WARNING: If you keep reading this, Watchmen spoilers are in your future. There are also spoilers for H.G. Wells’ film Things To Come and book The Shape Of Things To Come, as well as Alan Moore’s Miracleman.

We first learn of the Utopia Cinema in Chapter 2 of Watchmen. It’s October 19th, 1985 — a Saturday night — and the theater is advertising This Island Earth. Come Chapter 5, it’s only two days later — Monday the 21st — but a new week must have started for the theater, because the Utopia is now advertising Things To Come. We know this because of panel 4 on page 10, the peculiar reflections-within-reflections image I pointed out in my last post:

Watchmen Chapter 5, page 10, panel 4, a confusing panel in which we see Dan's face and Laurie's back, along with a reflection of the Utopia Cinema. It's difficult to discern in this panel what's a reflection and what's real.

Here’s what the web annotations have to say about this image:

Panel 4: The Diner is across from the Utopia. (The people walking on the street have been shown in passing before.) They’re now showing “Things to Come” (reflecting the theme of change).

I suppose it’s true enough that Things To Come is “reflecting the theme of change”, but predictably, I think there’s much more going on than that.

The End Is Nigh

Like This Island Earth, Things To Come is a vintage sci-fi movie, but of an even earlier vintage. The film was released in 1936, the result of an agreement between Hungarian-British film producer Alexander Korda and legendary (even by then) British science fiction writer H.G. Wells. Wells had established his reputation at the very end of the 19th century, with an extraordinary string of imaginative and successful “scientific romances”: The Time Machine, The Island of Doctor Moreau, The Invisible Man, and The War Of The Worlds, all of which were published between 1895 and 1898. By 1936, he had become rather a grand old man of letters, and was far less interested in novels than in using his reputation as a far-seeing thinker to try to shape the future.

In 1933, Wells had published The Shape of Things To Come, a book-length speculation (one can’t really call it a novel) of future history, extending from the then-present day to the year 2106. In it, humanity endures a long “Age of Frustration” before emerging into a socialist utopia called the “Modern State”, a future which, for Wells, represented humanity’s apotheosis. Meeting with Korda “over a plate of sardine sandwiches in a Bournemouth tea shop”, Wells was so excited by the prospect of bringing his vision to the screen that he “signed a contract on a penny-postcard there and then.” (Things To Come [Frayling], pg. 18) That contract granted Wells an unprecedented level of control and involvement in the film, stipulating that not a word of his treatment was to be altered in any way, and that he would have a say in all aspects of the production.

The trouble was, Wells had no idea how to write for the screen, and was also quite incapable of receiving any constructive criticism on the matter. This would become a huge problem for Korda and for the film’s director, William Cameron Menzies. Wells wrote many of his descriptions in broad abstractions (for instance, “a fantasia of powerful rotating and swinging forms carried on a broad stream of music”) and then got highly indignant when the film’s designers failed to capture what he meant. (Things To Come [Stover], pg. 126)

Despite these considerable difficulties, Things To Come is a remarkable film in many ways. Yes, it suffers from Wells’ overweening didacticism, frequently coming across as more of a lecture than a story, but the music (by Arthur Bliss) ended up becoming famous in its own right, and many of the visuals (with contributions by an impressive array of early-20th-century modernist artists and architects, many of whom withdrew before Wells’ routinely scornful reception) remain striking even today.

In fact, some of those visuals, especially from the first act of the movie, might feel startlingly familiar to readers of Watchmen who have been attuned to juxtaposition. The scene opens at the approach of Christmas, 1936, in a place called “Everytown”, which is transparently London. Menzies very effectively juxtaposes images of gaiety and merrymaking with ominous portents. We see a vendor selling Christmas holly, and a news truck pulls up behind him, bearing a poster reading “THE WORLD ON THE BRINK OF WAR.” A happy, laughing couple with a Christmas tree in the back of their car stops in front of a cinema, alongside another van, whose poster reads “WAR STORM BREWING”.

And then there’s the Buckingham Theatre. In front, an acrobat turns cartwheels, presumably to attract attention to the show playing that night, but right beside him a man walks toward the camera, bearing a sandwich board reading “WARNING TO EUROPE”.

A still frame from Things To Come. A man in the foreground wears a sandwich board reading "Warning to Europe: Read Basil Sims in the Sunday News." Next to him, a sidewalk sign advertises "Buckingham Theatre Christmas Pantomime - The Sleeping Beauty". These signs are in front of a building with "Buckingham Theatre" on the marquee.

