March 29, 2009

When superheros run amok: Exploring posthuman and technological themes in Watchmen

Warning: Spoiler alert.

Many things have been said about the recent film adaptation of the Watchmen graphic novel series, particularly the ways in which it has come to redefine the superhero genre. While it's certainly a brave film that's succeeded in pushing a number of boundaries, I believe its true strength lies in its various philosophical themes and social commentary. In particular, I was drawn to the discussions of technological power and the innovative ways in which this commentary was represented on the screen.

Looked at metaphorically, Watchmen is largely a treatise on the use and misuse of advanced technologies and the resultant soul-searching, dehumanization and loss of innocence that inevitably follows. It's a cynical and sobering look at weapons technologies in particular and how they often work to create disparities -- whether it be the militaristic disparities between combatant nations or the ways in which it pulls people apart.

And with the presence of a god-like posthuman superhero, Watchmen shows the ways in which a greater-than-human intelligence could either serve humanity's needs or bring it to its knees.

Doctor Manhattan and The Bomb

By far, the most powerful of the Watchmen is Doctor Manhattan, a "quantum superhero" with powers so incredible that he is essentially considered a god. He has the ability to manipulate matter with his thoughts, allowing him to teleport, change his size, copy himself, move objects through space and disintegrate people. His powers are frightening to say the least.

As his name suggests, Manhattan is the walking, talking personification of the nuclear bomb. And as it turns out, god happens to be an American -- a god that the U.S. government isn't afraid to utilize. In Strangelovian manner, the United States uses Manhattan (both directly and indirectly) as a super-weapon to stave off the Soviet Union. Disturbingly, Manhattan does as he's told. He is indifferent to the nature of his powers and the horrors he can unleash; like the bomb itself -- or any technology for that matter -- Dr. Manhattan is largely neutral. It's those who choose to unleash his awful powers who make the moral judgments.

But as the unfolding story suggests, there are consequences to the use of such power.

Take the episode in Vietnam, for example, and the awesome image of the gigantic Doctor Manhattan cutting a swath through the jungle and annihilating the Viet Cong with the wave of his hands. As the explosions around him would indicate, this is an alternate history in metaphor -- one in which the United States has chosen to use nuclear weapons in Vietnam.

This alternate history in which the U.S. wins in Vietnam doesn't end there, however. The impact of this action is felt back home; sure, the Americans may have won, but the resulting social climate and negative reaction results in a completely decayed and degraded America -- one whose population no longer wants anything to do with "superheros."

A cynical and pessimistic outlook

And it's not just Dr. Manhattan -- all the Watchmen can be seen as representing the impacts of one-sided weapons technologies. The flame throwing Edward Blake was right alongside Manhattan in Vietnam and for good reason. Blake is there to represent the dark and ugly side of America -- a symbol for the arrogant and jaded sentiment that tends to accompany militaristic success. Edward Blake represents the worst of a belligerent and techno-happy America as he runs amok with callous indifference.

The cynicism of the Watchmen doesn't stop there. Even the final outcome of the story, where millions of deaths are the only way to prevent all out human extinction, is a sobering look at the powers at our disposal. It's only through the use of apocalyptic scale technologies that world peace can be secured; it's The Day the Earth Stood Still all over again, but this time with the fist coming down hard.

Doctor Manhattan and the posthuman
"I've walked across the sun. I've seen events so tiny and so fast they hardly can be said to have occurred at all, but you... you are a man. And this world's smartest man means no more to me than does its smartest termite." -- Doctor Manhattan to Ozymandias
Interestingly, the Watchmen commentary goes beyond the advent of nuclear weapons. The discussion extends to the potential emergence of those powers that radically exceed human capacities. Given the incredible scale of Dr. Manhattan's abilities, he can also be seen as a personified instantiation of a posthuman or superintelligent artificial intelligence (SAI). The film explores the ways in which such a power could be an alienating, alienated, and dehumanizing force.

For context, transhumanists and speculative AI theorists consider the emergence of an SAI -- an entity with intellectual capacities that are radically more advanced than the human mind (such an intelligence could emerge from an AI or as an outgrowth from a highly modified human brain). Such discussions have evoked images of god-like intelligences capable of reworking human affairs and even the fabric of the Universe itself. Because we lack the proper terminology or frame to envision such an intelligence, many have referred to this potential AI as being 'god-like.'

Doctor Manhattan encapsulates many of these characteristics. He is the reluctant god, one who is largely indifferent to human affairs. Manhattan lives in the quantum universe and does not perceive time with a linear perspective, something that alienates him even further from those around him. Consequently, his interests and intellectual endeavors lead him to a different mind-space altogether; he is primarily concerned with the inner workings and unfolding of the Universe. His ability to relate to humanity recedes with each passing day, almost to the point where he can no longer distinguish between a living and dead human being.

This is a fear levied by some futurists as they worry about the emergence of a poorly programmed or indifferent SAI. Indeed, how and why would an intellect that runs at a radically increased clock-speed and expanded/alternative mind-space relate to unaugmented humans? It's an open question. In Watchmen this problem nearly results in human extinction, not due to the actions of Manhattan, but out of inaction and apathy.

