“Watchmen” has been a movie for some time now and a graphic novel for years before that, so I may be a little late to the party on this one, but I recently re-watched the film and it struck me that the characters aren’t just slightly crazy in unique or varied ways – they’re living embodiments of mental disorders – you can practically define each character by taking a page from the DSM IV and adding a dash of vigilantism and just enough exhibitionist tendency to wear a crazy costume and run around fighting whatever you happen to perceive as “crime.” Honestly the movie/novel combo should be required viewing/reading for first-year psych students. I’ll be honest here and say that I’m far from a psychologist (or even a psych major) but it was easy enough to spot the stereotype in Rorschach and Ozymandias, and it didn’t take a lot of research to find the archetypes for the rest. Shall we investigate?
First off, let me say that every character in this movie/novel has some kind of borderline or antisocial personality disorder, an overgrown ego and all the other symptoms you’d need to seriously believe that the best course of action for your life is to put on a costume, give yourself a cool nickname and patrol your local area fighting crime with all those superpowers that you (well, most of them anyway) don’t actually have. Remember: for the most part, these aren’t superheroes – no one sprouts claws or shoots lasers from their eyes. Well, Dr. Manhattan probably could, but he’s a weird exception-to-the-rule type character who’s completely insane in his own right. I’m not here to talk about the crazy these guys share, I’m here to talk about the crazy that sets them apart from one another.
Let’s begin with the most obviously mentally ill character. Walter has some deep-seated issues beginning in early life, creating an absolutely textbook case of Paranoid Personality Disorder (PPD). PPD is characterized by “paranoia and a pervasive, long-standing suspiciousness and generalized mistrust of others. Individuals with this personality disorder may be hypersensitive, easily feel slighted, and habitually relate to the world by vigilant scanning of the environment for clues or suggestions that may validate their fears or biases. Paranoid individuals are eager observers. They think they are in danger and look for signs and threats of that danger, potentially not appreciating other evidence.” If that doesn’t summarize Rorschach I don’t know what does.
In order to positively diagnose Rorschach, the ICD-10 requires at least three of the following:
- Excessive sensitivity to setbacks and rebuffs.
- Tendency to bear grudges persistently.
- Suspiciousness and a pervasive tendency to distort experience by misconstruing neutral or friendly actions as hostile or contemptuous.
- A combative and tenacious sense of personal rights out of keeping with the actual situation.
- Recurrent suspicions, without justification, regarding sexual fidelity of spouse or sexual partner.
- Tendency to experience excessive self-importance, manifest in a persistent self-referential attitude.
- Preoccupation with unsubstantiated conspiratorial explanations of events both immediate and in the wrld at large
The only bullet point Rorschach doesn’t hit is “suspicions … regarding sexual fidelity of spouse or sexual partner” and that’s basically because he doesn’t have one. Also, given his comments on all the fornicating going on in the city around him, I’m pretty sure he’s suspicious enough of the sexual fidelity of complete strangers to make up for that fact.
Note: There has been some controversy over my “diagnosis” so I’m leaving it up to the audience: Narcissistic or Awesome?
Often referred to as “the most intelligent man in the world,” Ozymandias is one of the few characters in this story that might actually have a real superpower, as long as you consider profound genius to be a superpower. There’s no doubting he’s a brilliant guy, but if you find that, when describing yourself, you’re using the word “most” a lot, you might just have a touch of Narcissistic Personality Disorder (NPD). NPD is characterized by an excessive preoccupation with “issues of personal adequacy, power, prestige and vanity.” If there is any question in your mind that Ozymandias is an NPD sufferer, just recall that prior to 1968 NPD had another name: “megalomania.” What makes Ozymandias the villain of the story is that, while many NPD sufferers have decreased empathy, Ozy’s lack of empathy borders on full-blown psychopathy: Ozymandias is what you get when you take a self-obsessed super genius and disconnect his ability to empathize with his fellow human beings.
