Andy Gainey
Group photo of the Watchmen:  The Comedian, The Silk Spectre II, Dr. Manhattan, Ozymandias, Nite Owl II, Rorschach

Watchmen, the 2nd Generation of Masked Crime Fighters

Watchmen, a 2009 movie directed by Zack Snyder and based on the graphic novel of the same name by Alan Moore, is without a doubt my favorite super hero movie, and easily ranks among my top movies of any genre. The action is good, the cinematography is well done, the script is compelling, and the acting is effective. But what really draws me in are the characters, as is true for most great stories. In particular, how strongly I could relate to so many of them in a variety of ways. Each character reflected a different facet of my own experiences in a profound way.

Dr. Manhattan, with his highly rational thinking style, suppressed emotions, and somewhat alien perspective; I only wish I had his powers. Rorschach’s dedication to principles and to authenticity, and his willingness to take action even if he does so alone. The Comedian, with his absurdist outlook on life, though not the extreme cynicism and impulsivity which accompanies it. Both the second Nite Owl and Silk Spectre for their struggles figuring out who their true selves really are, and how they can fit with society, or not. As for my relation to Ozymandias, I wouldn’t want to be that much of a narcissist and I won’t claim to be the world’s smartest person, but I take great pride in what intelligence I do have, and value it deeply.

Since last years’ undertaking of research and reflection around the subject of autism, and my consequently more nuanced self-understanding, I decided to re-watch the movie again, this time paying close attention to some of the themes that really impact me. The following is likely to make more sense to those who have watched the movie (or read the novel), but it should still be moderately coherent even if you have not.

Note: Vague spoilers included, along with the occasional bit of strong language and mature subjects.

Sense of Alienness, Emotional Distance from Society

Just as I wrote in my recent post prompted by The Imitation Game, even though the reasons may not always be blatantly obvious to others, I tend to relate powerfully with characters who by their nature are somehow distanced from society, so it’s no wonder that the barely human Dr. Manhattan (Jon Osterman) captures my attention so strongly.

It is a common problem for other characters, most notably his girlfriend Laurie, to comprehend how Jon sees the world. (And yes, “girlfriend” completely lacks the nuance needed to describe a relationship as unusual as theirs.) In one scene, while geeking out with some night vision goggles, she conjectures, “This must be the way Jon sees the world”, tragically underestimating just how different his perspective really is. Thought I have to give her credit for trying to keep an open mind; much better than obliviousness.

Earlier, while talking to her friend Dan, she tries to put words to how he relates (or not):

Jon, sitting on edge of bed, examining a bra

Jon, pondering a bra

You probably just had an argument or something.
No, Dan. You don’t know what it’s been like living with him. The way he looks at things now, it’s like he doesn’t remember what they are. It’s like this world, this real world, to him, it’s like walking through mist. And people are just shadows. Shadows in a fog. God, how did everything get so tangled up?

I don’t think anyone would describe me in such a way, but there are times when I worry that I might be edging toward that territory. Not that I actually do see people as shadows, but that people might think that I do. This worry has been known to create a degree of anxiety as I wonder if my external actions are sufficient to clear the mist, to confirm to others that I do see them, that I’m not just lost in my own fog. Most of the time I just cross my fingers and hope that it’s not an issue. But when the worry intrudes, I do not feel well equipped in the art of social interactions to properly address the concern.

The argument which Dan mentions refers to the following earlier exchange between Laurie and Jon, when Jon (who has the ability to be in multiple places at once) is caught working on scientific research while simultaneously engaging in intimate activities with Laurie:

Dr. Manhattan, with two additional instances of himself in the background

“She’ll be back.” “No, she won’t.”

Are you working in here while we’re in bed together?
My work with Adrian is at a critical stage right now. I didn’t think it was necessary to…
To what? To what? To tell me which one of you is giving me a pity fuck?
My attention was completely focused on you. If you think there’s a problem with my attitude, I am prepared to discuss it.
You know how everything in this world fits together except people. What am I to you? Another puzzle to be solved?
You’re my only remaining link to the world.
I don’t want that responsibility anymore.
Laurie (to Adrian)
He’s all yours.
Don’t worry, Jon. She’ll be back.
No, she won’t.

“You know how everything in this world fits together except people.” Yup, that really sums it up sometimes. I think in terms of systems. Complex dynamics involving the relationships and interactions of numerous moving components. And I often feel like that’s the only type of mental tool I have available for understanding people, including myself. Yet I’ve been trained my whole life not to objectify people. Maybe I misinterpret what is intended by this prohibition against objectification, but given the internal moral system which it has generated within me, I often come up empty when searching for a way to make sense of a complex social situation. Perhaps that is a net gain; I’m thankful I haven’t gotten to the point where I might say something such as the following, when Jon was accused of unintentionally giving close friends and colleagues cancer:

Dr. Manhattan at a live TV interview

Structurally, there’s no difference.

