The Schlong and the Short of It: Notes on Dr Manhattan's Cock
We were seated up the back of an unkempt, dank theatre in a dodgy cineplex. One of those places where the carpets are somehow both moist and musty from decades of spilled soda, and the smell of mouldy bits of popcorn under your seat waft up to assail your nostrils. Suitably seedy for a second date. I chose this venue and the film, Zack Snyder's Watchmen. I have no idea why I thought it was appropriate date movie material. I guess I wanted to see it and this cineplex sold cheap tickets. Clearly, I'm a catch.
I was enjoying the film, but I don't think my date was. I don't think he got it. I snuck a few sideways glances, watched as his face scrunched up with confusion or slackened with boredon. Perhaps as a way of entertaining himself more than anything else, his hand inched toward my thigh. He almost got there. But before he could, we both gasped. There it was. I knew it was coming. I'd seen the reaction online. But still, I was astounded by it. Dr Manhattan's big glowing schlong.
So scandalised and mesmerised we were by this that all amorous bets were off. It's not everyday you see an ample blue dick casually depicted in a mainstream comic book film. It's not everyday you see any sort of dick in a mainstream comic book film. Or a mainstream film of any other genre, for that matter.
There were a few other people in the cinema that night. A couple of teenage guys were sitting a few rows ahead and upon the seeing Dr Manhattan's electric blue endowment for the second time, one of them called out something to the effect of "put some clothes on. I don't need to see that."
Well, I thought, you don't really need to see anything on screen, do you? Consider Derek Jarman's Blue, which is essentially 80 minutes of nothing but a blue screen. In any case, I'm glad he made his objections known, otherwise I might have mistaken his silence for rapacious homosexuality.
Similar reactions proliferated on the Internet. The commentary tended to focus on whether it was gratuitous or how funny it was to see possibly the first CGI penis. We've seen various prostheses, from Boogie Nights to Chopper, but never (or at least rarely) had a computer-rendered schlong been depicted on the silver screen.
The cultural anxiety over the presentation of the penis on screen is still very much with us. Yet, Watchmen fondles and teases this anxiety, while reassuringly cupping our metaphorical balls through an aesthetic process that is perhaps more subversive than it appears. In daring to represent the penis so blatantly and within the generic parameters of a comic book film, Watchmen's response to the taboo is unique but does not completely disentangle itself from the cultural mores it is trying to overcome. In lieu of a more extensive examination of all this, what follows are a few preliminary notes on Watchmen, Dr Manhattan, and his big blue schlong.
Dr Manhattan is the only super-powered member of the team of costumed heroes that Watchmen depicts, having complete control over his own atomic structure and that of the world around him. After his molecules are torn asunder when he is accidentally exposed to the experimental "intrinsic field generator," Jon Osterman (Billy Crudup) reconstitutes himself and is renamed Dr Manhattan, due to the associations with the Manhattan Project. It is interesting to note that he reforms himself. There is no Providence hinted at. This is a pure act of self-determination.
In reconstituting himself, Dr Manhattan obviously has complete control over what form he has decided to take. Instead of reverting to his old nerdy self, he emerges blue-skinned and bald, with white, pupiless eyes, a perfectly chiselled physique, and a rather ample cock. In the graphic novel, artist Dave Gibbons draws Manhattan's genitals in apprehension of the ancient Greek style, subtle and diminutive and with detail indistinct. The film version gives us a much better look (and on various occasions). Its form, size and pendulous movements are rendered with attentive verisimilitude.
This has interesting ramifications both in the text and outside of it. Dr Manhattan has consciously chosen to reform himself in this way, as have the production team. At both the level of the diegesis and in the construction of it, he is a figure of aesthetic idealism.
The character has eschewed clothing, as shame obviously does not worry a being with cosmic awareness. While this may at first present him as beyond human inanities, on deeper inspection we see he is directly sculpted by very human idealizations. Other than his colour, every visual and character aspect of Dr Manhattan is the ideal for contemporary masculinity (impressive musculature, impressive penis, impressive intellect, otherworldly lovemaking skills). He is presented as a perfect male specimen.
II. Der Ubermensch und der Uberschwanz
With this kind of self-creation, it's tempting to see him as an iteration of the Nietzschean ubermensch, particularly because most superheroes can be characterised in this way. However, it is more accurate to consider most superheroes exemplars of Nietzsche's idea of the "Last Man," being servants to a nihilistic status quo, rather than advancing towards something beyond current conceptions of human morality. The ubermensch moves beyond, forges its own reality through a realisation of its will to power.
