I clearly remember the moment I turned from boy to nerd: it was the summer of 1999, and for months the only thing I could think about was The Phantom Menace.
For those readers who are fortunate enough to have enjoyed a well-balanced childhood, spending their leisure time hanging out with friends and playing sports and effortlessly chatting up members of the opposite sex, The Phantom Menace is the title of the fourth installment in the Star Wars series (or the first, if we go by the story’s chronology). And, having spent a considerable portion of my youth trying to summon my inner Jedi, the release of a new episode threw me into a state of nearly religious ecstasy. Up to that moment, I’ve been, at best, an intermediate geek—dabbling in comic books and video games and science fiction—but at the thought of a new Star Wars movie, I was thrown into the dark depths of dorkdom, waited in line for hours to buy tickets to the new movie, and insisted on watching it four times on opening day alone and several more thereafter.
Of course, it was terrible. Terrible the first time I saw it, even more awful the third, unbearable by the ninth. No inner truth revealed itself, no strange satisfaction appeared. It was just a bad movie, and my disappointment was as cold and heavy as my passion had once burned bright.
It’s only natural, then, that, reading a film version of the celebrated graphic novel The Watchmen was in the works, I reacted with cool detachment. The book is one of my favorites, and, I knew, its grim atmosphere and metaphysical quandaries would be very hard to capture on screen, especially for a director like Zack Snyder, whose previous film, 300, had much more by way of bare midriffs than bold thoughts.
Still, I stood in line, anxious to see the movie the very day it came out. And just as I’d expected, it was abysmal. But it compelled me to revisit the original source, and admire anew its powerful premise: a group of masked heroes, most lacking any supernatural abilities or exceptional talents, find themselves hunted, driven underground by an enraged public that has come to see them not as holy saviors but as hooded sadists. Still, the Watchmen persevere, and, in a variety of terrifying, unexpected and contemplative ways, save humanity from itself.
The first time I read the novel, I wondered why they even bothered. Why they sought to unravel a mysterious pending attack on New York City, when New York City was awash with rioters screaming scurrilous slogans. Why they cared so much about a world that cared so little about them.
Moses answered all my questions. Were he around the fictional, apocalyptic New York City circa 1985 the book so deftly portrays, one could easily imagine him putting on a mask and cape and joining the cloaked crusaders in their escapades, although, I suspect Moses might not be too chummy with another of the Watchmen, Ozymandias, who based his superhero persona on the ancient Egyptian pharaohs.
Like the Watchmen, Moses, too, had felt the sharp sting of ingratitude: here he is, in this week’s parasha, marching down the mount, tablets in hand. He hadn’t been gone for long, and yet the Israelites had already lost faith: craving instant, visible, godly gratification, they pressed Aaron to make them a golden calf, worshipping it instead of the one true god they had sworn to obey for all eternity just a few weeks prior.
One of the Watchmen in particular would have commiserated with Moses: Dr. Manhattan, a nuclear physicist whom a freak accident turned into an omnipotent blue being. Despite providing a host of extraordinary services, like singlehandedly winning the Vietnam War, Dr. Manhattan is haunted by the media, dogged by false accusations and vicious rumors, and generally despised by most Americans. Exasperated, he retreats to Mars, where he contemplates parting ways with the stiff-necked human race and starting a new civilization all by himself.
Moses faces the same dilemma. Witnessing the Israelites and their glittery idol, God, livid, declares his intention to annihilate them all and start afresh, making Moses himself into a great nation as he had once done with Abraham. And Moses, too, has his Mars Moment, considering the temptation inherent in letting go of the people who had let him down.
And yet, he soldiers on. “Why, O Lord,” he pleads with God, “should Your anger be kindled against Your people whom You have brought up from the land of Egypt with great power and with a strong hand?” God is appeased, but Moses is no man of mere mercy: he descends from the mountain, smashes the tablets, burns the calf and slaughters 3,000 of his own people in retribution for their sins.
Although he had had his share of tribulations—the whole bit with the sea, for example, or the business with the burning bush—it is only at that moment that Moses truly becomes a leader, a man capable at once of sweet pity and searing wrath, protecting his charges even as they do everything in their power to betray him. The first lesson of being a superhero, Moses learns, is never expecting those you save to do anything but resent you for your might and your grace.
It’s a lesson God himself delivers: as Moses climbs back up the mountain, God reveals to him the 13 attributes of mercy, a stunning sermon on that most exalted of all qualities, the capacity to forgive when one’s compassion is repaid with thanklessness. And it’s a lesson we should all be mindful of: barring a chance nuclear mishap that turns our skin blue and our powers unlimited, all we need to become divine is the ability to sacrifice everything and expect nothing in return.