Within much of the traditional superhero genre, there is often a depiction of someone who is strong, and powerful and fights against evil to protect those they care about from injustices. Superman is one of the most iconic superheroes not only because of his super abilities but the way he uses those abilities to always fight for good. Superman has become a model of what superheroes should be because of how he is commonly being depicted, as a brave and kind-hearted hero with a strong sense of justice, and morality.
In Alan Moore’s Watchmen we see these traditional superhero values in a different light. The novel takes place in an alternate reality where superheroes exist within the United States during the cold war when the threat of nuclear annihilation was closer than ever. The novel introduces us to six different “heroes”; The Comedian (Edward Blake), Dr. Manhattan (Jon Osterman), Rorschach (Walter Kovacs), Nite Owl (Daniel Dreidberg), Ozymandias (Adrian Veidt), and Silk Spectre (Laurel Jane).
The novel is written through the narrative of these “heroes”, which makes them seem more like ordinary people that deal with problems just like the rest of us. The superheroes that exist in the world of Watchmen, “exist at the mercy of contingent factors, which limit their actions . . .The superhero in Watchmen has become just another facet of society” (Reynolds 108–09). The way these superheroes are portrayed gives the reader a different perspective of what superheroes would actually be like during this time. The novel Watchmen shows us how the very existence of superheroes can be considered problematic and even dangerous to society.
During the Cold War an “atmosphere of fear” enveloped many people who became convinced that nuclear war is immanent. With tensions higher than ever we are introduced to a superhero with a power greater than that of a nuclear bomb, Dr. Manhattan. Nuclear Security is often being referenced throughout the novel which makes the idea the nuclear war highly likely. Being the almighty deterrent that Dr. Manhattan has become, the novel makes it seem that he alone can prevent nuclear war; “I think we’ll give it a week, gentlemen, before bringing out our big guns… after that, humanity is in the hands of a higher authority than mine. Lets just hope he’s on our side” (Moore, 104).
Richard Nixon discussing nuclear security and referring to Dr. Manhattan. The existence of such a powerful being causes a dangerous situation because we see the faith of humanity being put in the hands of Dr. Manhattan who is deemed a god and can easily prevent the launching of nuclear missiles, however, Watchmen asks an interesting question when putting faith in the hands of someone with the abilities like Dr. Manhattan’s; why would someone with such power even care about what happens to people on earth? As we see later in the novel, Dr. Manhattan becomes essentially bored with living among human beings: “I am tired of this world; these people. I am tired of being caught in the tangle of their lives” (Moore, 135). Putting the faith of humanity into the hands of a ‘nihilistic Superman’
Traditional superhero stories lead many readers to believe that the “heroes” who have power are good guys and deserve that power, although in Watchmen we see that this isn’t necessarily always the case. The Comedian or Edward Blake is one of the main “heroes” of the novel in which his murder in the beginning causes the rest of the retired “heroes” to come into contact with each other again. The heroes of Watchmen all begin to reveal the different sides of the Comedian’s personality during his funeral. As it is soon revealed the Comedian is ruthless, cynical and nihilistic, but is still considered a “hero” because of his involvement in the Vietnam War (Reynolds, 106). After the Keene Act was passed which made vigilantism illegal, the Comedian was exempt because of his work with the government.
Rorschach or Walter Kovacs is one of the novels main characters who seems to be someone you want to see urge on, beating up bad guys, and finding out the truth, makes him seem like a real life detective who fights for justice. However, we see later in the novel that he becomes cynical and nihilistic after discovering that a young girl that was kidnapped was killed and fed to dogs, “This rudderless world is not shaped by vague metaphysical forces, it is not god who kills the children. Not fate that butchers them or destiny that feeds them to the dogs. It’s us. Only us.” (Moore, 204). This event caused him to become more cynical in his detective work as well, Rorschach becomes obsessed with trying to find the truth which leads him to break into homes, interrogate those people, and take personal revenge on men who he deemed guilty by killing them.