HBO’s Watchmen shouldn’t be as good as it is.
In the three decades since the debut of writer Alan Moore and artist Dave Gibbons’ genre-shattering comic, DC Comics has done everything possible to exploit it—always poorly, and always against the will of Moore. But every time I watch this new, wildly imaginative iteration of Watchmen, I wonder what Moore would think of it. And not just because this Watchmen, incredibly, lives up to the comic, and not just because this Watchmen, even more incredibly, makes the comic even better—but because, like the comic, this Watchmen is brave enough to be so fucking weird and say so much.
At first, the things that make this Watchmen so strange—and that have, no doubt, confused and turned-off many viewers—feel like sci-fi window dressing: Clones and memory drugs! Ominous mega-machines and absent gods! Squids that fall like rain! But as Watchmen goes on, its strangeness only intensifies (Mind control! Vietnam, America’s 51st state!), and it becomes clear that, in the show’s alternate America, all this bizarre shit is exactly what lets the show address the things that actually make people uncomfortable.
In 2019, lots of art boasts about wrestling with America’s past. But Watchmen actually does, to jaw-dropping, fist-clenching effect. (Will there be a better episode of TV this year—hell, any year—than “This Extraordinary Being,” as it gouges into America’s festering wounds of race and sex?) Plenty of creators claim to fearlessly address current events, but they don’t do so as Watchmen does, with horrifyingly clarity. (The resurgent ideology of white supremacy, one character tells an ex-superhero, rests on one’s entitlement to be more powerful than everyone else, no matter the cost.) Plenty of books and shows and movies wring their hands about how social media has fractured the foundations of democracy, but despite the internet not even existing in Watchmen, the show knows—and says—why we cower behind masks and close ranks with those who challenge us the least.
“Make no mistake: This Watchmen is about racism in America—its history, its evolution, and its implications in daily life,” Ned Lannnamann wrote for the Mercury in October, adding that the show “has the volatility of kerosene” and “makes the provocations of Joker look like a bowl of wet noodles.” Watchmen is so strange, and so singular, because—like Moore and Gibbons’ comic, and the medium from which it was born—that singular strangeness is what lets Watchmen say things that other stories can’t and won't.
That’s something a lot of art tries—and fails—to do. Watchmen does it every goddamn episode. ERIK HENRIKSEN
I agree, and I think a large part of why Watchmen is able to do what it's doing—aside from the obvious (and immense) talent of its many creators, behind and in front of the camera—comes down to a Damon Lindelof quote I didn't quite understand when I first read it months ago. After seeing what this season has achieved from a storytelling standpoint, I now understand completely:
“I do feel like the spirit of Alan Moore is a punk rock spirit, a rebellious spirit, and that if you would tell Alan Moore, a teenage Moore in ’85 or ’86, ‘You’re not allowed to do this because Superman’s creator or Swamp Thing’s creator doesn’t want you to do it,’ he would say, ‘Fuck you, I’m doing it anyway.’ So I’m channeling the spirit of Alan Moore to tell Alan Moore, ‘Fuck you, I’m doing it anyway.’”
The reason Zack Snyder’s 2009 movie feels like an airless simulacra of the book instead of being a good movie—and the reason most of DC Comics' attempts to both prequel- and sequel-ize the book have been mixed bags at best—is because there’s a fundamental dissonance between the reverence those creators have for the original, and the basic disrespect that comes with being a party to its corporate exploitation. Snyder once justified his decision to adapt Watchmen by suggesting that it was going to get made no matter what, so at least there’d be a fan acting as steward to make sure the book wasn't “ruined.”
But Lindelof is refusing to entertain the notion of pouring all this time and money into a demure, coquettish, by-the-numbers adaptation. He’s chosen instead to steer into that disrespect, openly and thoughtfully rearranging and replacing the building blocks of Watchmen. As a result, HBO’s version investigates themes and ideas the graphic novel barely, if ever, touched on. As an act of retconning, it's maybe the single most audacious and successful example in all of genre fiction—and definitely more successful at recontextualizing its source material than any of Moore’s post-Watchmen attempts at doing that very thing in The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen and Lost Girls.
