Watchmen vs. One Punch Man: How To Destroy A Hero (Satire vs. Parody) – Wisecrack Edition
Welcome to this Wisecrack Edition on Watchmen VS One Punch Man!
Written & Directed by: Michael Luxemburg
Narrated by: Jared Bauer
Edited by: Andrew Nishimura
Motion Graphics by: Beto Ruiz
Produced by: Emily Dunbar
Watchmen vs. One Punch Man: How To Destroy A Hero (Satire vs. Parody) – Wisecrack Edition
What’s up Wisecrack? Jared eternally trapped in your computer here. Self-aware humor is all around us: Deadpool, Cabin in the Woods and even Galaxy Quest are all well-loved and It’s easy to see why: they make fun of the very genres they inhabit, and they’re all part of a growing trend of media that makes fun of, well, itself. “Okay, let’s pro/con this superhero thing, pro – They pull down a gaggle of ass, local dry cleaning discounts, lucrative film deals both origin stories and larger ensemble team movies, con – they’re lame-ass teacher’s pets!”
And since this trend isn’t going away any time soon, we thought we’d give you a little primer on the complex nature of self criticism. So in order to gain elevated insight on how we shit on the world around us, let’s explore the ever-so important distinction between satire and parody. Both satire and parody exist to criticize the world, And hey, that’s like my #1 favorite thing to do. But like all things, there’s lots of bad satire and bad parody. Today we’re going to figure out the heart of what each is with two Wisecrack favs: Watchmen and One Punch Man. So join us as we dive deep into the nuances of their respective genres so that we can appreciate these amazing properties even more.
Welcome to this Wisecrack Edition on Parody and Satire with Watchmen and One Punch Man, and as always: spoilers ahead. And we’ll be using images from the Watchmen movie and the graphic novel, so please don’t freak out. Let’s start with a refresher course, in alphabetical order. One Punch Man follows Saitama; a hero capable of defeating any enemy in a single punch. On the flipside we’ve got Watchmen, a story that asks the question what if superheroes were just people like us, which is to say… assholes. Before we get into categorizing, let’s talk about what these stories have in common. Most clear is their willingness to take the archetypes of their respective genres and twist them around. One Punch Man takes an anime trope like magical girls, a la sailor moon, and distorts it with a swole ex convict.
There’s also the familiar hard working everyman hero, but he’s just, a debuffed version of Toku hero Kamen Rider. And of course we have a Goku-esque world savior, but he looks like a low rent halloween costume attached to an egg. On the Watchmen side we’ve got an army of superhero knock-offs. Both Rorschach and Ozymandias are distillations of certain elements of Batman. Ozymandias is the charismatic, rich, and hyper-intelligent Bruce Wayne; the face of good that the world needs, clean cut and above the fray. Rorschach on the other hand is the detective batman, fighting crime, and searching for Truth with a capital T. Much like The World’s Greatest Detective, Rorschach’s quest for Truth and Justice veers dangerously close to a horrifying obsession. He’s like the ugly version of Frank Miller’s take on the Caped Crusader.
And for good measure, there’s Nite Owl, a recreation of the nerdy, inventor version of Batman, a la Adam West and his shark repellant. Both stories use these twisted up versions of recognizable characters to make observations about what we take for granted in superhero stories: the types of hero we see, what we expect them to do, and what we think motivates them. “You’re a fast one, who are you?” “Just a guy who’s a hero for fun.”
By changing up what we’re used to, the departure from the original trope sticks out like sore a thumb. In both stories, this contrast explores what we’ll call a more realistic version of superhero power. What is having god-like power really like? To find out let’s turn to a pair of hairless wonders, Saitama and Dr. Manhattan. While a pair of galactically powerful heroes isn’t exactly the kind of thing you’d see in real life, their reaction to power very much is. Both Saitama and Dr. Manhattan confront the boredom afforded by omnipotence. Saitama spends his time mourning his lack of a true challenge, “Not Again! All it took was one punch!” while Dr. Manhattan mostly has weird sex, hangs out on mars, and contemplates the nature of time.
Despite their vast power, neither is a traditional protagonist like Batman or Goku because neither one struggles in a traditional way. While Goku has to train with King Kai and sprint along passages between worlds, Saitama just does some push ups. Batman puts together clues to solve mysteries, Dr. Manhattan literally knows everything. “The comedian is dead. Rorschach wants me to look into my future and see if the killer is ever publically identified.” We’re used to stories about good guys overcoming the odds, but for Saitama and Dr. Manhattan physical confrontations are over before they start.
Dr. Manhattan won the Vietnam war by himself, and Saitama beat up an alien that searched entire galaxies for a worthy fuckin’ adversary without ever even giving it his full effort. “You lie. You were holding back weren’t you? I never stood a chance.” So what is the one critical difference between the method of One Punch Man and Watchmen??? Watchmen is a satire, and One Punch Man is a parody. while one is ultimately an adoration of the genre it lovingly pokes fun at, while the other is a “burn it all” approach to the heroes who used to cover our jammies. “According to Satire: A Critical Reintroduction by Dustin Griffin, “A work of satire is designed to attack vice or folly… it seeks to persuade an audience that something or someone is reprehensible or rediculous… When it takes over another literary structure, it tends not just to borrow it… but to subvert it or… direct it’s energies towards alien ends.”
