John C. Wright on the Superversive and the Subversive hero

John C. Wright has a great post up contrasting the films Watchmen and The Incrediblesand how they provide examples of the Superversive and the Subversive hero. It is a fantastic read with many insights, although he doesn’t use the words superversive and subversive.

Upon a time, my son overheard me critiquing the movie WATCHMEN, and asked what I, supposing I had been hired as an author, would have done to revise the ending, or theme, or character arcs, to make the movie hale and sound?

How would I have filmed WATCHMEN?

It is a good question, worth pondering. My answer is: I would have filmed THE INCREDIBLES instead.

The comparison of the two films highlights the differences instructively.

Elsewhere I have described my admiration for WATCHMEN, as I watched it descent through the stages of reluctant admiration, mixed feelings, indifference, and then into a distaste deepening into contempt. I do not propose to repeat those observations here, nor perform that autopsy again.

Nor will I rob Alan Moore of the high praise of which his genius is due: he can be credited with inventing an entire genre and inspiring generation of epigones and imitators. This alone makes his name immortal, and elevates it above the crowded pantheon of lesser writers. He shares the empyrean throne along with such names as Thomas More, Edgar Alan Poe and Arthur Conan Doyle, along with Robert E Howard and JRR Tolkien (who invented the utopian, horror, detective, sword-and-sorcery, high fantasy).

But I will not doff my cap, but rather bite my thumb, at what Alan Moore here wrought. WATCHMAN is act of wanton deconstruction, desecration, and mockery of an entire genre. You have heard of antiheroes. Not until Alan Moore have we heard of antisuperheroes.

Let us compare. Both films have the same theme. In WATCHMAN, the supers are forced into retirement by the government; in INCREDIBLES, by out-of-control trial lawyers. Elastigirl becomes a housewife and raises three children, whereas Silk Specter becomes a paramour, fornicating with Doctor Manhattan, the human hydrogen bomb, at the behest of the government in order to keep him happy and under control. Mr Incredible becomes an insurance agent, trying to help a helpless little old lady on a fixed income, whereas Rorschach becomes a vigilante, trying to harm and terrify a harmless little old man who used to be a supervillain, now dying of cancer. Mr Incredible sees the world in simple terms of right and wrong, and the movie presents this as a correct view. Rorschach sees the world in stark terms of black and white, with no grays nor fine distinctions, and the movie presents this as utter insanity.

The plot is also parallel. A misunderstood and brilliant little boy, Buddy/Syndrome in INCREDIBLES and Adrian Veidt/Ozymandian in WATCHMAN, grows up wanting to be a superhero before the practice is outlawed. Both begin systematically killing supers (Gazerbeam, the Comedian) as part of a scheme to erect a pretend threat. Ozymandias’s motive is to terrify the Americans into making an alliance with the Soviets in order to prevent a thermonuclear war; Syndrome’s motive is to deconstruct and destroy the idea of superheroics, first by pretending to be one, then by giving his inventions to everyone, so that all men by being super are none of them super. Ironically, this is the motive of Alan Moore as well: to destroy the idea of all things superheroic by destroying the glamor.

Other parallels or echoes can be found. Elastigirl frets that Mr Incredible is committing adultery with Mirage; a fear that is false. Doctor Manhattan does not frets that Silk Specter is committing adultery with Nite Owl because, lacking free will, he really cannot fret about anything, and, technically, it is not adultery if one is cheating on one’s unwed paramour. The wholesome and natural nature of the worry of Elastigirl is contrasted with the unnatural and greasy nature of Silk Specter’s love triangle.

Mr Incredible, like Nite Owl, is overweight and out of shape and missing his glory days; and when an opportunity comes for a superhero mission, Mr Incredible lifts weights, gets in shape, buys a new car. Nite Owl is sexually impotent unless he is in his superhero costume.

And, in the final scene, when The Incredibles successfully halt the attack on the city by the Omnidroid, two pleasant old geezers, voiced by Stan and Ollie of Disney fame, are grateful, and compliment the act as ‘Old School’. Everyone is saved.

By contrast, when Nite Owl uses his Owl Ship to save tenants from a burning tenement, the old lady saved is cross and nasty, and Nite Owl swears at her. But not to worry: the old lady, and everyone else in New York, dies in the last reel.

For the Watchmen halt nothing and save no one: Ozymandias successfully kills millions of innocent people, and walks away not only unpunished, but indeed the heroes are punished. Dr Manhattan explodes the head of Rorschach, the hero, not Ozymandias, the villain, in a particularly sadistic and pointless act of Alan Moore sticking his thumb in the reader’s eye, just to emphasize the point that everything is pointless. Dr Manhattan then goes into outer space to create a new Earth and a new Adam and Eve. Whether this is meant to mock God for being indifferent to evil, or mock men who dare to play at being god, the event is greasy and unappealing either way. Since Rorschach already mailed his journal containing his suspicions to Rush Limbaugh of Fox News (or its equivalent) it is even odds that the plot of Ozymandias will be revealed anyway, and the end of the Cold War for which Ozymandias hoped be thwarted.

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