This is why the show feels more Watchmen than anything that's been done in Watchmen's name since 1985. Despite not really being a deconstruction of superheroes or comics, it shares the exact same “Fuck you” gene that made Watchmen feel so vital in the first place. Moore used superheroes as a means to explore larger societal constructs in a disarming and disruptive way. Lindelof's decision to reframe the whole of masked vigilantism as a form of therapy through the lens of America's fundamental, institutionalized, and unending traumatization of Black people feels alarming and shocking in deeper, more meaningful ways than the surface-level jolts that accompanied seeing extreme violence and depravity enacted in a DC-published comic book in the mid-’80s.
And yet, HBO’s Watchmen doesn't invalidate anything Moore and Gibbons did. It goes out of its way to say, “Yes, what happened before is still resonant.” But it's recontextualization of key characters shows that history to have been just a smaller, whiter, and maler microcosm of a larger, more difficult, and more necessary thing we have to wrestle with if we truly want to reckon with what it means to be any sort of a “hero” in America. It's absolutely a direct descendant of the provocative-yet-literary “fuck you” that Moore and Gibbons unleashed in 1985, and as proof, I present one last quote:
“Primarily, mass-market superhero movies seem to be abetting an audience who do not wish to relinquish their grip on (A) their relatively reassuring childhoods, or (B) the relatively reassuring 20th century. The continuing popularity of these movies to me suggests some kind of deliberate, self-imposed state of emotional arrest, combined with an numbing condition of cultural stasis that can be witnessed in comics, movies, popular music and, indeed, right across the cultural spectrum. The superheroes themselves—largely written and drawn by creators who have never stood up for their own rights against the companies that employ them, much less the rights of a Jack Kirby or Jerry Siegel or Joe Schuster—would seem to be largely employed as cowardice compensators, perhaps a bit like the handgun on the nightstand. I would also remark that save for a smattering of non-white characters (and non-white creators) these books and these iconic characters are still very much white supremacist dreams of the master race. In fact, I think that a good argument can be made for D.W. Griffith’s Birth of a Nation as the first American superhero movie, and the point of origin for all those capes and masks.”
The man who fired that shot? Alan Moore, January 2017. BOBBY ROBERTS
I came at Watchmen from a different place, having felt largely rejected by the work when it was only a comic book. I have a kind of cilantro gene when it comes to male-dominated comics. To me, they taste like dirt. HBO’s Watchmen, however—this Watchmen, I like.
The Watchmen comics had very little to offer in the way of women characters, despite the complicated mother/daughter dynamics of the two generations of Silk Spectre, Sally Jupiter and Laurie Juspeczyk, who were, as was the style at the time, defined almost entirely by their relative sexiness, who they had fucked, and a situation of sexual violence.
By comparison, the women of the Watchmen TV show feel like actual people, defined by a rich mire of influences: memory, choices, family. Much of the show’s narrative hinges around the conflicts of vigilante detective Angela Abar (Regina King), FBI agent Laurie Blake (Jean Smart), and businesswoman/inventor Lady Trieu (Hong Chau). And they grace us with smoldering power plays, like in the episode “She Was Killed by Space Junk,” in which Abar and Blake repeatedly attempt to intimidate one another in a mausoleum. Swoon!
There’s a thrill to seeing Abar’s action-packed scenes that not only rule, but represent. You might remember tales of women spontaneously crying during the MCU’s first woman-focused superhero film, Captain Marvel. There’s a visceral feeling to seeing someone who looks like you winning—even as it is also the purpose of a story like Watchmen to show that, in the end, power and righteousness may stack up to very little. We’ll see on Sunday, with the final episode of Watchmen’s first, and possibly only, season. SUZETTE SMITH
(P.S. And oh, geez! We didn’t even talk about how great the music is! Or how amazing “A God Walks into Abar” was! Or Lube Man!!)