At one point in the film, Manhattan escapes to Mars so that he can avoid human contact. He does so because he finds personal interaction with humans annoying and a distraction. This is a god who would rather retreat into himself, preferring solitude on Mars where he can ruminate on existence and construct masterful structures.

Eventually Laurie Jupiter convinces Manhattan to come back to Earth and rescue humanity from nuclear armageddon -- but it's on account of an improbable existential quirk that he changes his mind -- the closest he can come to actually caring.

[As an aside, and looking as his inability to empathize and relate to other people, Doctor Manhattan can also be seen as an 'autistic superhero'. He is very much locked-in to his inner life, he has a fascination with the minutiae of all that is around him, and he is the beneficiary of prodigious talents. Sounds very autistic to me.]

A defeatist tale?

Despite the seemingly happy ending (even in consideration of the millions of deaths that were required to make it happen), Watchmen leaves the viewer with a profound sense of defeat. Indeed, what kind of a world do we live in if megadeaths are required to keep the peace? Is near-armageddon required to keep us in line? Will a common enemy (climate change, perhaps) unite all people in a common cause?

Or is all this rather pedestrian and grossly over-simplified? And what about the potential benefits that technologies may bring?

These are all questions for discussion at the very least. Watchmen leaves the viewer asking more questions than when they came in -- certainly the sign of a great and provocative film.


dharmicmel said...

have you read the graphic novel; it is extraordinary

dharmicmel said...

in the novel, Dr. Manhatten’s existence was announced to the public in march of 1960; when this happened, everything was changed, and all perceptions were turned inside out, and upside down, because the very nature of what was real, or could be real, had radically and dramatically changed; we can’t help but wonder if enhanced human intelligence or superintelligent artificial intelligence won’t do the same thing; so far, I don’t think the majority believe in such a possibility; I don’t think belief or non-belief figure in this case, because the shape of things to come, especially in the scientific and technological spheres, suggests otherwise, as said progress seems unrelenting; it’s just a matter of time .....

when a posthuman version, or something similar, like Dr. Manhatten, or even very much not like Dr. Manhatten, does in fact manifest -- and I think it will -- then human worldviews could very well be flattened; what happens then might be, as it is now, beyond our comprehension; it could be the combination of the Frankenstein myth and Pandora’s box; it could be the most wonderful thing every imagined; whatever it is, the word transformation comes to mind, as in deep, substantial change, just for starters

I can't help but wonder if we are really ready for it

Marc_Geddes said...

Great movie, I did think of all the transhumanists in the scenes where the 'Watchmen' were all gathering in superhero costumes for the group photo.

Some ended in mental hospitals, others died out or retired etc etc LOL

I definitely thought of Eliezer Yudkowsky as the anti-hero Adrian Veidt/Ozymandias the self-proclaimed 'smartest man in the world'

I identify myself with Walter Kovacs/Rorschach ;)

Recall a scene near the end after the big show-down between Dr Manhattan and Ozymandias, Manhatten had Ozymandias at his mercy.

Loved Manhattans quote; 'the world's smartest man is no more threat to me than the world's smartest termite'

(Although admittedly, Ozymandias then pulled a great metaphorical escape fitting of a super-high IQer).

Ozymandias's motives seemed pretty illogical, if he was that smart he should have thought of a much better way than that to save the world, but the ending did make for a great story and was, as you say, in keeping with the overall cynical tone of it all.

But Manhattan symbolized tremendous physical super powers rather than super mind powers (more like a nano-tech genie than an SAI, though he could apparently see the Qauntum mechanical branches of his own past and future)

But beings with super powers are notoriously aloof and amoral in fiction. In a sense they're 'too powerful', so I guess the authors have to invent ways to keep them side-lined from the main story track or they would dominate the plot.

Some really spectacular surreal scenes with Dr Manhattan though, definitely weird enough to hint at posthuman existence.

Shane said...

Guess I'm going to have to see this movie after all...

Elf Sternberg said...

One thing that held my attention throughout the film was how everything was so one-sided. There were tiers of superherodom: Rorschach, Night Owl, Comedian and Spectre far outclassed the punks in the alleyway, or anywhere else; Ozymandias outclassed all of them, and Manhattan outclassed everyone. Unlike every other superhero movie, where the premise is that battles have more or less equal opponents and there's something at stake in winning or losing, here there's no question about winning or losing: the ones with the better qualities always win. The four were the best-trained warriors in the world; Ozymandias not only had the training, but a natural (but, we're supposed to believe, still within human capability) speed advantage and all that wealth to buy more capability and training; and Dr. Manhattan was, well, godlike.

From a Transhumanist perspective, I take a very depressing message out of the film: when you're outclassed, you will lose. Your only hope is that you don't come to the attention of those in the tier above you.

m477h3w said...

It is exciting to see posthuman themes popping up more frequently in mainstream media, and it is my hope that exposure to these themes will encourage people to explore the topic further. On the other hand, it always saddens me to see a movie put forth as a solid argument against technological development. How many times has Terminator been presented as an argument against AI, as if it is an inevitable scenario?

For a (sometimes) less cynical exploration of possible human/posthuman scenarios in pop culture, I recommend Heroes and the new Battlestar Galactica series.

K-Lo said...

I think it's extremely unfortunate that Alan Moore's name doesn't appear once in this entire article. All those elements you're referring to in the movie occur in the graphic novel and are creations of Alan Moore.