To celebrate the fact that I finally got around to reading Doomsday Clock (Johns, et al, 2017 to 2019), DC Comic’s official sequel to the seminal Watchmen (Moore, et al, 1986 to 1987), I’ve been dedicating every Wednesday of this month to Alan Moore’s influential maxiseries.
Air Date: 20 October to 15 December 2019
UK Network: Sky Atlantic
Original Network: HBO
Stars: Regina King, Jean Smart, Jeremy Irons, Yahya Abdul-Mateen II, Tim Blake Nelson, Hong Chau, Jovan Adepo, Louis Gossett Jr, and Don Johnson
Since its release, Watchmen has become a critical and commercial success and is largely regarded as one of the most influential and significant graphic novels ever created. Although at one point considered to be unfilmable, various writers, producers, directors, and other creative types had attempting to spearhead a live-action adaptation since the end of the eighties, all of which fell apart until Warner Brothers approached Zack Snyder to finally bring the project to life in 2005. Say what you will about Watchmen (Snyder, 2009) but it did a pretty good job of translating Moore’s dense, complex text into a cohesive live-action feature; elements were changed, for sure, but that is to be expected from the adaptation process and, for me, the changes made perfect sense and didn’t detract from Watchmen’s themes or main story. After the film’s release, DC Comics really ramped up the Watchmen spin-offs and merchandise (much to Moore’s chagrin, I’m sure) and this included tentative talks with Snyder concerning a live-action Watchmen television series. After Snyder left the project, the HBO network began developing the series with Damon Lindelof. Rather than being a sequel to the movie, however, Lindelof conceived of the series as a continuation of the Watchmen comic that would jump between the 1920s, 1980s, and then-modern-day 2019, dealing with issues of race and the fallout of Watchmen’s iconic ending. Watchmen was met with widespread critical acclaim and won numerous awards, though Lindelof stepped away from the franchise and HBO reclassified Watchmen as a “limited series” with options of additional instalments and stories under a different creative team.
Thirty-four years after the world was united against a perceived alien threat, the Seventh Kalvary, a white supremacist group inspired by WalterKovacs/Rorschach, has risen to prominence in Tulsa, Oklahoma. Because of their actions, the Tulsa Police Department have taken to hiding their identities behind masks and code-names like the long-outlawed vigilantes of the 1960s and 1980s. After Police Chief Judd Crawford (Johnson) is murdered, Angela Abar/Sister Night (King) finds herself uncovering uncomfortable truths regarding her past, the state of the world, and a deadly plot to harness the powers of the long-exiled Jon Osterman/Doctor Manhattan (Abdul-Mateen II).
A central premise to Watchmen is the idea of a deep-rooted conspiracy; obviously, there’s the primary Watchmen conspiracy involving the sudden appearance of a giant, alien squid in New York City shocking the world away from nuclear Armageddon but HBO’s Watchmen juxtaposes this narrative with one involving a nefarious plot by Senator Joe Keene Jr. (James Wolk) to manipulate a series of violent and discriminatory events that will ensure his seat in the White House. As in the original comic book, the cogs are forever turning in Watchmen and nothing is ever quite as it seems; the majority of those in positions of power wear masks, either literal or metaphorical, and, as always, it is the general public that suffers as a result.
Central to the series’ themes of conspiracy and violence is our main character, Angela Abar; in the 2019 world of Watchmen, the police are anonymous individuals who hide their identities behind masks and code-names after a series of mass murders perpetrated in 2016 by the Seventh Kalvary that came to be known as the “White Night”. Abar was one of the few survivors of this atrocity, one who steadfastly stuck by her police chief, Judd Crawford, to rebuild the police department and adopting masked identities as per Senator Keene’s groundbreaking decision to bend the rules seemingly to protect those in law enforcement.
As a result, Abar lives a life of lies and deception; to the outside world, she works as a struggling, nondescript baker who has been long-retired from police work but, in reality, she is a tortured soul despite her seemingly perfect family life with her husband, Cal (Abdul-Mateen II) and her adopted children. Not only is she hiding her identity behind that of Sister Night, a masked persona that allows her to exercise her violent tendencies (especially against white supremacists and racists), but she is also largely covering up the specifics of her childhood and troublesome upbringing in Vietnam. In addition to this, her actual origins and true lineage are largely hidden from her and discovered throughout the course of the series, forcing her to confront some uncomfortable revelations about not just trusted comrades like Judd but also herself, her parents, and, most significantly, her grandfather and husband.