In order to positively diagnose Ozymandias’ NPD, the DSM IV requires at least 5 of the following:
- Has a grandiose sense of self-importance (e.g., exaggerates achievements and talents, expects to be recognized as superior without commensurate achievements)
- Is preoccupied with fantasies of unlimited success, power, brilliance, beauty, or ideal love
- Believes that he or she is “special” and unique and can only be understood by, or should associate with, other special or high-status people (or institutions)
- Requires excessive admiration
- Has a sense of entitlement, i.e., unreasonable expectations of especially favorable treatment or automatic compliance with his or her expectations
- Is interpersonally exploitative, i.e., takes advantage of others to achieve his or her own ends
- Lacks empathy: is unwilling to recognize or identify with the feelings and needs of others
- Is often envious of others or believes others are envious of him or her
- Shows arrogant, haughty behavior or attitudes.
Again, Ozy not only fits the 5 needed bullet points, but seems to fit the entire list.
Called “The Comedian” for his seeming enjoyment in the grittier parts of a superhero’s job, Edward Black is almost certainly a sufferer of Antisocial Personality Disorder (ASPD). ASPD is characterized by “a pervasive pattern of disregard for, and violation of, the rights of others that begins in childhood or early adolescence and continues into adulthood.” While APSD sufferers are often called “psychopaths” this is in the popular, not the clinical definition of the term. Psychopaths merely lack empathy – psychopathy by itself can still produce a reasonably functional member of society – it’s the co-occurrence of psychopathic traits with other disorders that’s created the popular use of the term. APSD is that selfish feeling that you’re more important than anyone else taken to the greatest of extremes.
The ICD-10 requires at least 3 of the following for an APSD diagnosis:
- Callous unconcern for the feelings of others.
- Gross and persistent attitude of irresponsibility and disregard for social norms, rules, and obligations.
- Incapacity to maintain enduring relationships, though having no difficulty in establishing them.
- Very low tolerance to frustration and a low threshold for discharge of aggression, including violence.
- Incapacity to experience guilt or to profit from experience, particularly punishment.
- Markedly prone to blame others or to offer plausible rationalizations for the behavior that has brought the person into conflict with society.
While he did show the tiniest sliver of guilt after raping a team-mate, that’s one of the greatest violations of social code most of us can imagine, short of outright murder – which he also takes great joy in – and his level of guilt is hardly proportional to his offenses. The Comedian is a textbook APSD diagnosis, meeting or exceeding the requirements at every bullet point… Starting to see a pattern?
Here’s a guy with a freaking hovercraft parked in his garage. Here’s a guy with a badass costume decked out in all kinds of tech. This guy is practically Batman, but what does he do with it? He sits in his house and leads a sub-par less-than-adequate everyday life. He’s boring and most of his social interactions are incredibly stunted. Despite being one of the most powerful characters in this entire fictional world, Daniel lives in his own fictional world – one where he’s helpless and impotent. Avoidant Personality Disorder (AvPD) is characterized by “a pervasive pattern of social inhibition, feelings of inadequacy, extreme sensitivity to negative evaluation, and avoidance of social interaction.” AvPD sufferers imagine themselves to be inept, unappealing, unloved, unwanted or otherwise just not up to the challenges of life when in reality, they have no such deficits. In truth, AvPD sufferers spend so much time obsessing over their imagined poor performance that they’re often capable of stupendous performances in all the arenas they imagine themselves as low-functioning in – once they get past their stage fright.
The ICD-10 requires at least four of the following for an AvPD diagnosis:
- Persistent and pervasive feelings of tension and apprehension;
- Belief that one is socially inept, personally unappealing, or inferior to others;
- Excessive preoccupation with being criticized or rejected in social situations;
- Unwillingness to become involved with people unless certain of being liked;
- Restrictions in lifestyle because of need to have physical security;
- Avoidance of social or occupational activities that involve significant interpersonal contact because of fear of criticism, disapproval, or rejection.
- Associated features may include hypersensitivity to rejection and criticism.
Again, every single bullet point. Laurie practically had to rape this guy to get him out of his shell and, unsurprisingly, once he came out of said shell, he was the closest thing to a proper superhero this plot ever saw. Speaking of Laurie…
Everyone who’s ever criticized movies, video games, comics or any other form of media for over-sexualizing women should be familiar with Histrionic Personality Disorder (HPD). While it’s become the standard for how women should act in popular media, HPD does come with a pretty high degree of completely legitimate crazy. HPD is characterized by “a pattern of excessive emotionality and attention-seeking, including an excessive need for approval and inappropriately seductive behavior, usually beginning in early adulthood.” So basically when you see Hollywood interpreting women as incapable of controlling their emotions, overly sexual and desperate for attention what you’re really seeing is a dead-on portrayal of HPD. HPD sufferers also tend to be egocentric and manipulative – that’s Laurie all right.
