Alan Moore’s graphic novel Watchmen tells the interweaving stories of a handful of American heroes between the 1940s and 1980s, loosely referred to as the Watchmen (referencing a 1963 speech by John F. Kennedy). Although the Watchmen do not possess superhuman powers—except for Jon Osterman (Dr. Manhattan)—they occupy archetypal hero roles, fighting crime, wearing costumes, and forming leagues. However, contrasting with popular depictions of superheroes past such as Superman, Moore’s heroes are far from perfect paragons of virtue. Watchmen’s deeply flawed characters critique popular notions of heroic vigilantes, arguing that even people society deems heroes possess villainous flaws and the capacity for evil.
Although much of American society in the novel regards the Watchmen as heroes, many of them exhibit deeply flawed morality, suggesting that notion of a pure “hero” is fundamentally misguided. Edward Blake (the Comedian), whom the American government employs as a special operative—fighting in wars, assassinating targets—and celebrates as a patriot, tries to rape his teammate Sally Jupiter (the original Silk Spectre). Later, as Blake is about to leave Vietnam (after the Vietnam War is over), he tells a Vietnamese woman he impregnated that he will simply abandon her and the child to fend for themselves. When the woman angrily hits him with a glass bottle, Blake shoots her in the head. Despite his public image as a hero, Blake’s horrendous behavior suggests that such icons are not the pure and virtuous figures that society imagines they are. Rorschach (Walter Kovacs), another masked hero, exhibits “psychopath[ic]” behavior. While seeking information, Rorschach routinely tortures people to make them talk. While this approach is effective, often Rorschach gains no new information and even admits that he unnecessarily hospitalizes people. He kills people he deems “bad” without trial or input from others, and even his fellow masked heroes view him as an unhinged lunatic. Like Blake, Rorschach’s behavior suggests that many of society’s heroes are deeply flawed, operating from a skewed concept of morality and justice.
Along with their flawed moral characters, most of the Watchmen have selfish motives for wearing costumes and fighting crime, suggesting that society’s heroes may be seeking their own self-interests, rather than the good of society. Several of the heroes are primarily in it for the money. For instance, Sally Jupiter uses her publicist to turn her into a national sex symbol. Her comrade Hollis Mason (the original Nite Owl) says that she “used her reputation as a crimefighter primarily to […] receive exposure for her lucrative modeling career,” but adds that none of the heroes “begrudge her a living.” Sally even grooms her daughter Laurie Juspeczyk to take her place as the second Silk Spectre and continue making money after she retires. Sally’s blatant profiteering and the other heroes’ acceptance of it suggests that many of them are motivated more by money than by doing good for society. Other heroes do their work purely for the thrill of adventure. In their retirements, Laurie and Daniel Dreiberg (the second Nite Owl) find themselves bored with middle age until they don their costumes and go gallivanting around as heroes like they did in their younger years. Although they rescue some people from a burning building and beat up a few muggers, Laurie and Daniel’s vigilante crusades are motivated primarily by their wish to feel adventurous again. Other masked vigilantes’ heroic identities arise from their own hubris—their belief that they can save the world and fix all of society’s ills. When the aging Captain Metropolis (Nelson Gardner) tries to form a new coalition of heroes to fight small “evils” like drugs, robbery, and anti-war sentiment, Blake points out that none of these small issues matter when nuclear war is on the horizon. Rather than dealing with significant dangers, Blake argues, Captain Metropolis is just trying to protect his own ego and prove that he is still relevant and capable, despite his old age. Blake’s criticism of Captain Metropolis reflects how, for some, being a hero is more about feeling important and self-righteous than actually making a difference. In each case, the Watchmen’s personal motivations outweigh their desire to help society, suggesting that many heroes’ motives are as flawed as their moral characters.
Although the masked crusaders in Watchmen do some good, the destruction they also cause further indicates that society’s heroes are as flawed and selfish as anyone else. Heroes like the Watchmen are dangerous in vigilante roles, and some of their behavior could even be considered villainous. Despite the novel’s plethora of masked heroes, Watchmen only contains one typical villain, Moloch, who by 1985 is retired and lives alone. Although the Watchmen reference Moloch’s past as a villainous mastermind, his role in the story is completely passive. He hurts no one, compared to the many people that the presumed heroes kill, suggesting that heroic vigilantes may actually be worse than society’s supposed “villains.” None of the Watchmen better represents the nebulous difference between hero and villain than the billionaire Adrian Veidt (Ozymandias). Veidt hatches a plan to avert World War III by faking an alien invasion, which scares the U.S. and Russia into putting down their nuclear weapons and becoming allies. To make the alien threat seem adequately severe, Veidt teleports his supposed alien into the middle of New York City, intentionally triggering an explosion that kills three million people, and believes that he has thus saved the world. Although Veidt prevents World War III for the time being, his heroism is offset by the millions of deaths he causes, leaving his status as the world’s greatest hero or the world’s greatest villain ambiguous.