Consequently, racism is a massively important part of Watchmen; all throughout the series, the narrative returns, in some form or another, to the atrocious events of 1921 that saw racist sentiment in Tulsa boil over to breaking point. Even now, in 2019, there is an air of racism across the board as people resent those of colour, and President Robert Redford, for “taking over” their town, putting down roots, and receiving a series of payouts (known as “Redfordations”) as recompense for their suffering. Racism in Watchmen is mostly personified by the Seventh Kalvary, basically an evolved form of the Klu Klux Klan who have adopted and twisted Rorschach’s diary, appearance, and methods to spread anti-racist and anti-authority sentiment throughout Tulsa.
For decades, Judd has worked to maintain a rocky kind of peace between the Tulsa police and the Seventh Kalvary to keep events from escalating into full-blown violence; as a result, cops are unable to utilise deadly force (or even draw their handguns) without requesting permission and their firearms being remotely activated and it is forbidden for them to reveal their true identities to the public, all to help ensure that they are protected from reprisals and to keep them from sparking all-out war through needless violence and death.
However, anti-authority sentiment remains high amongst the public; many resent the police for using their masks as an excuse to indulge in excessive violence and, in a twist on the anti-mask riots seen in the comics, the public now seem to be far more receptive to the idea of actual costumed vigilantes than masked police officers. However, in 2019, costumed heroes are few and far between; with vigilantism still outlawed, law enforcement agencies track them down and arrest them at every opportunity and all the costumed heroes you knew from the original comic are either dead, retired, in jail, exiled, or have conformed to the new world. The most principal of these is, obviously, the all-powerful Dr. Manhattan, whom the public believes has exiled himself to Mars; Manhattan Booths have been placed all over the city (and, potentially, the world) to allow people to call Mars and leave messages for Dr. Manhattan but, like any self-respecting God, Dr. Manhattan never replies to these prayers and is largely believed to have abandoned mankind.
The other costumed heroes haven’t fared much better, either; Laurie Juspeczyk/Silk Spectre (Smart) is now a hard-nosed, cynical FBI agent who is apathetic, pessimistic, and callous. She has a personal dislike for masked vigilantes, regarding them as a “joke”, and meets almost every challenge or obstacle with a mocking indifference. Indeed, it says a lot about Laurie’s mindset that she has adopted the surname of her biological father, Edward Blake/The Comedian, a man whom she hated with a passion for being a cruel and sadistic rapist. Clearly changed after the events of the comic and in the time between the comic’s conclusion and present day (and her knowledge of the truth behind the squid incident, which is unsubtly referred to as “11/02”), Blake is a confrontational, no-nonsense, world-weary woman who has no time for bullshit or games and even less time to indulge those who hide behind masks (again, both literal and metaphorical).
This naturally means that she ruffles a lot of feathers once she is assigned to Judd’s murder case, believing it to have been the result of vigilante action, and causes her to clash with those in the Tulsa police department, such as Wade Tillman/Looking Glass (Nelson). Looking Glass, who adopts many of Rorschach’s characteristics (his blunt, monotone voice, his stature and body language, his paranoid over-preparedness, and even a similar mask), is a highly perceptive and analytical character who is able to tell what someone is really thinking and feeling (or whether they are lying) through his highly tuned reading of body language. After suffering some of the squid’s violent psychic impact, Looking Glass constantly shields his head and face behind a reflective material to keep himself sane and free from nightmares, meaning he is much more comfortable hiding behind his masked identity. However, while he is the closest thing the series has to an actual Rorschach-like character, he is fundamental different from Rorschach in many ways and is, in a lot of ways, Rorschach’s opposite (Looking Glass, for example, lives in a house, has had various (often disastrous) relationships with women, regularly unmasks to reveal, at least, his face, and is a devoted member of the establishment rather than being anti-authority and uncompromising).
