one, which is “a literature of pessimism” that “lack the redemptive hope of their religious predecessors” (Rosen, 2008, as cited in Renner, 2012, p. 204). The classification is consonant with that of Mervyn F. Bendle. He names the progressive and optimistic outlook on the historical development as the “Promethean view” and the pessimistic counterpart as the “Augustinian view” (2005). Furthermore, Connor Pitteti also recognizes the two forms, and he specifies their distinctive characteristics as “linear account of world history” versus those “describing survivals and continuities that blur before/after distinctions” (2017, p. 438).
Although the characterization of these two categories is reasonable, it is not always obvious how the same works can be categorized. Watchmen (2009) is one of the movies that comprise traits from both forms. Watchmen is an American superhero movie directed by Zack Snyder, and it is adapted from 1986-1987 DC Comics of the same name by Alan Moore and Dave Gibbons. When examing Watchmen through the categorizations of apocalyptic and neo-apocalyptic narratives, audiences may find the existence of both in this film in speak of narrative, characterization, and view of future, which seems to challenge the existing characterization of narrative forms. In her article, Renner also casts doubt on the trend of taking pessimism as the “defining characteristic of the neo-apocalyptic narrative” as he finds that “most popular apocalyptic narratives do not fit this pattern at all” (2012, p. 206). As such, how should we examine the deviations within Watchmen from current characterizations of apocalyptic and neo-apocalyptic narratives? Would either of the categories account for the deviations?
Through closely examining Watchmen’s opening credit sequence, ending scene, and protagonist characterization, I argue that the film can still be interpreted as a neo-apocalyptic narrative despite the deviations. To specify, the apocalyptic narrative in the film serves as the supplementary foil to the dominant neo-apocalyptic narrative, and it displays the contrast to emphasize the neo-apocalyptic essence.
The usefulness of categorizing apocalyptic and neo-apocalyptic narratives
Around the post-2000s period, the awareness of the changes in apocalyptic narratives arose. The combined impacts of catastrophes in the real world and the religious beliefs or prophecies of the new 21st century prompt the recent interest in the apocalypse (Renner, 2021, p. 204). When researchers trace the causes of the transition from apocalyptic narrative to the neo-apocalyptic, one of the most frequently mentioned catastrophic events in that period is the terrorist attack on Sep.11, 2001(9/11) since it triggered uncertainties and anxieties in people’s minds. Due to such anxiety, people begin to look for answers from the religious implication. According to a survey done by Gibbs in 2002, “nearly one-quarter [of Americans] think the Bible predicted the Sept. 11 attack” (as cited in Bendle, 2005). While the biblical term “apocalypse” implies the formation of a new world afterward, many contemporary apocalyptic works suggest a pessimistic view of the future. Researchers name such inclinations as “neo-apocalyptic” or “post-apocalyptic” narratives to differentiate them from the classical “apocalyptic” narrative.
The researchers who characterize the two forms of the narrative seem to agree that, by noticing the typical characteristics of each form, audiences can more easily recognize and better understand ideas or beliefs conveyed by the apocalyptic works. As Renner mentions, “within the shared traits of apocalyptic narratives, then, we should be able to detect collective beliefs about what makes contemporary life unsatisfying as well as what needs to change” (2012, p. 205). Rather than taking them as the comparison between the present and ideal world, Pitteti believes the characterization of narratives explains how the apocalyptic stories “teach their readers to understand history and humanity’s relationship to it” (2017, p. 451). Putting apocalyptic narratives to the historical and sociocultural changes of America, the framework may also help audiences “interpret the ‘dreams, nightmares, fantasies and hopes’ of the present historical period” (Walliss & Aston, 2011, p. 63).