You’re suggesting I was the cause.
From where I’m standing, it’s starting to look pretty conclusive.
Even if that’s the case, it’s irrelevant. A live human body and a deceased human body have the same number of particles. Structurally, there’ s no difference.

Nor would people be inclined to say the following about me, to my knowledge anyway:

Dr. Manhattan in Vietnam, with Vietnamese soldiers in the foreground

Dr. Manhattan in Vietnam

You really don’t give a damn about human beings. You’re drifting out of touch, doc. God help us all.

Though I suppose there were the light-hearted jokes back in college about how I’d be the nice quiet one who would one day suddenly snap and “go postal” on everyone. I didn’t think much about it at the time, being completely oblivious to any notions of autism or neurodiversity and my relation to them. I didn’t know why I was the one singled out for the honor of being a potential mass murderer, but maybe my different way of thinking had more of an impact on people’s perception of me than any of us realized.

So aside from trying to be a good driver or figuring out how to navigate the checkout aisles as cooperatively and efficiently as possible (I wonder if I queue as well as the British), I generally refrain from thinking of people as objects in a system. But that leaves me with no useful mental model to work with. People might insist that I think of them as subjects, not objects, the way I might think of myself. But keep in mind that my mental model of myself is also that a complex system embedded within a larger and even more complex social system. Yet I’ve learned that people don’t much prefer that I think about them in this way, even if I’m being consistent. Unfortunately, since I have no clue how they perceive themselves (on the assumption that it differs from my own self-perception), I don’t know how to perceive them any more appropriately than I already do. For a long time, I didn’t even have the slightest hint that their self-perception might be notably different from my own. So I’ve learned something in that regard over the years, but the learning curve seems to have encountered an impenetrable barrier. I’m reminded of another comment Jon makes to Laurie during one of their disputes:

You complain that I refuse to see life on life’s terms, yet you continuously refuse to see things from my perspective.

But I have to acknowledge that it would be just as difficult for someone else to grasp my tyle of self-perception as it is for me to grasp theirs, creating a permanent hurdle in the way of deeper understanding. Thus, when a social situation starts to get tricky, I am likely to go into an internal panic mode, clinging for dear life, hoping to somehow coast through the situation without making things worse. Unsurprisingly, that doesn’t always work. I occasionally envy Jon’s super-human ability to instantly leave Earth whenever he feels the need:

Dr. Manhattan, levitating in the lotus position on Mars.

Meditation on Mars

I prefer the stillness here. I am tired of Earth, these people. I’m tired of being caught in the tangle of their lives.

Or even an alternate identity could be useful. For example, when Laurie and Dan are hanging out in his basement with all his old Nite Owl crime-fighting gadgets, she notes:

Must be nice having a secret identity. A secret place that nobody knows about. You can just come down here and hang out without anyone checking up on you. Nobody watching you.

Self-Identity and Masks

Speaking of identities, finding one’s true self and living authentically is another major theme of the movie that resonates strongly with me. All the characters deal with that issue, each in their own unique way. Eddie Blake tries his whole life to use his identity as The Comedian to create a parody of humanity in order to make its weaknesses obvious, but in the end he can’t keep the charade going. Laurie and Dan both insist on living normal lives, viewing their masked identities as fake, but they eventually discover that they have it backward. Adrian Veidt is effectively bullied by The Comedian (and conceivably many others earlier in life), but ends up developing a self-confidence that does not depend upon anyone else’s approval for its sustenance.

Jon takes until near the end of the movie to really discover himself; understandable given the sheer degree of his uniqueness and his human origin. He’s torn between the ordinary humanity that he once had and the radically new existence he acquires midway through life. The exchange below, between him and Laurie, highlights this complex emotional strain, and his inability to communicate his feelings effectively:

Jon and Laurie, discussing stuff while on Mars

Does that not show you that I care?

I said often that you were my only remaining link to humanity. Why would I save a world I no longer have any stake in?
Then do it for me. If you really care.
When you left me, I left Earth. Does that not show you that I care?

