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Some Ramblings - Watchmen
By Srinivas Kanchibhotla

It is not an oft touched upon topic when it comes to the matter of super heroes - consequences for their actions. A distress call goes out, the super hero swoops in, saves the day and disappears into the shadows. But who cleans up and picks up the pieces after the heroics, after the explosions, after the destruction, at the end of the day? What about any unwitting innocent victims caught in the crossfire, not to mention the massive rebuilding efforts and the task to return to normalcy? (an aspect that was touched upon in Pixar's brilliant animation movie, The Incredibles) The answer depends on how close to reality the universe around super hero is built. If the world is not firmly rooted in reality, a la Superman's, repercussions are the last thing on anyone's mind; it is all about heroics. Every action sequence would have the same template - the evil plan is hatched and executed, and just at the last moment, the hero comes to the rescue and all becomes well with the world after. Wash. Rinse. Repeat. On the other hand, if a decision is made that the hero should co-habit the real world, confronting the same issues of every day life as anyone else, his job become more complex than choosing between a simple right or wrong, good or evil. Nuances, perspectives, interpretations, compromises, and importantly, consequences, weigh in heavily on his every action.

In the recently released 'The Dark Knight', Batman secretly flies to Hong Kong, apprehends an unscrupulous accountant who works for the mob, and transports him back to States to bring him to justice here. Well, in real world, that audacious stunt would set off a diplomatic row between two powerful nations which have well defined extradition treaties. Foreign ministries would get involved and ultimately the government would step in to clip Batman's wings and punish him for becoming an extra-constitutional authority in this regard. Another unwanted off-shoot to self appointed vigilantism is the copy cat phenomenon. If one rich guy takes it upon himself to define the code of conduct, transforms himself into a Cape Crusader and tries to dispense justice as he sees fit, what would prevent several other with similar means, resources and agendas to jump in the fray and throw their morality hats in the justice ring? An even more pressing question is, to whom does the super hero pledge his allegiance to - his neighborhood, city, country, or to the entire humanity as a whole? Should the super hero intervene or hold back when his own country perpetrates an act of aggression over its neighbor in the name of national security? Such troubling questions are the very reason why real world is never right for the super heroes, because issues are never as black and white as night and day.

After 'The Dark Knight', here is 'Watchmen' which clears out the aura behind super heroes, muddies them up and throws them into the real world fraught with real issues, and asks questions that are morally ambivalent, ethically unclear and philosophically downright muddled. It ups the ante even higher by bringing in the geo-political ramifications into the equation, by setting the story against the rising tensions in the Cold War era. If a super hero with super human abilities does indeed exist somewhere in the world, would he be considered as a natural deterrent to any unwarranted aggression, or pose a threat to the balance of powers in the world? The situation is akin to nations stockpiling weapons of all kind (nuclear, chemical, biological), fearing preemptive strikes from the other side. In the present day scenario, if US has a super hero guarding its national interests, the rest of the world wouldn't meekly accept US's superiority and pull themselves out of the race. Instead such a situation would set off an arms race to thwart/neutralize the super power's super power, pushing the doomsday scenario to the brink of total annihilation. Now, under such circumstances, is the existence of super hero a boon or bane to global peace?

'Watchmen' makes a fundamental distinction between a super hero, who is bestowed with unnatural powers to rise above the physical limitations, and a costumed vigilante, who is a regular guy with limited means and simple motives (fight crime and punish evil), by introducing a philosophical element into the argument. If the super hero is someone who is elevated not only in physical prowess but also in thought process, when compared to the rest, he should already transcend physical, regional and emotional boundaries, pretty well recognizing that nothing he does really changes anything in the longer run. Vanquish evil for now, it comes back again in a different garb. Rid the society of all the unwarranted elements, and the society finds a new way of squabbling among itself all over again. The petty differences, the arbitrary boundaries, the struggles, the skirmishes are all something, a superior mind would realize, that had been there since time immemorial and will continue to thrive, long after it is gone, and the impact of the super hero on such a constantly evolving and transforming society will be negligible at best, a tiny blip in a violent electric storm. The same questions of morals, ethics, values and rules have only been changing in text, language and semantics over passing time lines, but never in their actual content or intent. This is a pretty powerful argument that questions the very need of a super hero.

When the spotlight is turned from the super hero to a more human costumed hero, the questions becomes even more pointed. In a society where a few individuals have chosen to rise above the established law and fight with the nefarious elements in their own justified ways, what if a situation arises when there is a serious conflict of issues, a basic disagreement among the masked vigilantes as to what constitutes crime, and how far are they willing to go in terms of sacrifices, collateral and casualties, in the name of peace? Like it is with the written law, there never is a set of guiding principles for the self appointed deliverers of justice. And when there are no standards, the confusion and chaos among the costumed brethren are no different from what already exists in the real world. Which again brings back to the same question, does a vigilante help or harm a system more?

'Watchmen', based upon the eponymous graphic novel, is no ordinary super hero movie. It presents a bunch of heroes who are flawed, jaded, cynical and nihilistic, burdened by the collective weight of growing conscience and rising injustice, gasping at the last straws of their individual sanities in a world growing progressively worse. The graphic novel (a comic book with much darker tones) is hailed as the best ever written in this medium, rising even to the status of 'literature', for the manner in which the mythology of the every day super hero is turned on its head and exposed for what it truly is - an impossible fantasy - by approaching the contradictions of such a construct in a logical and philosophical manner. And the masterstroke of setting it in the contemporary world, not only added to the complexity of the issues, but also lent a tone of credibility to the dilemmas that the heroes faced. A faithful reproduction of the novel, panel by panel, and blow by blow, seems to be the only way of bringing it to the screen, for a plot that is dense, complex, multi-layered and certainly, not straightforward. The makers need to be commended for simply tracing around the novel on the screen (in a manner of speaking) and not allowing their sensibilities to tinker with the book, that was already bursting at the seams with hitherto unheard ideas in presentation and imagination. Ultimately, like its super hero, the book transcends matter and time, translating quite well to the current day and age, for something that was written in the mid 80s, at the heights of the Cold War. And riding the coat tails of the book, so does the movie.

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More Ramblings on films
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Slumdog Millionaire
Quantom of Solace
The Dark Knight
Wall - E
The incredible Hulk
Indiana Jones and the kingdom of crystal skull
Speed Racer
Iron Man
Jodha Akbar
There will be blood
Chrlie Wilson's War
No Country for Old Men
Om Shanti Om
Lions for Lambs
American Gangster
Michael Clayton
Happy Days
Chak De India!
The Bourne Ultimatum
The Simpsons Movie
The Grindhouse
Casino Royale
The Departed
Lage Raho Munnabhai
Superman Returns
The Da Vinci Code
Sri Ramadasu
Rang De Basanti (Hindi)
Jai Chiranjeeva!
Munich (English)
Sarkar (Hindi)
Mangal Padey (Hindi)
Kaadhal (Tamil)
Anukokunda Oka Roju
Batman Begins (English)
Radha Gopalam
Mughal E Azam
Virumandi (Tamil)
Lakshya (Hindi)
Yuva (Hindi)
Kakha Kakha (Tamil)
Mr & Mrs Iyer
Nuvve Nuvve


This article is written by Srinivas Kanchibhotla
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