However, Watchmen, where both forms of narrative coexist, seems to be a deviation from the current categorization. With the filter of the classical apocalypse, we can find the linear narrative in the opening credit sequence, the optimistic vision for the future in the ending scene. However, looking through the neo-apocalyptic filter, we can also find a non-linear narrative for the whole movie, which is substantiated by the pessimistic callback in the end. Besides, even the most influential character, Dr.Manhattan, still comprises ambiguous morality instead of being a perfect “savior.” Comparing these narratives and linking them to the overall tone of Watchmen, I recognize neo-apocalyptic as the main narrative form, assisted with apocalyptic one as the foil. In other words, the apocalyptic narrative mainly helps to enrich the content and supplement the neo-apocalyptic narrative to convey the film’s view on human nature and cyclical historical progress.
Classical apocalyptic narrative in Watchmen
To begin with, Watchmen’s classical apocalyptic narrative traits, the linear narrative and the optimistic view of the future, mainly occur at the beginning and the end of the plot. After the fierce fight and resultant death of Comedian (one of the Watchmen members), the film starts with a montage that summarizes the altered history of America and the rest of the world with the existence of superheroes. Along with Bob Dylan’s song “The times they are a-changin’”, the sequence shows the formation and decline of Minutemen and their successor Watchmen as the changing times of superheroes. Additionally, it incorporates imaginary superhero history into the ever-changing historical context of the real world. Real-world history is reiterated, such as the Assassination of John F. Kennedy, Vietnam War (Self-immolation of Thích Quảng Đức), and May Day (1963) of Castro and Brezhnev. They are also combined with shots showing the interconnection of reality and superheroes’ intervention, such as JFK and Dr.Manhattan’s handshake, Andy Warhol showcasing a painting of Night Owl, Armstrong’s moon landing accompanied with Dr. Manhattan. Gradually, the audience is brought to the parallel universe in the Cold War period.
Such an apocalyptic narrative containing a linear narrative works as a recap to present less important but relevant background information. The sequence develops the linear narrative by revealing history as “a linear series of radically distinct moments” (Pitteti, 2017, p. 443). Specifically, the director chooses to arrange the events mainly in chronological order instead of separately presenting events that happened in different regions of the world. As a result, audiences can hardly find out any causal relation among any two successive occasions. Besides, within the flash of each event, only a tiny fragment of each event can be shown. Thus, the film densely shows climaxes or milestones of events to generate an overall understanding of the combined realistic and imagined background setting of the film. Resultingly, the causes and effects of each occasion are left blank for audiences to fill in their imagination. In this case, the film adopts a linear narrative to present the elements that are less important but abundant. Thus, the narrative helps bring audiences to the historical setting of the movie smoothly and leaves space for audiences to imagine and ponder later.
Other than the opening credit sequence, we can also perceive traits of apocalyptic narrative in the ending scene, which deceive audiences with a seemingly optimistic end. Although sacrificing millions of people in the contrived catastrophe, the world ultimately ushers in a new peaceful period after the long-lasting cold war. Additionally, Watchmen’s direct depiction of the future world exhibits an optimistic prospect of the future. The peaceful future is shown by both visualized aerial views of the rebuilt city and a newspaper editor’s line that “Everyone in the country, every country in the world is holding hands now, singing songs about peace and love” (Snyder, 2009).
If such an ending scene occurs in a classical apocalyptic film, it may provide audiences with a sense of comfort and relief. However, a representative movie review in IMDB states that “Watchmen‘s version of a happy ending is a far cry from the Hollywood norm” (ftyl, n.d.). It implies that the happy ending is not simply an optimistic view of the world but a camouflage that prepares the ground for more profound revelation.
Post-apocalyptic narratives in Watchmen
As mentioned by Pitetti, the pessimism of the apocalypse is represented by “the recognition that there is no entirely new world, and that history can never be transcended or escaped” (2017, p. 447). This type of pessimism is addressed in the final scene of Watchmen, where Rorschach’s journal is found. Through the callback to the opening scene, the movie finally closes the loop of the cyclical historical trap. Thus, the final scene sends audiences back to the desperate cold war period addressed at the beginning. The gradually darkened scene and the zooming-in lens to the journal cover contrast sharply with the previous colorful depiction of the post-apocalyptic world, implying a turning point that will contradict the optimistic vision. Then, Rorscharch’s hoarse voice arises, reading aloud his journal that “Tonight, a Comedian died in New York” (Snyder, 2009).