HBO’s Watchmen is a world very similar to ours but fundamentally different and flawed; far from the utopia that the squid’s presence was meant to inspire, the world has largely grown accustomed to the “new normal” and regularly endures sporadic mini squid showers as though they’re an everyday occurrence rather than a startling reminder of the alien menace that lingers overhead. Disillusioned with the state the world has fallen into despite everything he did to save it, Adrian Veidt/Ozymandias (Irons) jumps at the chance to be transported to Europa, where Dr. Manhattan has created an idyllic paradise populated by endless clones living in a stately manor.
As jarring as Laurie’s character changes are, they at least have some basis in her comic book counterpart; Laurie was always a bit of a sharp-tongued, blunt instrument in the comics and age and experience have only served to make her even more tiresome but Veidt is so drastically removed from his original depiction that it is almost insulting. Much of the early episodes revolve around Veidt (then known simply as “The Master”) seemingly trapped in a prison, surrounded by endless, disturbingly polite and helpful clones and unable to escape. Eventually, the truth of his situation is revealed (Dr. Manhattan transported him there at Veidt’s enthusiastic suggestion but Veidt became bored with paradise and Manhattan was unable to retrieve him, so Veidt constructed an elaborate plot to keep him challenged and from going insane) and Veidt is able to send a message to affect his rescue.
However, flashbacks to earlier years before his imprisonment and subsequent focus on his current mindset show Veidt as being quite the hypocritical and egocentric character; while this was, to be fair, evident in the comic book, here Veidt actually records a message to President Redford admitting to having concocted the squid as an elaborate hoax and is visibly insulted and frustrated at Redford rebuking his attempts to form a partnership and the fact that he receives no credit for having “saved the world”. As a result of this, and having grown jaded and frustrated at the continued production of weapons and nuclear deterrents (which I find odd as obviously the world would want to arm/prepare itself for a possible alien invasion), Veidt retires to Karnak to live in solitude and is dismayed and affronted to find, upon his return, that the world not only believes him dead but has largely forgotten about him.
In Veidt’s place is Lady Trieu (Chau), his unwanted biological daughter, who takes Veidt’s vision for a world united by peace and prosperity and further defiles it through a complex plan to find, kidnap, and destroy Dr. Manhattan so that she can assume his abilities and reshape the world. Senator Keene has similar aspirations, wishing to be the first “superman” in the Oval Office, but only Trieu has the resources and knowledge to actually pull off such a plan. Oddly, her aspirations to assume Manhattan’s Godhood are shocking even to Veidt, despite his attempts to destroy Manhattan in the past, forcing Veidt into an uneasy alliance with Blake, Looking Glass, and Angela to keep Trieu from becoming the new Dr. Manhattan.
It is, essentially, the same fundamental plot of the Watchmen comic and many of the same story beats are evident throughout the series (a newsvendor even pops up every now and then to give his views on the state of society), however HBO’s Watchman sheds a lot more light on the effect Dr. Manhattan’s presence had on the Vietnam War (Vietnam becomes an official state of America and Angela hates Manhattan since his actions led to the death of her parents) and the true identity of the very first costumed hero, Will Reeves/Hooded Justice (Jovan Adepo/Louis Gossett Jr). The subject of much speculation in the comic, Hooded Justice turns out to be a young, angry black man who faces unwarranted prejudice and foul treatment in his youth while working as a police officer; after being briefly hanged by his fellow officers, he adopts a hooded guise to dish out corporal punishment and stumbles upon a plot by a group of white supremacists known as “Cyclops” to hypnotise the black community into attacking their own kind.
When he is approached by Nelson Gardner/Captain Metropolis (Jake McDorman), Reeves is initially hopefully that the backing of his fellow masked adventurers will held him uncover the conspiracy ever faster but is quickly dismayed and disappointed to find that the Minutemen care more about publicity and catching “supervillains” rather than conspiracies, especially those against black people. This partnership also causes Reeves further turmoil as he enters into a passionate homosexual affair with Gardner, meaning that he is forced to hide behind a myriad of masks (he hides his true identity from the public with his hood, further masks his true identity by applying white face paint so as to be more “accepted” by his fellow Minutemen, hides his sexuality from his wife, his anger from the world, his true intentions from the police…it’s just mask after mask after mask).