The DSM-IV requires at least 5 of the following to diagnose HPD:
- Uncomfortable in situations in which he or she is not the center of attention
- Interaction with others is often characterized by inappropriate sexually seductive or provocative behavior
- Displays rapidly shifting and shallow expression of emotions
- Consistently uses physical appearance to draw attention to self
- Has a style of speech that is excessively impressionistic and lacking in detail
- Shows self-dramatization, theatricality, and exaggerated expression of emotion
- Is suggestible, i.e., easily influenced by others or circumstances
- Considers relationships to be more intimate than they actually are
Okay, in defense of Alan Moore (author of the original graphic novel) those sound like the traits of basically every female comic character – at least in 1986 when he was writing them. Once again, though, Moore kicks things up a notch by hitting every single point.
You thought I was going to play the multiple personality angle perhaps? Y’know, because of the sex scene where he made copies of himself? Or maybe you thought I was going to go with some kind of God complex? Well that’s not really fair considering he is sort of a god… I mean, how well would you deal with that kind of power? Well, you’d probably develop Schizoid Personality Disorder (SPD). SPD is characterized by “lack of interest in social relationships, a tendency towards a solitary lifestyle, secretiveness, emotional coldness, and apathy.” This all makes sense, really. Imagine you’re Doctor Manhattan: You’re torn apart in a freak lab accident, then return as a crazy blue glowing dude who can see all possible outcomes of all possible events simultaneously. You can not only see forward and backward through time, but you can see and manipulate matter on a quantum level. You’re basically a god. From up there, we’ve all got to look like ants racing toward a volcano. All of this combined alienates Doctor Manhattan from humanity to the point that he can’t even be bothered to put on clothes – I mean if you’ve got a combined view of every event that could have happened, can happen and will happen, weaving and cutting some plant fibers to cover your nakedness just seems odd, doesn’t it?
The ICD-10 requires at least 4 of the following for an SPD diagnosis:
- Emotional coldness, detachment or reduced affect.
- Limited capacity to express either positive or negative emotions towards others.
- Consistent preference for solitary activities.
- Very few, if any, close friends or relationships, and a lack of desire for such.
- Indifference to either praise or criticism.
- Taking pleasure in few, if any, activities.
- Indifference to social norms and conventions.
- Preoccupation with fantasy and introspection.
- Lack of desire for sexual experiences with another person.
Again, in Moore’s defense, this also sounds like a Vulcan and Star Trek had already existed for decades when this was written. Is it defensible that yet another one of Moore’s characters appears to have been directly lifted from a psychology textbook if it could have instead been based on another character that was lifted from the same textbook? I don’t really know, but as with so many things in life, Watchmen proved that comics are way more interesting when you put a bunch of crazies on both sides of a conflict.
In the end, I have to admit: While it’s great to understand the psychology behind the characters, this knowledge doesn’t really make the movie or knowledge that much better. Perhaps it’s a bit more rewarding to see Daniel overcome his personal problems when you see them in the light of a true blue mental disorder, or it adds a slightly more fleshed-out backstory to Laurie who would otherwise be a gratuitous female stereotype, but whether you knew they were disorders or not it still feels more enriching to watch imperfect people embrace their problems and become villains or struggle against their problems to become heroes. We admire comic book superheroes for their bravery and heroism, and Watchmen was one of the first to truly acknowledge that bravery and heroism are not a lack of fear and perfect moral compass: they’re the times when we win the struggle against the darker side of our own issues and imperfections, and for that reason it will always resonate with something at the core of the human experience.
Update: Some of the commenters on Hacker News have pointed out that I left out an important piece of information: All of the criteria I listed are just the criteria specific to the individual personality disorders. There is also a general set of 6 additional criteria that one must meet in order to actually be diagnosed with a personality disorder, regardless of which type. The one that keeps most of us from having a disorder, despite many of these being common traits, is “The enduring pattern leads to clinically significant distress or impairment in social, occupational, or other important areas of functioning.” – most of us aren’t severely effected by these tendencies, but I’d say if any trait is leading you to a life of costumed vigilante crime fighting, you probably qualify.
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