Watchmen, as satire, doesn’t just attack the vices and follies of society and the superhero genre, it specifically assaults the idea of anyone possessing powers that even approach that of a nuclear weapon. It’s largely about nuclear fear, only this time it’s not directed just at a bomb, but a blue-skinned super being. Jon Osterman becomes Dr. Manhattan in a nuclear accident. He’s then recruited and used as a weapon to win the Vietnam war. Even his name is a far from subtle reference to the Manhattan Project. He’s fascinated by both time and clocks, and throughout Watchmen we often see clocks counting down toward… undesirable outcomes. In the graphic novel this is even clearer. Nuclear security is referenced all the time, and fear of nukes drives many kinds of conflict.
The Vietnam war was a response to fear of nuke-wielding Russians. Riots and violence on the home front, in opposition to superheroes, all return to the fear of a nuclear threat, symbolized by blue skinned space wizard Dr. Manhattan. The USSR and USA need a fabricated attack on the earth to even set aside their differences, exposing the extreme lengths taken, and casualties sustained, just to de-esclate the nuclear stand-off. Watchmen shows the dangers of power, but also its indifference. Dr. Manhattan gets bored of everything, and in his boredom becomes increasingly conflicted about the nature of his own existence. “I prefer the stillness here. I’m tired of Earth and these people. I’m tired of being caught in their tangled lives.”
It’s ultimately a grim joke about Superman. If he were really an all powerful being, why would he worry about humanity? “You gunned her down.” “That’s right, and you know what? You watched me. You could have turned the gun into steam, the bullets into mercury, the bottle into god damned snowflakes, but you didn’t did ya? You really don’t give a damn about human beings.” It’s even clear in his sartorial choices. Superman rocks his costume to evoke the American values of truth, justice, and the American way. Dr. Manhattan strips himself of ideology, and gets naked. Watchmen makes a more explicit point about the corrupting influence of power with The Comedian. Superhero stories ask us to believe that the “good guys” with power are the ones who deserve it, but Watchmen is more than willing to point out that they are not.
The comedian is a hero in the mold of Captain America or Wolverine, an extra strong, intelligent, hyper capable, super soldier, but he’s also a sadist and a psychopath. Watchmen isn’t just making these observations to satisfy your brain’s thinky-parts. It uses the form of the superhero genre, like Batman clones and all-powerful beings, and the content of the story to try and persuade an audience, just like Griffin says satire should inhabit the genre to attack its vices and follies. But, persuade them of what? Well, there’s certainly the problems of nukes. , But Griffin also says that satire wants to prove “that something or someone is reprehensible or rediculous” – and in this case that something is the very idea of superheroes. Watchmen is dedicated to making the case that the very existence of superheroes is a dangerous fantasy. You can compare it a classic work of satire, Jonathan Swift’s A Modest Proposal: where the author suggests solving famine by eating children.
Of course Swift wasn’t actually pro kid eating, he was just trying to show the failure of society in his time, and did so by inhabiting the form of a political essay that overtly exhibits the indifference to suffering that Swift coyly suggested characterized those in power. Just as Swift used the form of a political essay to make the people who write political essays look like heartless monsters, Watchmen uses the form of a superhero narrative to make superheros look dangerous and shitty. It posits that superheroes create an asymmetry of power that defies regulation. Superheroes can violate the rules and commit acts of violence at their own discretion Even if they have everyone’s best interests at heart, that degree of power inevitably becomes dangerous as different ethical frames, a la Rorschach and Ozymandias, come into conflict. Whether it be super powers or nuclear powers, that degree of power will inevitably lead to some fucked up shit. Watchmen can make these arguments so effectively because it uses the structures of superhero stories to make its argument.
Like Griffin says, “When it takes over another literary structure, it tends not just to borrow it… but to subvert it or… direct it’s energies towards alien ends”. Every inch of Watchmen is dedicating to turning the traits we love about superheroes against themselves. At the end of the day Watchmen is a condemnation of superhero fiction as a genre because it promotes a dangerous fantasy. But Saitama might want a word about that. There’s no doubt that One Punch Man is poking fun at superheroes of both manga and western comics, as well as the genres themselves. The villains in One Punch Man give intentionally over the top versions of classic villain monologues. “King of the deep, lord of the sea. That’s me. All life on earth comes from the sea, as if sea were our mother. In other words as ruler of the sea I am the peak of a pyramid that includes every living organism in this world.”