Even in his older years, Reeves is still hiding; he hides the truth of his identity (and the truth about Judd) from Angela, setting her on a difficult and violent path of self discovery, and then also hides the specifics of his relationship with Dr. Manhattan (at various points he even claims to be the God-like superman, though this is openly debunked by many characters). Angela later gets all the answers she could hope for, and more, when she swallows an entire bottle of Reeves’ “Nostalgia” pills, which allow her to relive his memories and experiences in excruciating detail in order to discover her true heritage as Reeves’ granddaughter.
Compared to her grandfather, Angela’s masks are considerably fewer but by no means less complex; she hides her true identity, obviously, and is clearly enthusiastic about putting a hurting on white supremacists but is largely open and honest with her husband (while, understandably, keeping her kids in the dark). Her and Cal have no secrets and he is completely supportive of all of her endeavours and actions, even when they are highly questionable, and cares only for her safety and wellbeing. An angry and confrontational character, the events of Watchmen certainly put Angela through the wringer as she discovers her true heritage, finds out her trusted comrade and friend Judd was secretly a member of the Seventh Kalvary, and finds herself at the center of Lady Trieu’s elaborate scheme to steal Dr. Manhattan’s abilities.
All throughout the series, characters debunk the idea that Dr. Manhattan can disguise himself as a human; at first, this seems a bit weird as Manhattan’s powers are virtually limitless and it’s odd that people would just know that he couldn’t do this but, nevertheless, the seeds are planted throughout the series that this is actually what has happened. And, of course, it turns out to be true; the footage of Dr. Manhattan on Mars is simply another lie to placate the public and Manhattan, despite wishing to “leave this world” and create life, quickly grew bored with the utopia he created on Europa and returned to Earth specifically to meet Angela.
After relating to her, in his characteristically pragmatic way, his perception of time, Manhattan sought out Veidt to provide him with the means to adopt the closest thing to a human guise in order to be with Angela; Veidt’s specially-constructed implant disrupts Jon’s memories, giving him complete and total amnesia and allowing him to assume a whole new face and identity, Cal Abar, in order to live a normal life. However, after Angela uncovers the plot against him, she’s forced to literally crack Jon’s head open and remove the implant to try and save his life. Ultimately, though, despite Jon’s vast powers and abilities, he is unable to escape his fate; Lady Trieu’s specially designed technology is enough to capture, entrap, and then disintegrate Jon, effectively killing God before the eyes of our main characters, though Trieu’s goal of assuming his abilities is thwarted and the series ends with the suggestion that Jon has passed them on to Angela instead.
Watchmen’s visual presentation is quite impressive; clearly inspired by the aesthetic look of Snyder’s film, the series does a wonderful job of not only rendering comic-accurate costumes for the likes of Ozymandias, Hooded Justice, and Captain Metropolis but also at recreating the look and feel of the Watchmen world. I didn’t actually mind the omission of the squid in Snyder’s adaptation but it was pretty fantastic to see the monstrous, grotesque alien beast a bloodied heap in New York and there are some fun call-backs to other recognisable Watchmen elements, too, such as Dan Dreiberg/Nite Owl’s goggles and airship, Archimedes. And yet, despite how impressive much of the costumes and aesthetics of the show look, they completely dropped the ball on Dr. Manhattan; Yahya Abdul-Mateen II is a great actor and certainly has the voice for the role but he never quite exudes that same sense of God-like awe and mystery as in Snyder’s film and is generally, disappointingly, quite nerfed in terms of his powers, motivations, and portrayal.