The quote from the journal is an echo of the movie’s beginning. It is also the beginning of the Ozymandias’ (Adrian) conspiracy of warning people of the devastating outcome of nuclear tension by deliberately destroying the major cities worldwide and maintaining the unity of all humankind by creating an imaginary enemy. Because Rorschach’s journal records the investigation process, the discovery implies the subsequent return to nuclear distraction when people find the imaginary enemy to be a lie. The implication is supported by the protagonists’ skeptical attitude towards the veneer-like peace built on lies or the unchangeable human nature that can ultimately destroy the peace. Dr. Manhattan, the omniscient character, predicts that “Exposing Adrian would only doom the world to nuclear destruction again.” Another main character Silk Spectre, also implies that “Nothing ends, Nothing ever ends” (Snyder, 2009).
After perceiving these clues and implications, the audiences can tear off the optimistic camouflage and decipher the pessimism in the film’s tragic ending. In this way, the optimistic depiction contrasts with the pessimistic interpretation in audiences’ minds. The destruction of temporary peaceful imagination combined with the ultimate return to the despairing trap intensifies the mind blast brought by the final scene.
Apart from the plot, another significant neo-apocalyptic characteristic of Watchmen appears in the characterization of protagonists. By deconstructing superheroes and depicting their imperfection, Watchmen takes superheroes as a medium to address the ambiguous morality of ordinary people. Dr. Manhattan is a good example. Initially, he was a human scientist studying atomic physics. A nuclear experiment accident destroys his human body and converts him into an immortal with superpowers to alter anything at the atomic level. Then, he becomes Dr. Manhattan, named after the real-life “Manhattan project” of nuclear weapon development. The name gives him a clear political stand and makes him a metaphor for America’s nuclear power.
Along with the increasingly comprehensive development of his powers, Dr. Manhattan’s worldview changes to inhuman Fatalism. At the end of the flashback scene about his previous life experience, Dr. Manhattan said, “Perhaps the world is not made, perhaps nothing is made. A clock without a craftsman. It’s too late. Always has been. Always will be too late”(Snyder, 2009). According to Tyler Flynn, the clock metaphor is borrowed from William Paley’s work Natural Theology. However, Dr. Manhattan’s fatalistic view opposes William’s belief in the intelligent designer that “the watch must have had a maker… who comprehended its construction…and designed its use” (1972, as cited in Flynn, 2012, p. 29). With such ambiguous moral stand, he is once apathetic about the death of mortals, shown by his indifference in witnessing Comedian killing a pregnant woman in the flashback scene of Comedian. Connecting the ambiguous morality with Dr. Manhattan’s name, we may also interpret it as a criticism of the justice and rationality for the US to develop nuclear weapons in the Manhattan Project. Without the invention of the first nuclear weapon, the cold war would not even exist, not to mention the subsequent catastrophe. After all, the neo-apocalyptic characterization of protagonists traces back to the start of the cyclical trap in real-world history.
Although the traits of classical apocalyptic narratives exist in Watchmen, they function as the supplementary portions for the dominant neo-apocalyptic narrative. The linear opening credit sequence enriches the background and leads us to the cyclical trap of history. Besides, the optimistic depiction of the future world prepares the ground for the ultimate turning point–the discovery of conspiracy and return of nuclear tension. Moreover, the protagonist’s characterization with imperfect moral stands also suggests the neo-apocalyptic essence of the Watchmen. As indicated by Renner, the neo-apocalyptic narrative is not restricted by having “a sense of pessimism” as a “defining characteristic” (2012, p. 206). Therefore, despite some deviations from the characterization, we can still interpret Watchmen based on the traits of the neo-apocalyptic narrative.
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