When putting modern popular culture into context with Marcuse’s philosophy, it is difficult to not gravitate toward chapter three where he discusses warriors and prostitutes as essential characters to question a society’s morals. This idea applies perfectly to the recent, largely cinematic innovation (if not innovation, then perfection) of the anti-hero.
Batman, as he exists in the Christopher Nolan trilogy is typically what people think of when tossing around the label, anti-hero. They’re right to do so. Christian Bale’s Batman/Bruce Wane fits the idea to a tee. He selflessly accepts his role as society’s savior while willing receiving no recognition even unto his “death.” His powers cause him a large amount of distress as they strip him of the right to live the life he wants. Basically, he is a brooding, depressed, and ultimately flawed yet dutiful hero who is far more human than previous generations of superheroes were allowed to be. Recent years have been chocked full of anti-heroes in film, some more successful than others. The problem with the intellectual complexity usually ascribed to them (not that they don’t have powerful lessons to teach us) is that they tend to rely on and archetypal super villain to fully realize their academic potential. The only one who is capable of functioning completely on his own as being a hero, villain, and a figure to cast society’s morals into doubt is the Comedian from The Watchmen.
To be clear, I am not using the Comedian from graphic novel but, rather, from the movie as it is more applicable to modern society than the book.
On the surface, the Comedian is the all-American, tough guy, superhero that everyone knows all too well. He is big and muscular, dispenses a simple, almost black and white form of justice, and works hand in hand with the government. That said, it does not take much digging to realize his far more sinister nature. He is pathologically cynical, indiscriminately violent, nihilistic, and, above all else, a sociopath. Adrian Veidt, one of his former cohorts even goes so far as to describe him as a Nazi. While Veidt’s observation is not without its merits, it is a bit too simplistic. Calling the Comedian a Nazi implies an otherness to American society. But this cannot be as the Comedian, by the time of his death was operating as a paramilitary agent for the government. Additionally, he fought with Dr. Manhattan in Vietnam and has made a name capturing (often killing) criminals who violate American laws. Upon examination, any conclusion other than that he is an agent of American ideals is flawed.
Enter Herbert Marcuse. In chapter three of One Dimensional Man, he writes:
And in the literature, this other dimension is represented not by the religious. Spiritual. Moral heroes (who often sustain the established order) but rather by such disruptive characters as the artist. The prostitute. The adulteress. The great criminal and outcast, the warrior. The rebel-poet. The devil.
(Marcuse, Ch. 3)
By citing such examples as the rebel-poet, the warrior, the prostitute, and so forth, he means that the literature (and by extension, art?) of a society is defined by those characters who call its morality to question and at least attempt to keep it honest.
The Comedian fits into this idea so well because he fights for the American cause, something that we are all conditioned to see as universally right, no matter what. Take, for example, his actions in Vietnam. After the war’s end, he is in a bar, celebrating with Dr. Manhattan when a pregnant Vietnamese woman whom he has presumably been having a war-time affair with approaches him. She tells him that, now that the war is over, it is time to plan for the next stage of their lives. In response, he scoffs, “There’s nothing to talk about. See, I’m leaving. I’m gonna forget about your horrible, sweaty, little piece of shit country. In understandable anger, she breaks a bottle and cuts his face, declaring, “You will remember. You will remember me and my country forever.” It is important to remember that, in the context of the story, America has won in Vietnam. It is because of this that the Comedian serves as the perfect representation of the American attitude. America has accomplished its goal of keeping Communism out of Vietnam and enough people have died. Both the Comedian’s and America’s intertwined goals have come to fruition. Now, with the war over, the Comedian, like America, simply wants to leave without picking up the pieces of what they have destroyed. Her pregnancy is representative of the fact that America is leaving Vietnam in a more problematic state than it was in before the war. This does not matter to the Comedian and America, by extension. He sees the end to the war as an end to his responsibility. The gash on his face is thus mimetic of the idea that, though the war is a scar on America’s face, the shame is the only consequence they will ever have to endure.
The Comedian is a satire of America’s imperialism. He is figure cloaked in the pretense of justice but who, in reality, is twisted beyond anyone’s wildest imagination. Before his moral comeuppance and subsequent death, he uses sadistic, passionless violence to further America’s interests both at home and abroad. He is an extreme example of what Marcuse would consider character used to call a society’s morals into question but perhaps that is why he does the job so effectively.