Just as in Watchmen, the show playing at the theater is an ironic commentary on the larger story. In the case of Things To Come, that show is Sleeping Beauty. This detail doesn’t appear in Wells’ original “film story”, so perhaps it came from Menzies, though then again Wells was apparently constantly on set making changes to various details, so who knows? In any case, it’s a very Alan Moore touch, as is the juxtaposition with the sandwich board. Clearly here Europe is the beauty who is about to receive a rude awakening. In fact, the man with the warning sign is himself reminiscent of Walter Kovacs in Watchmen, who carries another roughly accurate prediction of the future around on his shoulder.

Indeed, war sets in, and we see an extremely destructive air raid befall Everytown. Guns on the ground are helpless against the devastation, and Menzies brilliantly reuses settings from the film’s first two minutes to show us what happens to the sleeping beauty. The merchants are gone from the street, replaced by soldiers and trucks carrying gas masks. In front of the Buckingham Theatre, panicking crowds knock over the sidewalk sign, which now shows that Sleeping Beauty has closed.

An animated gif from Things To Come. Panicked crowds in front of the Buckingham Theatre push past policemen and knock over the Sleeping Beauty sidewalk sign, which now reads "CLOSED" over the Sleeping Beauty details.

Meanwhile, the cinema features in one of the most impressive shots of this sequence — we see the giant marquee itself explode and collapse.

An animated gif from Things To Come of the cinema marquee exploding.

Here we have an art form depicting its own symbolic destruction, and here again there’s an echo of Watchmen. Moore and Gibbons show the erasure of their medium on multiple levels in the book. A recurring motif reminds us that in this world where real costumed vigilantes roam, superhero comics never had their 1950s and 60s renaissance, and have been replaced by pirate comics. Even these fall victim to Veidt’s plot, as do their sources. The comics writer perishes in an exploding ship, the newsstand vendor lies in a pool of blood, and on page 6 of Chapter 12, the comic itself drifts in the wind, torn and unread. The ad on its back cover delivers yet another layer of irony: “THE VEIDT METHOD: I will give you bodies beyond your wildest imaginings”.

Detail from Watchmen, Chapter 12, page 6. The dead bodies of the Bernards are in the center, framed by two enormous tentacles. In the foreground, papers flutter downward: the Pink Triangle poster, a newspaper with the headline "WAR?", and the Tales From The Black Freighter comic.

Somebody Has To Save the World

Narrative moments like this in Watchmen are the result of a sublime synthesis between Moore’s script and Gibbons’ art. As we’ve seen over and over in the book, the creators are working in perfect tandem to exploit the potential of their medium, resulting in very powerful artistic effects. Like many of the best comic writers, Moore scripts to the strengths of his artist, and Gibbons knew how to highlight Moore’s intentions for maximum impact.

Wells, by contrast, was constantly at odds with his visual collaborators. Both Korda and the film’s star, Raymond Massey, separately remarked that Wells’ involvement made Things To Come the most difficult film they ever worked on. (Frayling, pg. 21) Korda hired Menzies in hopes of counterbalancing Wells’ abstract descriptions, as Menzies had more or less invented the role of high-level production designer in the movies, and in fact won the first Academy Award in the category (though it was called “Art Direction” at the time.)

However, Menzies’ visual skills failed to meet with Wells’ approval, and the author repeatedly expressed his objections in the most high-handed of ways, as film historian Christopher Frayling relates:

Easygoing Menzies soon discovered that the script’s author was “a very testy man.” He had conferences about the usual continuity sketches (with [set designer] Vincent Korda and [director of photography] Georges PĂ©rinal), but was then showered with drawings by H.G. of where the actors should stand and how they should deport themselves, and memos about how the world of the future must under no circumstances look like “an imaginative utopia, an ideal but impracticable existence.” “I want,” wrote Wells in February 1935 — not altogether helpfully — “to convey the effect that the condition of life shown on the screen is a practicable objective; in fact the only sane objective for a reasonable man. Our only hope of achieving a planned world is to get people to realize in the first place that such a thing is possible.” Another memo from Wells to Menzies was rather more lucid: “This is all wrong. Get it in better perspective. The film is an H.G. WELLS film and your highest best is needed, for the complete realization of my treatment. Bless you.” (pg. 29-30)

For his part, Moore did have a falling-out with Gibbons eventually, but not until decades after Watchmen‘s publication. During their period of collaboration, they seem to have been completely simpatico, quite unlike H.G. Wells and his filmmaking partners. This difference speaks well of Moore and badly of Wells, or at least, badly of Wells’ ability to write for the movies and understand his own shortcomings.

