Watchmen: Intimacy in Crisis

(SPOILER ALERT: This post will give away some important details about the plot of Watchmen, both the movie and graphic novel versions.)

Watchmen CoverIf you’ve read the graphic novel Watchmen, you know that the 2009 movie adaptation, while it may have been well done, came nowhere near to capturing the complexities and intricacies of the original text. There are so many nuances that add to the richness of the book that unfortunately would have only bogged down and confused the plot in the film version.

If you have never read the graphic novel, please consider getting up right now, finding yourself a copy and reading it immediately. You won’t regret it.

One side-plot from the book that was left out of the film was the slightly odd relationship between the man who runs the newspaper stand and the teenager who visits him to read his comic books. The dynamic between the two, to me, beautifully illustrates our society’s attitudes about expressions of vulnerability and intimacy between men.

Throughout the book we keep finding the two characters together. The newspaper vendor is an outspoken middle-aged man named Bernard who, inspired by the latest alarming newspaper headlines, constantly and loudly shares his opinions on current events. The teenager sits silently by the paper stand, always engrossed in his copy of ‘Tales of the Black Freighter’ and is seemingly oblivious to Bernard’s ranting. The two don’t seem to have any relationship at all; they appear to merely tolerate each other.

Watchmen Chat

We see some evidence that Bernard has a soft spot for the teen when, shaken by the world’s latest lurch towards nuclear war, he lends the kid his cap and sends him home with a free comic. Finally, near the end of the book he reaches out:

“People don’t connect with each other. It’s like, you been coming here weeks, readin’ that junk over an’ over an’ yet we ain’t exactly close…Listen, when my Rosa died, most of our friends were her friends: they stopped calling. I took this job to meet people, y’know? So…What’s your name? Whaddaya doin’ here?”

“My name’s Bernie…”

“Bernie? Short for Bernard? Well I’ll be horsewhipped! That’s MY name!”

“So? Ain’t no big deal. Lotta people called Bernard, man. Don’t signify for nothin’.”

Despite the almost miraculous coincidence that they have the same name, the teenager shrugs off the moment, shuts down the opportunity for bonding, and reinforces the emotional distance between them, even as Bernard carefully confides in him that he’s lost his wife and feels isolated. Bernie’s reaction is one we can all recognize. For whatever reason, he doesn’t want to get too close to Bernard.

As a society, we have underlying insecurities surrounding intimacy between men. Many boys are taught from a young age to put up a wall to defend against moments of vulnerability and, in particular, emotional connection with other men. It is this insecurity and discomfort that disrupts potentially loving relationships between fathers and sons, and prevents guys from talking openly about real issues and emotions – even with their longtime friends.

At the climax of Watchmen’s plot in Chapter 11 there is a moment between Bernard and Bernie that captures the breaking down of these emotional barriers. There is a massive catastrophic explosion, expressed in a series of small panels. A crowd of people on a busy street suddenly realize that they are about to die. Bernie and Bernard are among them.

In the few split seconds between the flash of light and the explosion’s shock wave, the two characters turn to each other and embrace:

Watchmen - B&B Embrace
The older man cradles the boy’s head protectively. They die in each other’s arms.

In some ways this is a beautiful image. In their final moment, with all inhibitions and insecurities swept away, these men are finally able to give and receive the affection they have likely felt for each other but held back for some time.

But the exchange was made possible only under extremely violent circumstances. It literally took a nuclear-sized explosion to tear away the culturally enforced barrier between these men. In fact, extremely violent situations are often portrayed as an acceptable time in which men can feel free to reveal their true feelings, admit vulnerability, and experience emotional intimacy with each other.

Action films full of weapons, car chases and explosions are a popular place for two male characters to form a close bond: the passionate “bromance” that is more often insinuated than articulated.

It’s true that bromances are increasingly common in mainstream movies, but there’s a reason they’re so often part of comedies like Step Brothers and Superbad (and of course some films that are unintentionally hilarious). Humor defuses that cultural discomfort, and makes intimacy between men part of the joke.

When it isn’t laughter, it’s often violence. Or, as is the case with all of the best buddy cop flicks like Lethal Weapon, Bad Boys, etc., it’s a combination of both. As long as there is some kind of battle for the characters to fight, we are a little more comfortable witnessing scenes of love and affection between men – it is more understandable, less noteworthy, and somehow less offensive to what remains a largely heterosexist mainstream. Like Bernie and Bernard, the dire circumstances facing crime fighters somehow excuse them when they betray honest emotions of care and concern for one another.

When thinking about the brutality of war, especially in a historical context, we are sometimes reminded of grown men crying out for their mothers. It is the most horrifying image of male vulnerability imaginable in our culture – an implied expression of how horrible war must be that it can reduce ultra-masculine soldiers to wailing infants.

And yet, it is such a heartbreaking thought precisely because it is so easy to relate to. We have all been infants who want our mothers, and no matter our age or our gender we all want to be loved, and held, and nurtured. We are social creatures and, as Bernard points out, we need to connect.

How are intimacy, vulnerability and affection between men such threats that we feel they are last resorts, best reserved or postponed until the most extreme and horrible circumstances? What does that say about our values as a culture?

More importantly, what experiences are men missing out on by remaining emotionally guarded?

In Watchmen, the image at the beginning of Chapter 11 alludes to the shadowy image of the two men embracing at the end of the same chapter.

Watchmen - Chapter 11

It is a lush tropical garden seen through melting snow; we are looking into a greenhouse in the middle of an arctic desert.

Like the warmth shared between Bernard and Bernie in the midst of a catastrophe, this garden flourishes in a cold, harsh climate. Intensified by the contrast with its bleak surroundings, it is a concentrated example of what is possible.

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2 comments

  1. paulb · November 24, 2010

    Nicely written Kat. I haven’t seen the movie or read the book, but I’m familiar with relations between male media figures. I wonder if the Bromances or the violent-embraces you describe turn close male relations into cliches? My issue with these models is that ‘normal’ is still the ‘I am a rock’ metaphor for manhood. So while authors may tease audiences with male vulnerability, in the end it’s either just a joke or somebody dies. So is Watchmen worth getting close to?

  2. vicki delany · December 2, 2010

    Fabulous web page. Interesting stuff. Good work, I’m looking forward to more.

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