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Watchmen and Comic Book Vigilantes

Superheroes are vigilantes working outside of the law for good, or their interpretation of "good." There are times in film that the public or lawmakers reach the limit of what extra-judicial behavior they are willing to take from these actors These vigilantes or super-powered people are then required to register with the government or make their behavior completely illegal. This concepts have been visited a number of times in comics and graphic novels and ultimately come to the silver screen as well.

The most influential comics to address this issue came out of the 1980’s, a time when comics started to abandon the moral restrictions of the Comics Code. The Code was brought about in the 1950’s as a reaction to pulp comics that highlighted horror, gore, violence and sex. Parents and politicians felt that because the medium was traditionally for children, they were reading these more adult comics and being corrupted. In the ‘60’s and ‘70’s independent comics would come along to show sex, drugs and violence, but it wasn’t until the ‘80’s that major publishers would start printing comics without the Comics Code stamp on the cover. This brought greater avenues for innovative writers and artists to make edgier comics, and the world was introduced to guys Frank Miller and Alan Moore.

Smile More. Watchmen, 1987. Fair Use.

More than just accounts of sex and graphic violence, the content of some of the comics coming out of the ‘80’s brought into question the ethics of the “heroes” in the comics or the social implications of masked vigilantes. The most prominent was Alan Moore’s Watchmen which ran in 1986 and ‘87, and was the only graphic novel on “Time’s All-Time 100 Greatest Novels List.”

Watchmen is the story of two generations of vigilantes in an alternate reality America where superheroes have shaped history. The Vietnam War ended quickly and in favor of the United States, Richard Nixon serves as president for four terms and a super-genius former hero holds a corporate empire. There is only one super powered hero, Dr. Manhattan, whose god-like abilities enable him to see all time at once.

Masked heroes were used as props for Nixon, The Comedian is seen to have shot Kennedy and mentions killing Woodward and Bernstein, but if they don’t work for the Government in some way, they are vigilantes that face arrest. This is part of the subversion of superhero story expectations, it isn’t until the middle of the story that one of the mysterious heroes, Rorschach, is arrested and unmasked. We learn that we had been seeing him as a “the end is neigh” sign holder in the background of other events, unstable, violent, and racist. He might be trying to solve the mystery of the Comedian’s death, but the ends don’t justify the means, and that is the theme of almost all of the vigilante activity. Or at least a point to be debated. Rorschach and Veidt do terrible things to get to a “good” conclusion, Dr. Manhattan is so disillusioned by the evils of humanity, yet he regains his enthusiasm for life in general because Silk Spectre is good that has been created out of a bad act.

Dr. Manhattan, what's up with the shorts? Watchmen movie poster, 2009, Fair Use.

The book is an experience of its own, the chapters offer additional materials of the world, a section of a tell-all book, a scientific writing on owls, a typo-ridden police report, and even a list of popular songs that accompany the story. There is a parallel story from a comic book a boy is reading at a news stand about a mariner returning home to find his island is cursed. The 2009 film from Zach Snyder is incredibly faithful to the artwork in the book as well as the main story and some of the song choices, but does not use the additional materials (aside from an animated feature of the fictional comic, The Black Freighter). One thing that the Snyder movie does that is quite different is fix the ending for a cinematic telling. Instead of a movie studio built alien squid to destroy New York City, an energy pulse mimicking Dr. Manhattan is used for the climax of the story. The HBO series that acts as a sequel actually lives in the book version of Watchmen, embracing the odd inter-dimensional squid hoax as it would impact their world decades later. This involvement of the squid creates the idea that the climax from the book just might have worked on film, afterall. It kind of works a little better in the show because an older Veidt appears to be a little more bumbling and comedic than he is in the ‘80’s. He had yet to be revealed for his real self in either the book or the movie.

The book and the movie take the story seriously, and there’s no suspension of disbelief when it comes to what the characters wear. They do have some colors in their costumes, but everything's meant to be utilitarian, hiding identities, leather to protect from sharp edges, The Comedian wears a flack jacket and carries a shotgun. The uselessness of capes are exposed, where some of the early heroes are seen to have been killed because their capes get caught in things and they are suddenly a sitting duck.