That said, there are some clues in the Frayling passage above that might shine a light on Wells’ rather inappropriate haughtiness and intensity. He sees the correct interpretation and presentation of his ideas as “our only hope of achieving a planned world.” For Wells, Things To Come was not intended as mere entertainment, but rather as pure propaganda, his “highest best” hope of creating the future he envisioned. Despite his protestations, the movie is in fact an “imaginative utopia”, depicting a future state that seems to him obviously necessary, sane, and reasonable, if only the obdurate mass of humans could be enlightened about it.

Aiming at no less than saving humanity from itself, it’s no wonder that Wells found himself hammering his collaborators about the smallest points. For him, the stakes could hardly be higher. Much like Ozymandias, he hoped to save the future by tricking humanity away from its worst impulses.

And what was that future he imagined? His “planned world” was no democracy, that’s for certain. While it’s not foregrounded in the film, Wells’ book delivers withering critiques of “parliamentary gang governments”, some of which critiques (it must be conceded) still resonate in today’s struggles between democratic and authoritarian power structures. Instead, Wells envisioned a world government something like an overlapping meritocracy and technocracy, in which “The Air and Sea Control” (called “Wings Over The World” in the film) is led by the brightest minds on the planet, and wields its superior technology to dominate humanity for its own good.

Portrait photo of H.G. Wells in 1920, by George Beresford.

H.G. Wells, 1920

For Wells, the war that comes to Everytown (and everywhere) is a cleansing force, a necessary catalyst to create the destructive explosion of the status quo, the only way that the ground can be cleared for the Modern State to be built. As for the leaders of the Modern State, Wells looks to the most impressive technology of his day: the airplane. Aviators and mechanics (symbolized by Massey’s character John Cabal in the film) patrol and subdue the warlords who rise from the rubble of a decades-long conflict, bombing them with “peace gas” to anesthetize resistance and thereby muzzle it.

Thus it becomes clear that, writing 6 years before the debut of Superman, Wells is telling us a story about a world saved — and ruled — by men who could fly.

In Wells’ book The Shape of Things To Come, there’s a scene where the architects of the Modern State are debating how to deal with recalcitrant groups still clinging to the notion of nationhood. Most governments and corporations are moribund at this point in the story, but a few of them tenaciously continue to insist upon their own importance, despite the fact that their power has clearly been eclipsed by technologists. At a conference in Basra, one of these technologists lays out the options:

“There are just three lines of treatment possible,” said Ryan brutally. “We can treat with ’em, bribe ’em, or rule ’em. I’m for a straight rule.” (The Shape Of Things To Come, pg. 313)

Essentially, these are superpowered beings, deciding how to deal with humanity — one of the recurring topics in Alan Moore’s 1980s work. In Miracleman, for instance, the title character eventually decides to dominate humanity — a straight rule. He does away with State power as expressed in human terms, and institutes a kind of super-State ruled over by the equivalent of a pantheon of gods. The superbeings tear down all existing power structures and remake the world into an endless well of plenty, offering all humanity the chance to have the same powers that they do. That book winds up as more or less a utopia, though one whose total beneficence we might have good reason to doubt, given Liz Moran’s rebuke of it. Wells, on the other hand, would likely recognize and appreciate much of it — the sense of universal abundance, the eradication of money, and of course, all the flying.

In Watchmen, Doctor Manhattan is that god who walks the earth, and he isn’t interested in elevating anyone else’s circumstances. Instead, human State power remains in place through his rather listless collaboration, while the Comedian enthusiastically embraces the State for his own cynical purposes. Meanwhile, the rest of the characters must decide how to react to the State’s suppression of them via the Keene Act, since it won’t tolerate any costumed adventurer it doesn’t already sanction.

Many characters capitulate to this power, such as Nite Owl II and Silk Spectre II, who abdicate their roles, while most of the Minutemen had thrown in the towel (or otherwise inactivated) already. Doctor Manhattan eventually just loses interest in helping the State, abandoning both it and the planet. Rorschach, on the other hand, militantly defies the suppression, remaining on patrol while bemoaning the abandonment of his former allies. Then there’s Ozymandias. Adrian Veidt appears to be in the same camp as Nite Owl II and Silk Spectre II, having voluntarily given up his heroic identity (except for the occasional charity performance) in the face of the Keene Act. We eventually learn, though, that he never stopped trying to save the world, in his own calculating way.

