Though critics feared the influence of Joker, it's really Watchmen's Rorschach that they should have been worrying about. Though both are popular comic book characters with devoted followings, it's Rorschach's philosophies that make Watchmen's story feel unnerving—and all too real, as the new HBO series has perfectly demonstrated.
Before the release of Todd Phillips' polarizing Joker movie, hands were wrung and pearls were clutched over the fears of copycat criminals, with the 2012 Dark Knight Aurora shooting at the forefront of the discussion. But so far,the 'dangerous' movie's biggest impact has been on Joker Halloween costume sales and Instagram likes for Joker's staircase (not to mention record-setting box office dollars). Though the movie's striking makeup design has been spread around the world, so far no would-be Jokers have stepped forward. Still, it's easy to see why one might fear the notion of a real world clown prince of crime. In fact, HBO's Watchmen captures that exact fear through the legacy of Rorschach.
Though Rorschach himself is long dead, his legacy lives on in the form of the Watchmen TV show's Seventh Kavalry, a cult-like terrorist organization of white supremacists directly inspired by the brutal vigilante's methods and mantras. Their hoods mimic Rorschach's iconic inkblot patterns, and their threats lift phrasing straight from his journal. They're avid readers of the conservative publication New Frontiersman, the same paper that Rorschach trusted with his writing and the secrets behind the secret conspiracy behind Adrian Veidt's plan. They're also the ones responsible for 'The White Night' -- the incident that gave the Tulsa Police their distinctive yellow masks to protect themselves and their families.
Rorschach, much like Joker, is a fan favorite character. And while the HBO series is a critical darling, its audience score has plummeted thanks to Watchmen review bombing by fans who take offense to the show's political statements and its dealings with actual racial violence in America, or to its painting of white supremacists and perpetrators of racial violence as bad guys (go figure). So why, of all characters, would one of the original series' heroes come to represent the show's most vile threats? This year at New York Comic Con, Watchmen co-creator and artist David Gibbons gave his throughts (courtesy of io9) on why Rorschach and the Seventh Kavalry are such a fit:
Rorschach is a very interesting character, you know? Obviously, Alan [Moore] very much came up with Rorschach and wrote all the words that came from his mouth, and I think there’s a dreadful appeal to characters like Rorschach in that you can’t possibly agree with them.
But they’re so definite, and so consistent, and so hypnotically sure of what they’re doing that they’re quite arresting. And I can quite see that Rorschach would be a kind of role model for people with unpleasant views in this future.
Unpleasant views, indeed. Reading Moore's Watchmen and thinking Rorschach is 'the good guy' is an easy mistake. After all, he's a superhero, right? He's been abused and betrayed by the world, so he uses vigilantism to set things right. He's uncompromising; Rorschach's the only one of the original the original 'Crimebuster' heroes who still operates on the streets to fight criminals. But to view him so simply is a fundamental misread of the text. When compared to the angst over Joker being 'glorified' by troubled viewers, it's not exaggerating to say a majority of casual comic fans might do the same for Rorschach without even being aware of it.
Watchmen is a deconstruction of the myth of the superhero, after all. A take-down of the idea that 'might makes right.' Based on Steve Ditko's love of Ayn Randian objectivism, Rorschach's black-and-white mindset -- perfectly embodied by his mask of swirling ink on fabric which changes shape, but never blurs -- turns him into a hyper-violent, delusional outlaw. He's homophobic, he hates the poor, and he has murdered who knows how many people in the name of his own personal justice. "Liberals" are destroying society in his mind, and President Redford in HBO's Watchmen seems about as liberal as it gets.
It's no surprise that the Seventh Kavalry, perturbed by "Redfordations," would take up Rorschach's creed. Would embrace his condemnation of the system, would adopt his hatred of those in power, the weakening moral and ethical boundaries of society, and place guilt upon those they deem responsible. In other words, all the same elements at work in Joaquin Phoenix's arc in Joker. But only one of these protagonists is mistaken to be a 'hero' without a single tinge of irony.
Watchmen continues with "If You Don't Like My Story, Write Your Own" on November 10th, only on HBO.