HBO’s Watchmen: Our First Impressions

We get a first taste of HBO's subversive new superhero drama.

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HBO’s Watchmen: Our First Impressions

Baylor Thornton, Arts & Entertainment Editor

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If you’ve followed the comic book scene for any period of time, you’ve heard of Watchmen. It is essentially the Citizen Kane of comics, in that it revolutionized the medium upon release, and is still generally considered the all-time best example. Alan Moore’s 1986 limited series takes place in an alternate history where costumed vigilantes exist, and haven’t necessarily made the world a better place. Political tensions with the Soviet Union are at a dangerous high, and Richard Nixon is still President well into the 80s. While the “superheroes” themselves have their own issues, ranging from sexual frustration to violent sociopathy. The comic is equal parts murder mystery, political drama, and overall deconstruction of what a comic book can be. It’s been thirty-three years and its influence is still undeniable. Largely because in the last decade, Watchmen has become a franchise of its own.

For years Watchmen was untouchable. It’s one graphic novel, and a perfect entity. The entire entertainment industry left it at that. But this all changed in 2009, when Zack Snyder made his feature film adaptation, which is still potentially the most divisive comic book film ever made. Depending on who you ask, the movie is either a pitch-perfect adaptation or an outright failure to translate its artistic integrity. I find myself somewhere in the middle. It was my favorite film throughout junior high, because its visuals and character work are undeniably powerful. But despite how faithfully Snyder adapts the comic panel-for-panel, it’s obvious he has no real idea what the comic is all about. In fact, the movie is arguably a celebration of all the violence and nihilism the comic aimed to critique. And after Snyder’s failures in the DCEU with Man of Steel and Batman v Superman, the flaws in his Watchmen are only more apparent. DC didn’t stop there either, releasing a line of prequel comics in 2012 called Before Watchmen. A few of them were shockingly excellent, like Darwyn Cooke’s work on Minutemen and Silk Spectre. But others were downright embarrassing, with Brian Azzarello’s Comedian being one of the most disappointing titles in modern DC history. And as if that wasn’t enough, a twelve issue sequel comic called Doomsday Clock started in 2017, and has yet to be completed. The first half started out very promising, but it’s only gotten worse and worse, with too many plotlines going absolutely nowhere. It seemed unlikely we’ll ever get a piece of Watchmen media that’s worthy of the name. Until now…

Enter Damon Lindelof, the acclaimed television visionary behind Lost and The Leftovers (which I’ve previously reviewed!https://acobserver.com/arts-entertainment/movies-tv/2019/04/24/the-leftovers/). Now he’s been offered to adapt Watchmen several times before in the past. He’s admitted this, and he turned down the offer twice. He finally accepted after finding an unlikely source of inspiration: Ta-Nehisi Coates’ essay “The Case for Reparations.” Because HBO’s Watchmen is not about the Cold War like the comic, or an apocalyptic event like The Leftovers. No, the series focuses on the horrifying, real-world issue of white supremacy. Right from the opening scene, which portrays the 1921 Tulsa Race Riots; a terrifying atrocity that actually happened and I am ashamed to never have heard of. As the episode continues, we learn that black cops are now obligated to wear masks and/or superhero costumes to protect their identities, after being targeted by a white supremacist group.

This same group, “The Seventh Kalvary,” exists as a twisted reincarnation of Rorschach from the comic; as they appropriate his mask as a symbol, and modify his famous “Rorschach’s Journal” soliloquies to include racist rhetoric. Also, Robert Redford (yes, that Redford) has been President since 1992, and his administration has finally issued reparations for some black families… much to the dismay of many whites. But Redford thankfully isn’t an easy Trump parody or anything, and he’s instead, being used to analyze when leftist policy can go wrong. The original’s America had too much of the right, and Redford’s ultra-left America isn’t exactly an improvement. There’s a very tense scene where an officer has to call in a request for his handgun, and by the time he finally gets access to it, he’s already been shot by a Kalvary member. This scene isn’t just there to troll liberal sensibilities, but rather to make the audience consider the flip side of the coin.

This is a lot of heavy and politically charged worldbuilding, but it always feels natural and inside the familiar Watchmen universe. Everything that happened in the original comic is still canon, squids and all. There’s a number of clever visual nods that harken back to the comic, while still fitting in with the new story and never feeling like fanservice. And although it may not seem like it from my descriptions, this is, in fact, a superhero story. Regina King is all types of awesome as Sister Night, Tim Blake Nelson is oddly captivating as Looking Glass, and more vigilantes like Red and Pirate Jenny are sure to get more screentime in future episodes. Despite politics and character work being the focus, the pilot still has some really solid action, with the sequence at the ranch being one of the tightest I’ve ever seen on television. This is helped by some really strong production values, and in particular a downright haunting score by Nine Inch Nails’ Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross. As soon as that’s on Apple Music I’m going to have it on repeat.

But that’s not to say all Watchmen fans will enjoy this show. It’s already attracted a pushback for being too different from its source. And that’s an understandable perspective. This is an entirely different story, with its own themes and characters. And anything that is from the original feels very different. Rorschach, as already stated, has been turned into a prop for racists; and Jeremy Irons’ Adrian Veidt is an absurd parody of the character, wasting his last few years goofing off in a decadent castle. These are just some of the changes that could feel like outright perversions of the source material. But in this case, I can’t say it’s unwelcome. Because the original Watchmen, as well as anything in Alan Moore’s canon, was not respectful of the comic book norms. In fact, he went out of his way to deconstruct them and expose their faults. So in a strange way, Lindelof’s Watchmen is a more faithful adaptation than Snyder’s, explicitly because it’s not faithful at all. Snyder’s film, as well as the majority of modern Watchmen media, was all too reverent of its source. The changes made were very minor, and it essentially compromised its artistic integrity in favor of panel-for-panel recreations. That is not something Moore would have done. But creating an Alan Moore adaptation that is nothing like Alan Moore would have wanted? In a weird way, that is as Moore-esque as you could get.

Wow, I have a lot to say about this. It’s hard to believe I’ve only seen one episode. There’s still so much more around the corner. I haven’t even seen how Laurie Blake or Doctor Manhattan will fit into all of this. So bottom line, Watchmen is downright essential television. It’s easily the best thing to happen to the comic in years, and it’s the most clever tv adaptation since FX’s Fargo. It succeeds at being Watchmen, but more importantly, it’s a fascinating and powerful drama in its own right. If you’re a superhero junkie, Watchmen is a must. If you want an intelligent and risk-taking story about American racism, Watchmen is even more recommendable. And if you’re still bummed about The Leftovers ending, Watchmen should fill that hole in your heart. As for me, I’m already counting the days until the next episode. Tick tock tick tock.

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