by David Keating
The Keating Files – November 30, 2020
Recently, I’ve been working my way through HBO’s television series Watchmen. The series has received accolades and praise from critics and it is one of several attempts by Warner Brothers and DC Comics to craft a sequel that fits the original graphic novel written by Alan Moore and Dave Gibbons. There has always been quite a bit of debate as to whether or not one can craft a proper sequel to the graphic novel as the original comic functions as a sort-of critique of the superhero genre and of comic books in general.
This prompted me to go back and watch Zack Snyder’s Watchmen (2009). Snyder’s film received mildly positive reviews at the time of its release and is looked at as one of the director’s more successful projects. Snyder adds his usual visual flare and muted color palette. However, what I found refreshing was that he adapted the graphic novel quite faithfully. At times, his adaptation seems to be almost panel-for-panel from the original graphic novel.
One of the themes that I think Snyder fleshes out and really focuses on is the way in which something evil can actually work toward the greater good. During the movie, we find that the Superman analogue, Dr. Manhattan, has exiled himself to Mars in order to remove himself from the increasingly angry public who thinks that he has been, in essence, giving people cancer as a result of his radioactive abilities. Dr. Manhattan remains on Mars crafting a new world for himself throughout the course of the movie. As the villain of the film’s plot unfolds, it becomes increasingly clear that the help and intervention of Dr. Manhattan is required. This leads Sally Jupiter, Dr. Manhattan’s former girlfriend, to seek out Dr. Manhattan as she attempts to bring him back to Earth to intervene. The two debate philosophy and argue about what the point of life is. Dr. Manhattan is basically immortal so he argues that everything is insignificant in the grand scheme of things.
During the course of their interactions, Dr. Manhattan looks into Sally Jupiter’s past and sees the events that lead to her being in front of him in the present day. He discovers that Jupiter is actually the product of a union between two superheroes of a previous era. Sally Jupiter’s parents had a non-consensual encounter in the past and yet, in spite of this, Sally’s mother eventually comes to love her father. This leads Sally Jupiter to despair, yet causes Dr. Manhattan to see that Sally Jupiter’s life is actually a miracle.
Dr. Manhattan asks Sally Jupiter if she will smile. She asks about what. He replies, “If I admit that I was wrong about miracles. Events with astronomical odds of occurring like oxygen turning into gold. I’ve longed to witness such an event, and yet, I neglect that in human coupling millions upon millions of cells compete to create life for generation after generation until finally your mother loves a man, Edward Blake, the Comedian, a man whom she has every reason to hate and out of that contradiction against unfathomable odds it’s you, only you, that emerged. To distill so specific a form from all that chaos is like turning air into gold. A miracle. And so, I was wrong.”
Dr. Manhattan and Ms. Jupiter return to Earth, which in turn kicks off the movie’s final act. Eventually, the day is saved but with dramatic consequences.
What I love about this moment in the movie is that it is the scene that the whole film hinges on narratively. If Dr. Manhattan doesn’t return to Earth then the final events of the film cannot play out the way that they do. The impetus for his return is Sally Jupiter’s life that, in spite of its origins, is still worthy of being upheld and still contains innate value. Not only this, but Dr. Manhattan points to the fact that one of the great paradoxes of human behavior is the fact that, occasionally, people find a way to (in this case quite literally) love their enemies.
While I have been (and still am) quite uncomfortable with the implications of the Comedian and Sally Jupiter’s mother eventually falling in love in spite of their history, I find the pro-life aspect of this movie quite fascinating as it isn’t something that usually appears in comics or movies. But the fact that it is Sally Jupiter’s humanity and compassion toward Dr. Manhattan is what helps contribute to the resolution of the film remains one of my favorite moments in cinema. Despite Sally Jupiter’s origins, she is still worthy of love and of respect. And her character arc reminds us that even horrendous situations can lead to something good being worked out of it.
For Christians, Watchmen contains more than a few surprises, chief among them that it reminds us that the miracle of life has value no matter the suffering out of which life is occasionally born. Culture would tell us that Sally Jupiter simply shouldn’t have existed. And yet, her life is still a miracle and this is exactly what Dr. Manhattan points out to audiences and it’s what Zack Snyder is reminding us of in his film.
The Reverend David Keating is pastor at St. John’s Lutheran Church in Curtis, Nebraska.
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