Este es un ejercicio que les puse a mis alumnos de la universidad y creo que puede ser de interés para quienes les interese ver mejor cómo se analizan contenidos en busca de mensajes y contexto. Como es parte de la docencia de la Carlos III en una asignatura en inglés, me temo que va a estar en inglés el análisis. En este caso, voy a analizar la escena de apertura de la película de superhéroes Watchmen desde la perspectiva de la globalización cultural y lo que tiene que decir al respecto. Así que empecemos por el principio con la propia escena:
When talking about cultural globalization in regards to a film scene such as this, we’re talking about the message, the ideas it tries to convey. Watchmen was originally written as a graphic novel by Alan Moore and, much like The Boys would do later, it understands the superhero genre in a very cynic way. The core idea this scene portrays is summed at the end, when rioters are about to throw the Molotov cocktail against the store window we can see two different important messages: first the graffiti saying “who watches the watchers?” and second, as the protestors are screaming “badges, not masks”.
These ideas are the centerpiece of this time-lapse we see as an opening and they point directly to the core identity of the film and its message, it’s grim and cynic understanding of superheroes and their roles in society. Following Lakoff’s understanding on frames as he explains in “Don’t Think of an Elephant”, frames build the worldviews of people, the understanding of what they see and how they should interpret it. The hegemonic frame on superheroes, as popularized by Marvel and DC, is that they are mostly good, protectors of humankind as understood by western society and make the world a better place by their actions and existence. They save us from terrible external threats like Galactus or the next nefarious plan by Doctor Doom.
Watchmen takes the opposite stance, and to illustrate its argument, it uses this opening scene. All through it we can see different moments that are culturally iconic: the kiss between the sailor and the nurse at the end of WW2, the assassination of JFK… but they all come with some sort of twist: the kiss is done by a superheroine and the nurse, the assassin of JFK is the The Comedian. But even those twists don’t change the main narrative of the events: we see scenes from before the WW2, the end of it, the rise of the cold war, Vietnam, reaching the moon, the rise of pop art and music… it’s timeline doesn’t go away from the real timeline in most places, superheroes have not saved the day, have not changed anything significantly.
And when the timeline deviates, it does so for the worst. The peace protests against Vietnam are handled violently when protestors are shot, the war escalates and Nixon gets reelected for a third term (something impossible in U.S. law which means the Constitution has been amended for a rising autocrat, like in real world cases like Putin in Russia or Erdogan in Turkey) and we see the soviet leaders (from the USSR, Cuba, China, and elsewhere) together on a military parade. The world has gone into the bipolar division that follows WW2, with capitalists against the communists, but those communists show no signs of weakening and, in fact, the whole world is drawing closer to midnight on the clock, the moment the world would plunge into open nuclear war between both blocks.
There’s another interesting contradiction following both channels of communication used (video and sound) as semiotics describes: while the images are cynical in nature as I’ve pointed out, the music is Bob Dylan’s “The Times they are a’Changin”, a musical central piece of both those times and musical history. And it’s a very hopeful song, composed in 1965, it was meant to be an anthem about the changing times, the need for the old to leave space for the new, for a better world the hippies dreamt of creating. But the values of the hippie movement and ideology are only present in the sounds and the lyrics, but completely absent in the visuals, reinforcing a feeling of hopelessness. “The battle outside raging” is the lyric line that goes with the image of all communist leaders in Moscow, “come fathers and mothers throughout the land, and don’t criticize what you can’t understand” goes with the scene in which the military police shoot the protesters.
This all creates this frame in which all is hopeless and heroes haven’t been heroes at all. Even the minor positive changes they make, like the lesbian kiss after the Second World War is met with disaster when those two characters are later murdered. The values on which society is built are not evolving towards more tolerance and less discrimination even through the examples of heroes and heroines. When the first Silk Specter is receiving her recognition for helping the police, we see that the officer just by her side is busy looking at her cleavage, and her heroine uniform is heavily sexualized and turned into a pinup on the side of the bomber that nukes Hiroshima. And later on, gender inequality is strengthened even more when she is forced to stop being a hero because her husband got her pregnant (the scene in which, just like Da Vinci’s Last Supper painting, they are celebrating her retirement), and all her dreams are shattered later on when we see her fighting with her husband in front of their daughter and we listen to one of the few lines in this whole scene “I was a hero once”.