I first read Watchmen about a year before the movie and it inspired me to look into more graphic novels. I had heard about Marvel’s comic event from the previous year, Civil War, and picked up a collection telling that story right after I finished Watchmen. It was a bit of a whiplash from the gritty Watchmen to the flashy, colorful and very costumed Civil War. In the comics, Civil War is started after a large mutant explodes during a battle of superheroes, in a tragic event reminiscent to 9/11 for the Marvel comic universe. Captain America and Iron Man fall on opposite sides of a debate on registering heroes and ultimately battle each other. The heroes squabble with the ultimate price of seeing who can win Spider-Man over to their side. This reading experience kind of soured me on Marvel comics for a few years because the costumes were so flamboyant, colorful, and not very utilitarian. They just didn’t seem serious. An interesting reaction to two comics printed just about twenty years apart. Marvel comics and movies both shifted to more muted costumes within a couple of years, much to my delight.

Just kiss already. Captain America Civil War poster, 2016. Fair Use.

This is not entirely unlike the film version, Captain America: Civil War, where the Avengers team is split after a push for registering super powered people after the events of Age of Ultron almost destroyed the city of Sakovia or even all life on Earth due to the actions of some of the Avengers team trying to “create a suit of armor over the world.” The movie opens with an Avengers operation in Africa that concludes with an accidental explosion that kills civilians. This pushes Tony Stark over the edge in his remorse for the negative side effects of super heroes working unregulated as they fight bad guys. The large character that caused the disaster in the comics version of Civil War seems to be referenced with Ant-Man’s giant version in the airport battle in Berlin.

This was also the very first appearance of the late Chadwick Boseman as Black Panther. His father, the king of Wakanda is killed while addressing the United Nations and he first dons the outfit in pursuit of Captain America and the Winter Soldier. We are introduced to the character while he is trying to deal with the loss of his father, the king. His way of dealing with the situation is to become a superhero, attempting to hunt down his father's killer. The Black Panther movie begins with him returning to Wakanda after the king's death to take over the throne, himself.

The other graphic novel that is considered in the running with Watchmen for the best comics of the ‘80’s is The Dark Knight Returns. It’s probably the one comic that has the biggest impact on comic book movies as aspects of the book or storylines have been used in a handful of movies that include Bruce Wayne in some capacity. It was first referenced in one of the ‘90’s Batman movies, although I didn’t read that wikipedia entry particularly closely. The Batmobile in the Christopher reboot, Batman Begins, was based on the design in The Dark Knight Returns, but the rest of the trilogy is closer to some of the story points of the book.

Batman can't fly. The Dark Knight Returns, 1986. Fair Use.

The Dark Knight Returns covers a lot of ground in the Batman story, from finding a new “Robin” that is a teenage girl, a storyline with the Joker, a fight with a gang of circus teenagers, and Batman trying to kill Superman. The second film from Nolan, The Dark Knight gets into a little bit if the story with the Joker but ends with Batman taking the blame for Harvey Dent's death and going on the run from the police to preserve his legacy. The Dent legacy bit is not from the book but I believe the imagery of Batman running away is. The Dark Knight Rises continues that theme and we have an older Batman who is dealing with a super hero's career of injuries. Joker is pretty spot on with the Dark Night Returns Joker story where Joker kills a David Letterman-type late night host. It's not really David Letterman, it's a caricature of the host, and Robert De Niro's late night host is also an echo of his King of Comedy character who ends up hosting a late night show. Joker is hardly a hero, but he does probably see himself in a similar vein as The Comedian in Watchmen, a nihilistic anti-hero.

Batman v Superman takes on one of the biggest stories of The Dark Knight Returns, Batman’s quest to kill Superman. The movie has a much more forgiving version of Batman when it comes to the actual battling of Superman, although his tactics of mutilating criminals early on in the movie are as cruel and fascistic as the book. Using the terminology of “fascist” in describing Batman in The Dark Knight Returns is a common observation by critics and fans, the next thought tends to acknowledge that this is probably a commentary by Frank Miller and not a stance. I don’t really know how I feel about that, Miller seems to have a lot of pretty harsh views on the world, often writing women as prostitutes and victims, and violence as a maturation of masculinity.

While Batman has taken out a vendetta against Superman for destroying buildings and killing thousands in a super powered fight, Superman also faces another adversary. A congressional hearing. He had been flubbing things up left and right while attempting to do the right things around the world, the side effects of pure goodness catch up to the man of steel. And so, for a good chunk of the movie, Superman is symbolically handcuffed by legal means. He is actually handcuffed at one point, but that is just a charade for a being of such strength.

Another super-strong superhero that is taken out by the wheels of Government is Mr. Incredible of The Incredibles is sued by aan he had saved that had tried to kill himself and instead ended up in a neck brace. The ruling against Me. Incredible is so steep that he cannot afford to be a hero any longer and all heroes are banned as they can't afford insurance for collateral damage. This was not based on a comic, rather it comes from director Brad Bird’s brain. Supers are seen as the only people that can be relied on to have freedom from regulation because as superior people they are more likely to do superior things. It is when they are forced to be normal people that everything breaks down. This is a polar opposite Watchmen where super people and people living their lives in extra-judicial ways lose touch of humanity and the power they have over others makes them lose control.

