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when heroes despair

last friday was a day i had anticipated for many months: the arrival of watchmen . i am one of those who never heard of watchmen when the comic series came out in the 1980s, and truth be told i was never much of a comic reader anyway. however, the notion of the anti-hero has always appealed to me. we do not live in a black and white world; there are many shades of gray, and the idea that our heroes are not immune to that makes them more real. so, for example, i am more a fan of batman than superman. bruce wayne has no superpowers. under his mask and cape he's just as normal as i am (except for the whole zillionaire thing).

when i first saw the trailers for watchmen last fall, i was immediately engaged. the mixture of flawed heroes within a graphic novel genre interested me. i did not like sin city when it came out a few years ago, and i've only seen a few scenes of 300. everytime i saw the blue guy, or the owl guy, or the white mask and fedora hat guy i excitedly counted down the days until 03.06.09. so the date arrived, i fought legions of moviegoers for a seat, and watched the watchmen.

in terms of style and presentation, it is an absolute winner. its vision of a parallel 1985 where richard nixon is a fifth-term president and nuclear war with russia is an immediate threat had my attention. the heroes are introduced through a series of flashbacks, sometimes within other flashbacks. we learn that nixon used them to end (and win) the war in vietnam, then later outlawed their vigilantism. so most of the watchmen established fake identities and tried to live "normal" lives. their existence is much different than the world lived in by the "supers" of the incredibles when they were forced to retire into everyday life. the streets are violent, greed and evil is rampant, and the world is poised on the very edge of destruction. plus someone is trying to kill the watchmen.

again, the idea that heroes are real people (except dr. manhattan, who through a scientific accident became a god-like presence, beyond human and yet still struggling inside with human emotions and desires) appeals to me. each of the watchmen, through their own failings or their forced redundancy, struggle with their own demons. on one end of the spectrum, rorschach, the detective/vigilante, is fed up with the sleaziness of the world; on the other hand, dr. manhattan in his pseudo-divinity, becomes detached from the suffering of humanity.

in the end, the group falls apart, whatever ideals led them to become superheroes in the first place are at best blurred, and even the all-powerful dr. manhattan arrives too late to avert human disaster, too self-involved and not enough other-involved to be present when needed. i did not expect a "hollywood ending" to watchmen, and i was right. but even movies like blade runner and the dark knight, which explore the inner darkness of humanity, still find a way to cling to some sense of hope. watchmen tries, but the solution that is offered is empty.

i will not speculate (at least for now!) on whether watchmen attempts to comment about religion, whether dr. manhattan is a symbol of God's lack of interest in human suffering. but i do know that real people, even the super ones, need hope. in times such as these, when many people struggle with hopelessness, where do we turn when our leaders and heroes are in despair as much as we are? today is the festival of purim in Judaism. the celebrations of today recall queen esther's victory over the evil haman, whose plot to exterminate the Jews failed. it is a day to remember that violence and evil never have the last word-- there is always hope, and we must never give in to despair.

"i lift up my eyes to the hills-- from where does my help come? my help comes from the Lord, who made heaven and earth" (psalm 121:1-2). in the end, watchmen is correct: even heroes have limits-- even the ones we suppose are perfect. so when we worry, experience anxiety, are unsure what will happen next, let us remember that God is near, especially when everything else falls apart around us.


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