The mass media plays a key role in this, both in the real world and the scene. We can see newspaper photographers in scenes like Manhattan shaking JFK’s hand, or the first criminal being stopped by the first superhero just at the beginning. But this is later contraposed with other moments in which photography is instead used by criminal and forensic police when murders have been committed, like the death of one of the superheroes when his cape gets trapped in a door, or the murder of the lesbian girls. And finally, there are also many scenes as the story evolves of a more intimate nature, when no cameras are shown at all, like when we see Roscharch and his mother in a hallway that clearly talks about prostitution, or even in ones that should be public but still show no media presence like the shooting of the pacifist protesters. Following Appadurai’s take on mediascapes, the media only shows specific scenes it can frame in its own narrative and worldview, and with it they shape the way everyone else sees the world. The difference between the media attention to the triumphs of early heroes contrasts with their absence in later events or the trivialization of their presence in many others (the media is not present when the protesters are shot, but right after we see it interviewing Andy Warhol as he presents his painting on Night Owl, instead of Marilyn Monroe). Thus the media are complicit in creating a view that will be then shared globally, that reflects a specific understanding of what does and doesn’t matter socially and, with it, it strengthens the social and structural imbalances present in society.
And that’s the thing, societies are built on structural imbalances, from class and economic imbalances so key to Marxism, to political imbalances through the ruling elites and also cultural imbalances when certain groups become hegemonic in the cultural field like Bourdieu describes. The dominant western culture portrayed in the film has a global reach because those were the bipolar times, so half of the world falls under its umbrella and guidance. But its values are no longer enlightened, on the contrary, the U.S. has become a conservative, belligerent and conflict-full society that is deepening the conflicts with the others. Gender inequality, racial inequality (no black superheroes at all!), the abuses of power, the diminishing of the importance of science (what kind of achievement is reaching the Moon on a space ship if Doctor Manhattan is already there to take your picture?), the rise of fear and conflict… all those are woven together to create this world, which is a dark reflection of our own.
Through this mirror we can look at ourselves and realize that we’ve made some things better than they have, but also that most of the ideological and identity topics discussed in this opening are still very present today in western societies and, through mass media, all over the world. Gender inequality for example is still a hot topic, with a lot of changes having taken place already, but a lot more still to go, and also with some heavy setbacks like the decision of the U.S. Supreme Court to repel Roe vs Wade and, with it, women’s rights on abortion. And the oversexualization of women and gender stereotypes are very present in social networks like many influencers and their reels in Instagram, Facebook or TikTok. If we join this with the important effect algorithms in those webs have in order to shape what spreads and what doesn’t, what we see and what we don’t, we find a place where technology is ingrained into social action, like Latour would say, and it shapes with it our understanding of the world as human beings because we only see a part of the story.
So, in the end, the question “who watches the watchers?” and the need for badges instead of masks talks about a world in which superheroes have not been the solution to any real problem. Because changing the world for better is not something any individual can do as such, there are no heroes in the world even if we remember the names of key figureheads like Martin Luther King; social change and the building of a better world is not done by one person with good morals and the right identity and power, it is done by everyone as a whole. Through social movements, public discussion, changing the framing of events and narratives, etc. society as a whole changes its culture, and with it, it changes itself both on the local and the global scale. Because all this ideas about “who watches the watchers” (in the end, it’s something we all have to do) is inserted in a film, which was produced by Legendary Pictures and distributed by Warner Bros. It was not only targeting a U.S. audience even though the events in the opening depict U.S. story, but they were targeting a global audience and it was seen in theaters all over the world.
Thus the message, the idea that we have to change everything together instead of doing it individually and waiting for heroes to save the day, is shared on a global frame. And the discussion on American inequalities, like gender, are then used glocally (following Beck’s “What is Globalization?”) by different societies in order to change and shape their worldview. Just as the film portrays a different frame for a different parallel world, the film creates its own frame with which people watching it can understand, discuss or criticize the real world around them, the imbalances they see and the way in which they can change them. As a production of the massive film industry, it has a great strength in creating identity discussion, in bringing up debates in different parts of the world that are relevant to those regions and initiating process of social criticism and potentially change on a global scale.
That’s because films are not only meant to be entertainment, all films are full with all kinds of values and, thus, participate in the global fight for the identity, thought frames and lives of people all over the world.