LOS ANGELES (Reuters) - Superheroes don't just make fun characters for comic books and movies.
Their powers, and how they choose to use them, are philosophical treasure troves, and few are as rich and complicated as the protagonists in "Watchmen," which opens in movie theaters around the world this week.
"'Watchmen' is an embarrassment of riches to the comics-obsessed philosopher," said Mark D. White, editor of the book "Watchmen and Philosophy: A Rorschach Test."
The book is one of a series that uses pop culture as an entry point to the sometimes abstract subject of philosophy.
Years in the making, "Watchmen" is the big-screen adaptation of the acclaimed 12-issue comic book series by Britons Alan Moore and Dave Gibbons published between 1986 and 1987.
Like the books, the movie is set in an alternative 1985 when the United States and the Soviet Union are on the brink of nuclear war. It features costumed vigilantes who have become so unpopular they are now outlawed.
But "Watchmen" is far from just popcorn entertainment. Its twisted superhero archetypes, like the tortured do-gooder Rorschach and brainy businessman Ozymandias, take time out from performing death-defying acts to muse on subjects like free will, savior figures and the politics of fear.
"In 'Watchmen,' the philosophy is so explicit that you don't have to dig very hard to find it," said White, an associate professor in the department of political science, economics and philosophy at the College of Staten Island.
The original series took the name from the phrase "Who watches the Watchmen?" which dates back to the 1st century Roman poet Juvenal and has been the subject of philosophical debate for centuries.
The essays by academics in "Watchmen and Philosophy" look at how Rorschach justifies his often brutal actions, and tackles subjects like the legitimacy of authority.
The mother and daughter Silk Spectres provide a window into the feminist thinking of French author Simone de Beauvoir. Another chapter is devoted to German philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche's thoughts on the "Ubermensch" (superman).
Although "Watchmen" raises more philosophical questions than most, hit TV shows like medical drama "House" and animated series "The Simpsons" also contain thought-provoking material for those who believe the unexamined life is not worth living.
"Philosophy has had a public relations problem for a couple of centuries. People mistakenly think that philosophy is some dusty academic subject that is irrelevant," said William Irwin, editor of the Blackwell Philosophy and Pop Culture series.
"The mission is to see what the general public like in pop culture and use it as jumping off point for philosophical discussion," said Irwin, professor of philosophy at Kings College, Pennsylvania.
More than 1 million books have been published in the Philosophy and Pop Culture series. Almost all the titles have been translated into Portuguese, mostly for the Brazilian market where Irwin says philosophy plays an important part in culture.
White, who has also written on Batman, says superheroes are fascinating territory for moral philosophers like him.
"They have taken on this extraordinary responsibility, but given that you want to save the world, what should you do first? Catch crooks or cure hunger?" White said.
Editing by Xavier Briand