Watchmen works pretty well in terms of its structure; each episode has a quick intro sequence and a fittingly pretentious title, and the series reflects a lot of the structure and narrative flow of the comic book as certain episodes will expand upon one (or more) of the series’ many complex plots while others will focus on specific characters or world-building all while weaving them (however awkwardly) into these aforementioned plots. The series builds its mysteries relatively well; we’re immediately deposited into a world that, for all its similarities to the comic book and the real world, is completely unfamiliar to both, meaning we must re-learn and become re-accommodated with this new Watchmen-esque world where things have changed considerably from what we know but are just familiar enough that we have a vague idea of what characters are talked about and referring to. And then, into this, the series creators inject a whole load of new lore, building upon elements from the comic book, referencing the movie, and then swamping this world (and its narrative) with entirely new, original characters to uncover more of this new world, and the series’ mystery, at the same time as we do,
I wasn’t sure what to expect going into Watchmen; I knew it was a sequel series and that obviously meant a lot of the comic characters either wouldn’t be coming back or would be portrayed very differently but I never expected the plot to veer so far off the rails. I thought the series would revolve around a splinter group of vigilantes trying to expose Veidt’s deception but, while the squid is an integral part of the series’ plot and had a profound influence on many characters and events, it may as well have been left out as the series more concerned with telling a story revolving about the atrocities of race hate. This isn’t really a problem in and of itself, as racial tensions and bigotry were quite prominent in the comic, but it kind of overwhelms the plot of the series and doesn’t seem to mesh well with the other competing plots.
I think the biggest issue I have with Watchmen is that it really doesn’t feel like Watchmen; while you can argue that the series is a lot closer, thematically, to the comic book and much truer to its source material than Snyder’s film, at least the film had characters we recognised and closely followed the events of the comic. Here, we have a whole bunch of new characters, many of whom (including Angela, our main character) just aren’t as interesting as the characters from the comics. Looking Glass is kind of like Rorschach but he’s not Rorschach and neither are the Seventh Kalvary; Sister Night is kind of an amalgamation of Nite Owl and Silk Spectre, I guess, but is her own character, one who I just found to be angry and unrelatable in a way those characters weren’t; and Lady Trieu basically is her father…but is also far less compelling and nuanced. She just comes across as a nutcase whereas Veidt was always scarily logical and sane in his motivations.
And then there are the returning characters; Laurie is a thoroughly unlikeable character now (though I did enjoy her calling out everyone around her for their bullshit and for dressing up in masks and costumes), Veidt is little like the highly intelligent and manipulative character he was in the comic, and Nite Owl is conspicuous (and much missed) in his absence. If you’re going to do a follow-up to Watchmen, I’m not sure why you would choose to focus 90% of your story on entirely new characters; a new generation should be included and be a vital part, for sure, but fans of Watchmen were fans of the characters in the book, not a whole bunch of copycats and also-rans who don’t quite match up to the complexities and nuance of their predecessors. Dr. Manhattan is probably the worst of all the returning characters, though; for all his grand-standing and posturing in Watchmen about leaving Earth behind to create life elsewhere, he simply played God, got bored, and then decided to enter into another relationship that was doomed to fail (he even admits this outright to Angela when they first meet) even though he was so far beyond and over such trivialities by the end of Watchmen.
Honestly, I’m not entirely sure why HBO’s Watchmen was so critically acclaimed and so well received; while many criticised Snyder’s Watchmen (and I can understand that given how different it is from the comic’s more subtle approach), it feels, for all its changes and alterations, much more like Watchmen than HBO’s Watchmen, which honestly could have been any old superhero drama. Having the Watchmen title, though, demands a certain level of expectation and, for me, HBO’s Watchmen comes close and is an interesting extension of the lore but fails to really live up to those expectations. It was like I kept waiting for it to kick into a higher gear, to go the extra mile, to tie everything up and really “become” Watchmen and it just never did. As an official continuation of the comic book, I find myself disappointed and apathetic to the world presented by HBO’s Watchmen, which is even more desolate and cynical than the comic (and Moore himself), as if that is even possible.
What did you think of HBO’s Watchmen? Which of the new characters was your most, or least, favourite and why? What did you think of the show’s mystery and conspiracy elements and the structure it adopted? Do you feel this was a suitable follow-up to Watchmen or, like me, were you disappointed by the show’s treatment of the comic book’s plot and returning characters? Do you think the show would have worked better if it had simply been a new adaptation of the comic book rather than a sequel? What did you think to the show’s exploration of Hooded Justice, its treatment of Dr. Manhattan, and the main plot of the show? Whatever your thoughts about HBO’s Watchmen, feel free to leave a comment below and pop back next Wednesday for one last piece of Watchmen content.