These Incredibles wouldn’t see a world where “Supers” were made legal again until the end of the sequel. Although that would take 14 years, the film would remain in the 1960’s, music, technology and lack of car seats for the baby Jack Jack.

Fur-lined face. X-Men, 1981, Fair Use.

The film with the earliest source material of this group is X-Men: Days of Future Past. It is the furthest extent of a governmental ban on super-powered people, taking place in both a dystopian future where giant Sentinel robots hunt mutants for the purposes of committing genocide. This story is cut with the past when the Sentinel program was being formed. The movie version is considered the best of the X-Men movies and has two versions. There is a "Rogue Cut" that includes a few more X-Men characters that add quite a bit to the story.

In 2010, two movies came out that set vigilantes trying to be superheroes in the real world. Kick-Ass is the story of a bored teenager who seeks out criminals to fight after he loses his sense if pain, gets on over his head and teams up with a toxic father-daughter vigilante team. It's a stylish action-comedy from Matthew Vaughn who went from subverting the superhero genre to directing X-Men First Class. The other 2010 movie was Super, about an obsessed vigilantes with a touch of religious extremism and mental illness played by Dwight from the Office. This subversion of the superhero genre that shows the brutality of violence as it would be in the real world. Directed by James Gunn, who also later went on to direct major Marvel superhero movies, Guardians of the Galaxy as well as its sequel.

Back in the ‘50’s the argument that horror comics aimed at adults would make children reproduce horrific activities in real life was found to be ridiculous due to the dearth of Superman fanatic children attempting to fly off their roofs. There have been a number of very real vigilantes in the world, most of them have been bumbling at best, murderers at worst. Well, murderers most of the time. And none of them seem to have gotten the idea of their vigilantism directly from the internet, and some police have apparently taken to getting tattoos of a vigilante comic book character, The Punisher. There have been some really infamous instances of vigilantes claiming they were acting violently in order to maintain the peace, Bernie Goetz shot and wounded four teenagers on the subway in New York in 1984, George Zimmerman killed Travon Martin in an act of way overzealous neighborhood watching, and very recently Kyle Rittenhouse had his mom drive him nearly five hours so he could shoot three protestors, killing two. Goetz acted out as a result of a mugging a few years prior, the other two were made extreme from conservative media, and all three were hailed as heroes from the most craven members of society. They all left victims in their wake and none of them made society better by their actions.

And it would have been darker if the Dead took the stage. Gimme Shelter, 1970. Fair Use.

Woodstock in 1969 and the Altamont Festival in 1970 were both organized by the same promoters. At Woodstock security was handled by a commune of hippies called “The Farm” who would patrol around doing a “good vibes” kind of security and managed to keep the huge festival pretty safe. In various documentaries the leader of The Farm can be seen with a big walking stick, a large hat and a big toothless smile. The next year, the Rolling Stones also had a hand in some of the organization. When the founder of the Rolling Stones Brian Jones had died in 1969 the Rolling Stones held a memorial concert in London and members of the UK version of the Hells Angels act as honor guard. The band was grateful for this act and when it came to organize the festival in 1970 they reached out to the Hells Angels in the Bay Area to serve as security as a “thank you” to the organization. They didn’t quite understand that the group was quite different in the two areas of the world and things went so badly that the Hells Angels were involved in numerous fights with concert-goers and even murdered one man, caught on camera by the documentary crew for Gimme Shelter. Not only were The Hells Angels a violent gang acting as vigilante security, the concert happened to take place during a weekend that Angels leadership was holding a gathering and many of those at the concert were either new or trying to prove themselves to join. These two instances show contrasts of two real world vigilante groups, one that tried to protect with non-violent tactics and another that reacted to the role of security with aggression. It’s a bit of the difference between The X-Men and The Watchmen.

Letterboxd Reviews

Next Month: Spy Game paired with Hitchcock's Notorious (1946).

Comics and Movies

Watchmen (1986-87)

  • 2009 Movie

The Dark Knight Returns (1986)

  • The Dark Knight (2008) and The Dark Knight Rises (2012)

  • Batman v. Superman (2016)

  • The Joker (2019)

Captain America: Civil War (2016)

  • Marvel Civil War (06-07)

The Incredibles (2004)

X-Men Days of Future Past (2014)

  • Days of Future Past (1981)

Super (2010) and Kick-Ass (2010)

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