Watchmen takes the superheroic appropriation of the ubermensch concept (first represented quite consciously by Superman) a little more seriously. But even then, Manhattan seems both a Last Man and an ubermensch; or more accurately, he represents a dialectic between them.
Ultimately though, Manhattan does not fulfil the criteria of Nietzsche's concept because a core feature of the ubermensch is its "boundedness" to the earth or the world. The desire to flee into otherworldliness is something that the ubermensch is supposed to transcend. Increasingly, and crucially to the film's narrative, Dr Manhattan has become less and less concerned by human affairs, morality or social conventions. At the film's denouement, he expresses a desire to leave the planet and create life of his own. While this might conceivably be an expression of his will to power, it seems far too otherworldly for an ubermensch.
III. Phallus vs. Penis
As Richard Dyer once quipped, "the penis has got nothing on the phallus." He is essentially picking up on the idea that the reality of the penis is always juxtaposed with the symbolic power of the phallus. And it is always found wanting. In most films that show muscular action men, their bodies or guns or other "tools" are usually representative of the phallus. It speaks to Snyder's proclivities for excess that everything about Dr Manhattan's appearance is phallic. His entire body positively bulges with electric blue tumescence. He is no ordinary phallic symbol, he is a quantum phallus so powerful its symbolic power extends beyond the physical world and across time and space. Though it is sizeable, there is a sense that his penis is a vestigial organ, unimportant to his existence within the film. We are given a glimpse of him as a lover. He is still a sexual being. But the way in which he practices this on his partner, Silk Spectre (Malin Akerman), is heavily implied to be unrelated to his genitals. He engages in cunnilingus and caresses his partner with multiple arms, while discharging pleasurable amounts of electricity across her skin. But penetrative sex is neither implied or shown. Manhattan's penis is depicted so frankly in order to show how irrelevant it is to the character. Yet it takes on an extra-diegetic relevance because of its size and ubiquity. It could be viewed, therefore, as a sort of meta-commentary on the gratuitousness of nudity in film. On one level, Manhattan's penis is a superfluous appendage that the character doesn't seem inclined to use, and on another other level, it maintains an important aspect of his characterisation.
IV. Snyderian Maximalism
I am well aware that I am in the minority but I think Zack Snyder is one of the most interesting filmmakers working in Hollywood at the moment. He is often dismissed as a slightly better version of Michael Bay. He makes big dumb movies that are entertaining, do what they do well and that's that. This is true to an extent. However there is a certain quality that ranges across all of his films, and that is the concern for highly aestheticised bodies moving through the cinematic space. What's most interesting is the tendency Snyder has to focus intensely on bodies (whether it be the rippling muscles of the Spartans in 300, or the lithe athleticism of the school uniform-dressed ninja girls in Sucker Punch), while egregious visual spectacle tumbles around said bodies. This also occurs in his most recent film, Man of Steel, where one's gaze flits manically from the carnage porn of buildings crumbling and oil rigs exploding, to Henry Cavill's indisputable handsomeness and impressive physique.
It is a question that has been asked before, but why must every film engage the intellect? Why can they not be artifacts of sensorial pleasure? There's a strange sensuousness and eroticism to Snyder's films, and it must be said that this erotic dynamic is "bisexual" in that its libidinal energies burst out from both male and female forms. While I'd normally argue that to fully appreciate Snyder's work you have to let go of your intellect and enjoy the sensuousness of his spectacles, Watchmen manages to season Snyder's default eroticism with a bit of intellectual salt and pepper. In Dr Manhattan we have complete, unashamed, and unremarkable nudity. The character's nudity and genitals are not completely melodramatic (although they do serve this purpose), they are both incidental and crucial to the character and the film's philosophical dimensions.
After the film, my date gawped at me as if it was all my fault. Instead of challenging his unspoken opinion on the film, I suggested ice-cream. I always suggest ice-cream to evade awkwardness. As I licked at my serve of my double-choc, I found myself deciding there needs to be more dicks in mainstream film and television. I'm sure I'm not the only one who thinks this needs to happen.
Now, this proclamation may seem petulant, prurient and overly voyeuristic (and it probably is all of these things), but we need to grow up. I've thought of starting up a dick-to-tits count in contemporary film and TV shows, but it is unnecessary. There's no need for any kind of quantitative metric. We all know. While we are quite happy to show every inch of ladies, as a culture we still have a problem with full frontal male nudity. When it comes to showing some cock on screen, our response is either jitters or titters or varying degrees of shock.
It is interesting that a comic book film (however revisionist) is one of the few recent western films that presents full frontal male nudity casually and without melodrama or hysteria.