The heroes’ questionable behavior and lack of oversight leads many people in society to take up the refrain, “Who watches the Watchmen?” This question suggests that no one in society, not even supposed heroes, should be so trusted that they are above accountability. Heroes, the book suggests, are often not as noble as they may seem.
Heroes, Villains, and Vigilantes ThemeTracker
Heroes, Villains, and Vigilantes Quotes in Watchmen
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.”
This city is dying of rabies. Is the best I can do to wipe random flecks of foam from its lips? Never despair. Never surrender. I leave the human cockroaches to discuss their heroin and child pornography. I have business elsewhere with a better class of person.
Meeting with Veidt left a bad taste in my mouth. He is pampered and decadent, betraying even his own shallow, liberal affectations. Possibly homosexual? Must remember to investigate further.
Because there is good and there is evil, and evil must be punished. Even in the face of Armageddon I shall not compromise on this. But there are so many deserving of retribution… and there is so little time.
Osterman: You sound bitter. You’re a strange man, Blake. You have a strange attitude to life and war.
Blake: Strange? Listen… Once you figure out what a joke everything is, being a comedian is the only thing makes sense.
Osterman: The charred villages, the boys with necklaces of human ears… these are part of the joke?
Blake: Hey… I never said it was a good joke. I’m just playin’ along with the gag…
Dreiberg: […] The country’s disintegrating. What’s happened to the American dream?
Blake: It came true. You’re lookin’ at it.
Yes, we were crazy, we were kinky, we were Nazis, all those things that people say. We were also doing something because we believed in it. We were attempting, through our personal efforts, to make our country a safer and better place to live in. Individually, on our separate patches of turf, we did too much good in our respective communities to be written off as mere aberration, whether social or sexual or psychological.
They explain that the name [Dr. Manhattan] has been chosen for the ominous associations it will raise in America’s enemies. They’re shaping me into something gaudy and lethal… It’s all getting out of my hands.
As I come to understand Vietnam and what it implies about the human condition, I also realizes that few humans will permit themselves such an understanding.
It is the oldest ironies that are still the most satisfying: man, when preparing for bloody war, will orate loudly and most eloquently in the name of peace.
My things were where I’d left them, waiting for me. Putting them on, I abandoned my disguise and became myself, free from fear or weakness or lust. My coat, my shoes, my spotless gloves. My face.
Black and white. Moving. Changing shape… But not mixing. No gray. Very, very beautiful.
[The Comedian] understood man’s capacity for horrors and never quit. Saw the world’s black underbelly and never surrendered. Once a man has seen, he can never turn his back on it. Never pretend it doesn’t exist. No matter who orders him to look the other way. We do not do this thing because it is permitted. We do it because we are compelled.
Shock of impact ran along my arm. Jet of warmth spattered on chest, like hot faucet. It was Kovacs who said “mother” then, muffled under latex. It was Kovacs who closed his eyes. It was Rorschach who opened them again.
Looking back, it all seems so… well, childish, I guess. Just a schoolkid’s fantasy that got out of hand. That’s, y’know, with hindsight… on reflection.
It’s this war, the feeling that it’s unavoidable. It makes me feel so powerless. So impotent.
Juspeczyk: Humanity is about to become extinct. Doesn’t that bother you? All those dead people…
Osterman: All that pain and conflict done with? All that needless suffering over at last? No… No, that doesn’t bother me. All those generations of struggle, what purpose did they ever achieve? All that effort, and what did it lead to?
Osterman: Look at it—a volcano as large as Missouri, its summit fifteen miles high, piercing even the atmospheric blanket. Breathtaking.
Juspeczyk: Breathtaking? Jon, what about the war? You’ve got to prevent it! Everyone will die…
Osterman: And the universe will not even notice.
Thermodynamic miracles…Events with odds against so astronomical they’re effectively impossible, like oxygen spontaneously becoming gold. I long to observe such things. And yet in each human coupling, a thousand million sperm vie for a single egg. Multiply those odds by countless generations, against the odds of your ancestors being alive; meeting; siring this precise son; that precise daughter…
Dreiberg: …And anyway, this is Adrian for God’s sake. We know him. He never killed anybody, ever. Why would he want to destroy the world?
Kovacs: Insanity, perhaps?
Dreiberg: Ha. Well that’s a tricky one… I mean, who’s qualified to judge someone like that? This is the world’s smartest man we’re talking about here, so how can you tell? How can anyone tell if he’s gone crazy?
Teleported to New York, my creature’s death would trigger mechanisms within its massive brain, cloned from a human sensitive… the resultant psychic shockwave killing half the city.
What does fighting crime mean, exactly? Does it mean upholding the law when a woman shoplifts to feed her children, or does it mean struggling to uncover the ones who, quite legally, have brought about her poverty?
Veidt: I did the right thing, didn’t I? It all worked out in the end.
Jon: “In the end”? Nothing ends, Adrian. Nothing ever ends.