Of all these reactions, it seems to me that only Ozymandias and Rorschach believe they are making the world better, at least until the events of the book begin. Dr. Manhattan describes The Comedian as “amoral”, but in fact that description applies to both of them. The retired heroes have stopped trying to make a difference. Until Ozymandias’ agenda becomes clear, that just leaves Rorschach — the only one to investigate Edward Blake’s murder. Perhaps that’s one of the reasons why readers are drawn to Rorschach despite his monomania and general awfulness. Of all the so-called heroes in Watchmen, Rorschach is one of only two who actually sees himself as heroic, and whose actions are intended to… well, fight crime.

Panels 1-3 on page 13 from chapter 1 of Watchmen. Rorschach and Dreiberg are discussing the fact that they used to be partners. Dreiberg says, "Those were great times, Rorschach. Great times. Whatever happened to them?" Rorschach replies, "You quit," and walks away.

What We Call The Boss

Wells has his own analysis of crime, laid out in Book II, Chapter 3 of The Shape of Things To Come. He identifies it as an outgrowth of an increasingly complex and unplanned society, and the breakdown of psychological boundaries brought on by World War I — or as he called it at the time, the Great War. The book is written from the perspective of a utopia looking back on its origins, so there is a fair amount of incredulity baked into its descriptions of social insecurity in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. “We laugh now,” he writes. “It is all so impossible. Few of us actually realize these were flesh-and-blood sufferings that living men and women went through only a century and a half ago.” (pg. 138)

This conceit gives Wells a platform from which to declare his ideas while simultaneously insisting on the correctness of those ideas and the inevitability of his predictions. For him, the planned society of socialist equality is the cure-all, and his descriptions of crime are meant to highlight their inextricable origins in a lack of socialism. Economic inequities motivate violent individual redress of those inequities, in the form of hold-ups, extortions, kidnappings for ransom, and so forth. Tariffs cause smuggling. Repressive prohibition of alcohol causes bootlegging. The police and law, bound by rules, constantly struggle to keep up with the rule-breaking criminals.

Notably, for Wells, the vigilante — either as an individual or in groups — is no different from the criminal, as both are simply reacting to the chaos of a society not ruled and planned by its smartest and most capable technologists. Not only that, vigilantes and authoritarian governments (well, the ones that aren’t the “Modern State”) blend together for him as well. He classes “the Ku Klux Klan in America, the multitudinous secret societies of India, China, and Japan, the Communist Party which captured Russia, the Fascist who captured Italy, [and] the Nazis who captured Germany” into one single category, and says about them:

All these were structurally great gangster systems. Instead, of specific immediate blackmail they sought larger satisfactions; that is all the difference. Even when the organization as a whole had large conceptions of its function, it was apt to degenerate locally into a mere boss or bully rule. (pg. 147)

The film version of Things To Come dramatizes this kind of rule in its long second act. Ralph Richardson plays Rudolf, a character usually referred to as “The Boss” or “The Chief.” He rose to power violently, by shooting the contagious victims of a terrifying plague called The Wandering Sickness — a very early iteration of the zombie apocalypse trope. In his zombie-shooting, he becomes a kind of action hero, and he sets himself apart superhero-style by wearing much more outlandish garb than any of the struggling peasants around him.

A still frame from Things To Come. In the center of the frame is The Boss (Ralph Richardson), who wears a pith helmet decorated with feathers, a fuzzy vest, and a bandolier of pouches like some kind of 1990s X-Men character.

Ralph Richardson as The Boss, center with furs

However, the movie makes clear that he isn’t a hero at all, but a petty tyrant. He becomes the main antagonist to an older John Cabal, the only one dressed more ridiculously than The Boss.

A still frame from Things To Come of John Cabal (Raymond Massey) emerging from his single-seat futuristic airplane. Cabal wears an enormous helmet that rises about a foot and a half above his head.

Raymond Massey as John Cabal, emerging from his “futuristic” airplane

In their conflict, The Boss represents that “bully rule” of vigilante violence, while Cabal enacts the “straight rule” advocated by Ryan in the Basra conference — an enlightened domination leading to a triumphant society.

Their analogues in Watchmen are Rorschach and Ozymandias — the two characters positioned as heroes in their own minds. For Rorschach, violence is pretty much always the answer. He delivers his message against the Keene Act in the form of a murdered multiple rapist. He douses his prison tormentor with hot cooking fat. He chafes at Dreiberg’s methodical computer searching, saying, “Give me smallest finger on man’s hand. I’ll produce information. Computer unnecessary.”

Ozymandias, on the other hand, while certainly capable of violence, uses it only to subdue opposition — just one tool in a vast array of tactics meant to rewrite the world order. While Rorschach works like a detective, constructing theories to solve a murder case, Ozymandias works like a Machiavellian ruler, constructing mechanisms on a wide variety of levels to make a Moloch machine aimed at producing his vision of the greater good. Like Cabal, he believes he knows what’s best for humanity, and he has the tools to realize that vision.

