Watchmen ends with a near full inversion of the archetypical super hero narrative. The villain succeeds in carrying out his heinous plot, murdering millions in order to conquer the world; the heroes are defeated and forced to slink away only with the promise that they’ll return to do good in some other fashion; happily ever after isn’t on the table.
Except that the villain’s plan was designed to stop the world from destroying itself, the heroes’ promise of hope has the potential to completely undo the villain’s accomplishments, and happily ever after is never a sure thing in superheroics anyway.
When the last issue opens, we’re presented with a series of six full page panels that highlight the devastation wrought at the intersection where Adrian Veidt teleported his alien at the start of the previous issue. It quickly becomes apparent that we’re surveying the destruction from Laurie Juspeczyk’s perspective just after Jon Osterman teleports her and himself to ground zero. The effect of these panels is striking precisely because up to this point Gibbons has exercised enormous restraint in how he lays out the book; every issue is built on a simple three-by-three panel structure, and only rarely does any page of Watchmen consist of fewer than nine panels laid out in a grid. Occasional moments requiring especially striking art might get a double-sized panel (Dr. Manhattan gets a number of particularly large panels displaying the scale of his powers, but none are a whole page by themselves). The decision to reserve the full page splash for this moment is a good one, especially when taken in context of the trend that superhero comics would adopt not too many years after Watchmen of presenting splash pages just for the sake of showing off artwork. These panels serve a story purpose as well as highlighting Gibbons’s art.
Following the massive destruction (what I find most moving about it is that if you look carefully you’ll see the bodies of all the regular folks who were just living their lives before the incident), we get an extended fallout where everyone reacts with varying levels of horror to what Veidt has done. Juspeczyk has the most visceral reaction, probably because she actually surveys the damage firsthand, and unlike Osterman she hasn’t grown detached from humanity; Dan Dreiberg is horrified but quickly placated by arguments for the greater good; Rorschach wants nothing to do with any of it and so sets out to tell the world what happened before Osterman is forced to murder him; Osterman warns Veidt that nothing ever really ends before wandering off to another galaxy to create some life. Veidt wants to revel in his victory, but he sits uneasy following Osterman’s admonishment.
In accordance with these varied reactions to genocide, the superheroes all receive endings that seem to be tailored to their particular flaws and hangups regarding superheroics. Veidt used his superhero career as a means to an end, and is now generally satisfied enough to leave capes and masks behind him forever; Osterman has become estranged from humanity, and without a human anchor in the form of Juspeczyk, he’s free to go explore the mysteries of the universe as his whims guide him; Rorschach insists to the bitter end that there must never be compromise, and so he dies trying to uncover Veidt’s plan despite it very likely resulting in a much larger calamity; Dreiberg and Juspeczyk go into hiding (they did assist Rorschach with his jailbreak) with plans to continue being crime fighters, presumably because Dreiberg still craves the lifestyle. For these last two, I get a slight whiff of Tom and Daisy Buchanan at the end of The Great Gatsby; having failed spectacularly at stopping a worldwide conspiracy, they retreat into their carefree life of inconsequential crime fighting while everyone else who was more seriously invested in the venture is left holding the bag (let’s imagine in this scenario that Rorschach is Nick and Osterman is Gatsby, but their fates are switched; also, just for fun we’ll say that Veidt is Jordan Baker, though I don’t think there are too many parallels between them). It’s all well and good that they get to continue indulging their fantasies, but a lot of people died because of the existence of superheroes, and they’re not helping matters.
This ending resolution drives home how Moore has been pushing to deconstruct the superhero genre from the series’s beginning. We see the total inefficacy of street level crime fighters in the face of global conflict, the near pathological indifference of a hero with actual powers, and the commission of a genocide in order to actually resolve a problem that was exacerbated by the presence of those same heroes. Veidt’s death toll is in the millions, but the characters are all forced to confront the reality that that number was the alternative to a nearly assured nuclear war that would have rated in the billions. It’s a dark ending to a dark series built on Moore’s insistence that superhero stories are fundamentally immature and flawed. His point is well taken, especially when you acknowledge that he likely wanted to balance the critique of superheroes with relatively hopeful vignettes about the lives of regular people just trying to get by in a world where forces much larger than them are at work (at least, this is how I choose to read the scenes of the intersection in relation to the main plot).