It is a strange thing when you come away from some piece of art and decide that you like it, but that you really shouldn't.
This is how I feel about Watchmen, which I went and saw yesterday. Its not the first time I've felt it either. Exactly the same thing happened when I saw Kill Bill. That was a film that had no redeeming qualities at all, was filled with violence and cussing, whose protagonist and villains were all equally ruthless, and yet...and yet....I loved every minute of it and will still put it on of an evening if I need something to lift my mood. Can I justify this to anybody who might demand an explanation? Not really.
I have no idea if Watchmen would similarly stand up to repeat viewings for me. Only one way to find out, I suppose.
The good things first. I enjoyed Rorschach. He was psychotic and violent, but he had principles. His reaction to the guy who killed the girl, and the fact that I was meant to sympathise with that reaction, told me that there was still some objective sense of moral justice lying under the surface of the film, even if it crossed the line into vengeance by a smidgen. I was glad the film didn't try to make the murderer sympathetic. Arguably, though, this was subverted later on with Ozymandias, whose evil was meant to seem sympathetic (or at least morally ambiguous)- but there Rorschach saw through it and declared it for what it was, which I liked. The whole film noir thing was very enjoyable (I love film noir!). The opening credits sequence was brilliant; such richness of multi-layered imagery! I had to concentrate to catch every significant detail and probably didn't succed. That was well done, very stylish. And, of course, you have to love a film whose soundtrack can include Bob Dylan and Simon & Garfunkel alongside Wagner and Mozart (although I do wish one of these days someone would mine the Ring Cycle for something other than Ride of the Valkyries)!
On the other hand, there are many reasons to dislike Watchmen. Violence on that level was unnecessary. I remember having to look away in the chainsaw scene in Scarface. There is a chainsaw scene here as well, from which I didn't have to look away though it was no less graphic. That bothers me not a little. Besides which, is it really easier to saw the guy's arms off than simply untie him? Surely the knot wasn't that difficult?
The sex was also way over the top and unnecessary. And, I have since been told, completely off-screen in the graphic novel. Of course, there are love scenes and then there are love scenes. There were three of them here, though, and the third one in particular did not fall into either of the above two categories (On the other hand, Dr Manhatten's nudity didn't bother me in the slightest- he didn't look all that different from Michelangelo's David anatomy-wise and it didn't draw attention to itself except, ironically, when he was wearing those horrid black undies; for the record, ladies, black and fleuro-blue clash!).
These things, however, are petty complaints next to the real one, which is the nihilism and subversion of the hero archetype. John C. Wright has a very good review in which he discusses this aspect at some length.
Now, I must say, there have been films whose overall theme or point left me utterly cold. I despised The Bucket List because of its cavalier and hedonistic approach to death. I despised Seven Pounds because of its glorification of suicide. But the nihilism and postmodern subversion here didn't repel me utterly. If I were to analyse why I feel that way, I think it might look something like this:
Nihilism, cynicism, subversion, deconstruction; these are medicine, not food. Medicine is a worthwhile thing to take in small doses. To subvert the hero motif and subvert it so completely is a wake-up call which shouts loudly to the audience that no man can be trusted (and, unlike in some other movies- yes, I'm looking at you, V for Vendetta- here there was no political partisanship). Calling to mind the things going on in America's recent history, 'no man can be trusted' is probably a necessary message to hear. To receive a small dose of nihilism may be a worthwhile thing to do when earthly things appear too solid; all the things we instinctively try to hold on to are after all made and maintained ex nihilo.
The problem comes when all of that becomes the staple of a steady diet. Because, of course, man and all he counts worthwhile are not the only cards on the table. There is also the guy who made the table and invented the game in the first place. And it turns out he's been playing along with us for some time now and has some cards of his own.
If an audience is at the point where they have begun to see the futility of the categories that formerly made sense of their world, maybe the time is ripe for some new categories. Where deconstruction has become attractive- well, maybe the thing being deconstructed was worth tearing down. But rather than leaving a bare, gaping hole in the ground, those with building experience should set about constructing something else, something better able to stand.
I see, therefore, a film with this sort of message as an opportunity and a wake-up call. At a time when both financial and mental certainties seem shaky and their solidity is being questioned, it is a good time to point to that which really is solid. That's the opportunity.
The wake-up call is that we had better know and believe that ourselves. Our culture has a low tolerance level for hypocrisy and salespitches. God is the only truly solid thing in the universe, but if we want to convince people that that is so, we had better live like it is. Which, of course, is a big part of why we are doing Lent.
A Christian culture can certainly make nihilistic art. King Lear depresses me every time. But even in King Lear, there is the beacon of love and goodness that is Cordelia. And the entire play turns on those two words of utter and sublime grace and mercy spoken by her to her mad and pathetic father, "No cause."
Watchmen needs a Cordelia. Rorschach is the closest it has, but he doesn't make it, because he has justice (which is, it must be said, no small thing in our culture- credit where its due) but not mercy nor love. Absent a Cordelia, it is up to us, the audience, to accept what is offered and supply what is lacking.