Jon also wears a mask of sorts, though not in the sense that the other characters do. As covered earlier, he comes across as emotionally detached from humans, but much of that public presentation is a result of his inability to fully comprehend his own emotional nature or how to effectively communicate it to others. I get that all too well. Rorschach at one point wonders in his journal, “Does Manhattan even have a heart to break?” Dan has a valuable insight that he shares with Laurie:

But I don’t know what to think. I mean, it’s all quantum mechanics and parallel realities with him. I never even know what universe he’s actually seeing. He just keeps getting further away from me. Everyone. I can’t even tell if he actually cares about me anymore, or if he’s just pretending.
If he’s pretending, it means he cares.

People who know me, take note. “If he’s pretending, it means he cares.” Sometimes it’s the best I can come up with for managing a situation. Remember what I said above about desperately hoping to not make a situation worse? Yeah, that. Similarly, just keeping things to myself often seems like the most reliable option available, not just for protecting myself from emotional pain, but others too.

Seems like there’s a lot of things you don’t tell me these days.
I didn’t wanna worry you prematurely.

It might not have been the right choice, but figuring out how to make the right choice can be a mystery sometimes. The motivation at least was honest and respectful. Without a coherent system for choosing, I’m sometimes at a loss as to how I can get beyond merely good intentions and achieve the good actions toward which the intentions aim.

Jon, contemplating

Jon, emotionally worn out

Adrian is also perceptive enough to see through Jon’s mask in ways that Jon might not even be able to:

I’ve known Jon long enough to see he isn’t devoid of emotion. His subtle facial twitches wouldn’t be noticed by the layman, but to me, he might as well have been sobbing.

Later on, he fully embraces his interest in systems over people, no longer unsure of where he stands on the subject. It may not be the route others would wish, but it’s the one that is right for him, the one that fits him better than a more “normal” life ever could.

I’m leaving this galaxy for one a little less complicated.
I thought you said you cared about life again.
I do. I think maybe I’ll create some.
Rorschach (Walter Kovacs) with his mask removed

Give me back my face!

Rorschach, on the other hand, knows himself from the beginning of the film, and remains true to his self-conception throughout. Nonetheless, others have a tendency to think he’s hiding his true self by always wearing his mask and never revealing his legal identity to anyone. He knows better. When the cops catch him and remove his mask, he cries:

My face! Give me back my face!

When he’s offered a choice between prison and a psychiatric hospital, he immediately recognizes that his freedom to be himself would be denied in either location.

Well, let me explain your situation here, Walter. You cooperate with me, and I may be able to convince them that you should be treated medically. In a hospital. I believe that would be good for you. But the authorities wanna put you with the general population.
Prison’s a prison.

Related to his solid sense of self is his fierce dedication to his principles. As he writes in his journal,

Rorschach responding to Dan, before exiting the Antarctic base

Never compromise.

I live my life free of compromise, and step into the shadow without complaint or regret.

Or later, when dealing with a particularly huge moral conflict on which everyone around him disagrees:

Rorschach. Wait.
Never compromise. Not even in the face of Armageddon. That’s always been the difference between us, Daniel.

Dan, the second-generation Nite Owl, and Laurie, the second-generation Silk Spectre, both experience internal conflicts over who they are, feeling uncomfortable with both their ordinary and crime-fighting identities. Especially for Dan, it is his identity as Nite Owl to which he is truly drawn, but for whatever reasons, perhaps the pressures of society or the expectations of his father, both alluded to elsewhere, he strives so hard to be content with a “normal” identity. But Rorschach calls him out on it.

Nobody knows who you are. You can give it up, try and have a normal life.
That what you have now? A normal life? … Do you really feel normal?
Least I’m not the one still hiding behind a mask.
No. You’re hiding in plain sight.
Rorschach, on his way out from Dan's secret basement

You’re hiding in plain sight.

“Hiding in plain sight” seems to be a common sentiment of autistic adults, and I can indeed contribute my own experience to that refrain. So much of the stress and anxiety I’ve felt in the past have been due to attempts to be more “normal”, or self-imposed expectations to only handle situations in ways that I thought would be deemed acceptable by society. Many of my proudest or happiest moments occurred during those periods where I was able to ignore those pressures, to not internalize the messages of proper behavior that originate externally. But I would inevitably slip back into applying those standards to myself once again, and drag along the stress and frustration that accompany them. True to form, Rorschach lays the blunt smack down on Dan, when Dan begins to reminisce about his crime-fighting days as Nite Owl:

Those were great times, huh Rorschach? What happened?
You quit.

Then again, Rorschach’s unwavering commitment to his self-identity and principles doesn’t exactly earn him many friends. The following scene between him and Dan is an awkwardly touching moment.

Rorschach and Dan shaking hands after having a brief and awkward but touching moment.

I know it can be difficult with me sometimes.