Every character has a dramatic backstory, “He destroyed everything in sight: parks, schools, buildings, my house. He even took the lives of everyon in my family,” and a fighting spirit. It uses anime and manga tropes like ocean creatures, Kaiju style monsters, and more. It’s always in conversation with other works in the same genre, but without the judgement we see in Watchmen. Why? Because One Punch Man isn’t a satire. It’s a parody. Now let’s investigate the difference, and I promise it’s more than just semantics. We’ve already seen how satire has a specific persuasive function, usually in opposition to something, but parody isn’t quite like that. Parody exaggerates certain elements of its target, but it ultimately affirms the literary form it inhabits. To be more specific we’re turning to Robert Phiddian and his essay, “Are Parody and Deconstruction The Same Thing?” Parody accepts the logic and rules of its genre and takes them seriously as tools of its criticism, as Phiddian says “It operates from inside of the texts and ideas it criticizes.”
Think of how Genos mirrors a classic anime protagonist. He suffered a trauma and is trying to become strong enough to get revenge for the people he loves, but at every turn he’s rendered a joke by Saitama’s immense power. That doesn’t diminish Genos’ appeal. We can still relate to his desires and they aren’t treated as stupid. They’re just irrelevant because Saitama has thrown all the rules out of whack. All of the things we mentioned before: the tropes, the references, even the structures of character arcs and stories are all classic manga. There’s no doubt that One Punch Man’s creators truly love the genre, but don’t think it’s above ridicule. One Punch Man makes this argument by exaggerating the overpowered hero archetype. In many manga, animes, and even western comics, no matter how powerful the villain gets, the hero gets stronger to match.
Take Goku for instance: enemies get stronger and stronger but Goku is always able to save the day, usually through some intense training regimen. Dragonball Z celebrates this, but One Punch Man asks why there even are other characters. Genos and Mumen Rider, much like Krillin or Yamcha, train hard to match their stronger friend, but they never can, and honestly don’t need to. The real hero will always be there to save the day. By turning anime and manga on their heads to make these points, One Punch Man is critiquing superhero stories by “showing…precisely where they double and collapse.” For a great example of where the lessons of superhero stories collapse, Let’s get back to Mumen Rider. He has a classic backstory and a hero’s motivation. “It’s not about winning or losing. It’s about me taking you on, right here and right now.”
He just wants to help people and be like the heroes he looks up to, “I’m ready. I’ll go rescue them right now.” not unlike Midoriya from My Hero Academia. And much like Midoriya before he gets his powers, Mumen Rider constantly gets his ass kicked. It’s a message about real life. Some people just don’t have what it takes to be a superhero, and telling everyone they can might get them seriously hurt. We can see this same intrusion of reality in Saitama. Most superhero stories end with the hero happy to be saving the world, and waiting for the next challenge. Saitama has a more relatable reaction, boredom. There’s nothing to overcome, and that leaves you without a reason to get out of the bathtub.
This may sound like the satire rules so far, but instead of trying to show something as “reprehensible or rediculous,” “The crucial point for parody is that the body of words is always preloved and redirected.” Parody is used to awaken us to the flaws in the things we love, but not to demolish a flawed genre, like Watchmen aspires to do with superheros. One Punch Man makes clear that it’s mocking anime to help expand the possibilities of what it can do.
It’s a complicated relationship, mocking the things you love. It can be hard to tell how to approach a parodic text, but, according to Phiddian, “if we read parody “straight” as sincere expression without relating it to a structure of criticism, we misunderstand it.” That’s the key. Parody is a tool for criticism but that criticism operates on the assumption that the genre it’s criticizing is worth improving. One Punch Man calls on us to get away from the bigger monster, bigger gun and find other stories to tell.
Stories about chefs, ice skaters, and even mahjong players. Opening up the possibilities of anime storytelling is a noble goal, and one that is sorely needed. The ending of the show amounts to a criticism of the Dragon Ball Z model of storytelling. Much like Goku, Boros is constantly seeking the strongest opponents in the universe, but unlike our Saiyan hero, he’s willing to destroy innocents to find the ones he wants. At the same time Saitama, the actual strongest being is bored of all the power. One Punch Man is displaying both ways this infinite power model can fail. Now it’s important to remember that One Punch Man may criticize a certain kind of superhero narrative, but it doesn’t disavow the value of heroes.
The show wants us to recognize and emulate the bravery we see from Genos and Mumen rider, but also recognize the silliness of the story we find those lessons in. That’s the critical difference between One Punch Man and Watchmen. Both use their overpowered characters to make points about the genre they inhabit, but Watchmen makes condemnations of all sorts of social systems beyond the context of superheroes, and even condemns the superhero genre itself. One Punch Man feels different. There’s a general agreement that the stories we’ve told forever need a little refresh, but that doesn’t mean abandoning them completely. With that in mind, we can throw things like Team America, Dr. Strangelove, and Heathers as satire with Watchmen, and Deadpool, Galaxy Quest, and Blazing Saddles as parody with One Punch Man. And The Big Bang theory is none of these things. Fuck that show. Thanks for watching.