Wells would likely recoil at Adrian’s underhanded methods, though. His Modern State emerges from the rubble of war as an obviously far better alternative to the nation-states and corporations who precipitated that war — again viewed as a retrospective history from the socialist utopian future. When Wings Over The World overthrows The Boss’s fiefdom in the film, there’s nothing surreptitious about it — just a display of overwhelming force, anesthetizing any resistance on the way to building a better world.

In that Basra conference scene of The Shape Of Things To Come, Wells does address the approach of using trickery to achieve the Modern State’s aims. Its problematic advocate is “the intricate Shi-lung-tang”, pretty much a racist “inscrutable Oriental” stereotype. Wells gives Shi-lung-tang a reasonable argument, suggesting that rather than instituting an immediate tyranny in service of creating the Modern State, the movement could save bloodshed and misery by gently insinuating its ideas over several generations of education and/or propaganda.

He is overruled by a representative of the conference’s majority called Rin Kay, who says, “If we were a Society of Moral Supermen, we might venture to be as disingenuous as this… We have a difficult enough task before us just to do what we have to do, plainly and honestly. We cannot afford to say and do this and mean that.” Shi-lung-tang’s plan for subterfuge, it seems, could be executed only by people so incorruptible that they would not themselves fall into the boss/bully trap.

If there’s one thing that the characters in Watchmen aren’t, it’s moral supermen. Adrian Veidt is no exception, even as he insists that he’s made himself “feel every death.” Of course, neither are the governments Adrian hoodwinks, not by any stretch. But Rin Kay’s critique applies to Adrian as well — in order to keep the peace, is Adrian willing to dominate the world, by whatever method? If so, doesn’t he just usurp the position of Boss? And if not, what happens when humanity’s self-destructive tendencies rear up again?

In other words, what happens when superheroes try to create utopia? For H.G. Wells, those superheroes are aviators, who wield the incredible power of flight. The end of Things To Come takes this flying theme to its furthest extreme, as Cabal’s descendant uses a “space gun” to shoot a young couple into a lunar orbit. In the final scene, he looks out at the stars, declaiming:

For man, no rest and no ending. He must go on, conquest beyond conquest. First this little planet, and its winds and waves. And then all the laws of mind and matter that restrain him. Then the planets about him, and at last, out across immensity to the stars. And when he has conquered all the deeps of space and all the mysteries of time… still he will be beginning.

A still frame from Things To Come, of the space gun. It is a roughly conical tower, with a crane alongside that lifts a capsule up to be placed inside it. In the foreground are long curving elevated roads.

The space gun. The crane holds a capsule that is lowered into the barrel.

In the Wellsian view, the path towards utopia is straight, if painful, and it is represented in the film’s three acts. First, a long war to clear away the current economic and political structures. Second, a consolidation of technological power to wipe away the remnants of feudal rule that the war leaves behind. Finally, a glorious planned society that provides a platform for humanity’s endless reaches into the universe.

He was writing in the shadow of World War I, and not only that, the economic calamity of the Great Depression that struck 10 years later. Between the massive loss of life and the massive loss of prosperity and stability, it must have felt a bit like the End Times, or at least the end of an era. He was also quite prescient about the coming of a second enormous war — the book predicts a German invasion of Poland in January 1940. However, from there his future diverges from reality, as he projects a utopian future growing out of the war, albeit with a long intervening “Age of Frustration” in between.

Alan Moore, on the other hand, was writing in the shadow of a nuclear-amped Cold War, in which the end often seemed close at hand, an end which would not signal a new era — the end of everything. He finds room for a kind of hope too, albeit an awfully fragile one. Rorschach describes the post-trick world as “Veidt’s new utopia”, and realizes that Doctor Manhattan is determined to protect it. “New Utopia” appears again on page 31 of Chapter 12, as the rebranded name for the cinema which showed Things To Come.

But while Wells was completely sincere in his belief that the Modern State would create the best of all possible worlds, Moore is clearly more skeptical about Veidt’s shaky new status quo. Far from reaching into the stars, humanity is simply rebuilding itself, albeit with a clear increase in cultural sharing between the former rival superpowers. But the revised graffiti tell us that now one in three go mad, and the truth about Adrian’s trick is poised to appear, just under Seymour’s waiting hand. Like the cinema in the beginning of Things To Come, this engineered serenity is just waiting to be exploded.

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