God, who do you think you are, Rorschach? You live off people while insulting them. And no one complains because they think you’re a goddamn lunatic… I’m sorry. I shouldn’t have said that, man.
Daniel, you are a good friend. I know it can be difficult with me sometimes.
Forget it. It’s okay, man. Let’s do it your way.”

It’s made more awkward by the fact that I could so easily see myself in Rorschach’s shoes. “I know it can be difficult with me sometimes.” I work hard to not make that a necessary thing to say, but I fear that I’ve worked so hard at it that in some areas of my life, I’ve become something of a pushover. It’s tough when it seems like I’m managing a precarious balancing act between being true to myself and not making life unpleasant for others. I am convinced that there are ways to do both simultaneously; they’re not diametrically opposed, even if it may seem like it at times. But those ways do not always clearly present themselves, and so I’ve accepted a great number of compromises between the two throughout my life.

Speaking of Rorschach’s difficulty getting along, here’s a taste of the style of opinions he often holds of others, from an earlier moment in the movie:

Meeting with Dreiberg left bad taste in mouth. A flabby failure who sits whimpering in his basement. Why are so few of us left active, healthy, and without personality disorders?

There’s undoubtedly a heavy dose of irony intended by the author in Rorschach’s comment about personality disorders. He’s not presented as a balanced character by any means. Nonetheless, I think that there’s an important truth in there that shouldn’t be completely buried beneath the humorous irony. People do not agree with the implications of Rorschach’s principles; they are unnerved by the strength of his convictions. And so it is that much easier to label him as disordered. Granted, I’m not advocating murderous vigilantism, but that’s just a component of the caricature. Throughout the movie, the discomfort with Rorschach expressed by other characters seems to be more about his personality and his unwillingness to conform to majority opinion than it is about the specific actions he takes. His statement above suggests the possibility that conforming to society’s expectations rather than to one’s own self identity is the actual personality disorder.

And then there’s Adrian Veidt. He too feels set apart from the social world around him.

Adrian Veidt, talking about his past

Adrian Veidt

I guess you could say I’ve always been alone. They say I’m the smartest man in the world, but the truth is I’ve often felt stupid at being unable to relate to anyone.

The contrast between genius and stupidity is interesting, and to a lesser degree has been a theme throughout my life also. I’ve known since roughly middle school that I excelled intellectually. And I’ve known since around that same time that I struggle to just keep up socially. To the extent that I have in fact succeeded socially, it is due to finding my own way to that success, and it was almost obtained through the efforts of much intellectualizing. Then again, I’ve always been careful to maintain at least enough humility to not counteract all my efforts. Adrian, um, not so much. He continues his self-description thusly:

Ozymandias, explaining his master plan

Adrian as Ozymandias, the Greek name for the Egyptian pharaoh Ramesses II

…I’ve often felt stupid at being unable to relate to anyone. Well, anyone living, that is. The only person with whom I felt any kinship died three hundred years before the birth of Christ, Alexander of Macedonia. Or, Alexander the Great as you know him. His vision of a united world was, well, it was unprecedented. I wanted, needed, to match his accomplishments. So I resolved to apply antiquity’s teachings to our world today. And so began my path to conquest. Conquest not of men, but of the evils that beset them.

Thus he conceives of himself as a near-god among mortals. It doesn’t earn him any true friends, but interestingly enough, he seems to have accepted this fate. His ego is sufficient to sustain itself. In one sense I can respect that, but not the way that he combines his self-respect with a disrespect of nearly everyone else in the world. I much prefer Jon’s attitude, wishing to leave others to their own devices, rather than attempting to save them from themselves as Adrian sees it.


Whew. That turned out to be a rather long and meandering exploration of moments from the movie that I found compelling on the topic of neurodiversity, and in relation to my own personal experiences. Feelings of otherliness and attitudes concerning one’s sense of self identity, examined through quotes of characters in the movie. Even in the process of writing this article, I’ve learned more about myself. More thoughts than I could comfortably fit into a single piece. (The above is already pushing it.)

There’s plenty more to the movie as well. Ethical conundrums, sociopolitical considerations, philosophical exploration, et cetera. I would encourage anyone to watch, though I know it wouldn’t a lot of people’s cup o’ tea. There is a not insignificant amount of violence, gore, swearing, and sexuality, and not everyone is as enticed by stories that focus on the murky gray areas of ethics as I am. So even if you’re in the camp of definite non-watchers, I hope that my write-up has been somewhat enlightening and informative.

What movie will I write about next? I did just recently re-watch Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, so perhaps that’ll be next up in my queue for a written investigation.


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Andy Gainey: Neurodiversity in Watchmen