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Wednesday, June 19, 2024

Dead American Heroes

The American superhero is dead. For a while now, the anti-hero phenomenon has been permeating. In the last decade, our superheroes have been increasingly exhibiting fallibilities often associated with regular people, such as pathological inconsistencies (Batman), general clumsiness (Superman), addiction to alcohol (Hellboy) and extreme temperance (the Hulk). Yet they would still recover; despite suffering setbacks and wounds, they will summon valiant courage and unconquerable strength to defeat the evil Soviet empire and plotters threatening the world.

But that storyline is over. Optimism will now be a word from the past. The American superhero as we know it is no longer existent. We have reached a tipping point, one where the moral authority and ethical correctness of the superhero have finally become irrelevant.

How do we know this? Because in Watchmen, the protagonist makes a statement for peace and good by killing millions of innocent people. They are good by being evil.

Watchmen is at once stylistically accomplished and aesthetically rewarding. But the true strength of the movie lies in its plot. The plot focuses on the histories and narratives of the Watchmen, guardians and protectors of the city. Here, each member has individual, broken pasts. But they gain resolve through their histories, and unite to stop similar injustices from occurring.

When the Comedian, a Watchmen member, is assassinated, they are roused from their collective hibernation. An assault on one is an assault on all. They are confused as they are attacked. Many undergo numerous trials, but they soon realize that the killing is an act planned and executed by one of their members. He seeks to annihilate each.

And this is the irony. The entire story is a joke in destiny. To save billions, millions are killed. By sacrificing innocents in New York City, the protagonist-antagonist is attempting to save the world from a broader nuclear war between the Soviet Union and America. When his ploy succeeds, the American and Soviet governments declare truce to combat the common perceived hero-turned-enemy, Dr. Manhattan. This is killing to prevent killing.

At its essence, Watchmen is a morality tale. The protagonists discover that they’re not fighting for their personal existence, but for the soul of America. The masked heroes were previously the guardians of society. But they can’t keep saving America now because they are faceless, without identity. They need to cease to exist. The true heroes must instead be the police force, the firefighters, the politicians and the teachers. America needs a real face to it. Superheroes can’t accomplish this.

In some ways, this paradox harks utilitarianism, where one’s action, however seemingly wrong, is done for the greater good. What seems unreasonable is done for a reason. Sacrifices are necessary.

More broadly, this is recognition that we are finally acknowledging truth for what it really is: Masked superheroes are figments of our imagination. They are unraveled for who they truly are. The reality is that the American superhero never truly existed. It was a concoction of fantasy, a superhero created to provide a sense of security and safety. They existed insofar as we gave them life.

What caused us to realize and admit this truth? It is this: The nation has both lost faith in the power of her ideals, as well as accepting the qualities of an integrated postmodern world. On the one hand, she is wearied from wars, her financial system is crumbling and her beliefs are shaken. At the same time, America has come to view the world as one where events are the consequence of interdependent, random confluences. America is not a sole city on a hill, but only a city among many.

Superhero movies are a reflection of the way a nation sees itself. Watchmen showed us that America has finally accepted the reality that an American superhero never existed. Mar. 6 was the day the American superhero died.


ZACH HAN absolutely loved Watchmen; he thinks the faceless Rorschach is pretty maniacal. Agree with him at zklhan@ucdavis.edu.


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