Editorial Notebook

Editor explicates Watchmen, Avatar

For my first editorial notebook of the new year, I have decided to do something a little bit different. I am going to do an explication (look it up) of a few interesting sections of the movie Watchmen and also a short section of the television series Avatar: The Last Airbender. If you have not watched either of these yet and don’t want big parts of them to be spoiled for you, you should probably stop reading now. Okay, I warned you.

Just in the opening credits of the movie Watchmen, one of the major surprises about one of the characters is completely revealed. The short, essentially still scene of Sally Jupiter’s retirement party is modeled directly on Leonardo da Vinci’s painting of The Last Supper. In the shot, Jupiter takes the position that Jesus occupies in the original painting; she is standing to reveal that the reason why this is her “last supper” is that she is pregnant.

However, there is another essential character in this scene. The Comedian is seated and posed exactly the same way Judas is in da Vinci’s painting. This scene is intended to reveal that the Comedian is Jupiter’s “betrayer.” He is the reason why this is her last supper. He is the father of that child.

Later in the credits, the director gives the viewer the distinct impression that Adrian Veidt is gay. The shot where he appears publicly (presumably where he has publicly revealed that he is a superhero) has four of the Village People in the background. For those of you not up on pop culture, the Village People are a singing group, but also are over-the-top stereotypical personas of homosexual men. The fact that they appear in this red-carpet shot is indicative of Veidt’s sexual orientation, which Rorschach mentions later in the movie.

Now on to Avatar: The Last Airbender. One of the last shots in the finale of the second season spoils the ending of the series and has a fantastic reference to classical art. In the final battle of the season, Aang is killed by a lightning-bolt shot by Azula (I warned you about spoilers). Following that, Katara rushes over to him, picks up Aang’s body, holds it. The pose she holds him in is a mirror image of Michelangelo’s Pietà. For those of you unfamiliar with this, it is a sculpture depicting the Virgin Mary holding the body of Christ after his crucifixion. The intent of this image is clear; it is first intended to show that Aang is the messiah figure in the show. It also shows that Aang will be brought back to life and will eventually defeat the main adversary of the series (the fire lord).

I think I’ll also take a moment to explore shot composition in Watchmen. For most of the movie, all of the scenes set the mood of the times by the lighting. Almost every shot is either dark or very clearly artificially lit. On the first watch, I actually didn’t notice it, but it subtly suggests that the world of Watchmen is on the brink of an apocalypse. What’s more, at the end of the movie, the lighting scheme changes to very bright with a blue sky breaking through clouds.

And coming full circle back to the opening credits of the movie, there are a number of tricks used to pull the viewer’s vision to various points in the scene. The Hiroshima bombing scene starts focus on the explosion and moves it to the aircraft. Similarly, the scene in Russia focuses attention on the people, but towards the end, the two remaining individuals in the shot lean away from the center of the screen to draw attention to the nuclear missiles now center stage in the scene. So a little understanding of popular culture and observation of the way individual images in films and television shows are structured can give the viewer more insight into what is going on and why.