HBO’s Watchmen Starts Promising, but it’s Hard to Pin Down

If you’ve been following this blog for a bit, you know I’m a big fan of anything involving superheroes. (Yes, those are all different links). I haven’t gotten out to see Joker yet, although it’s definitely on my to-do list, but then I remembered that Joker wasn’t the only superhero property to get an adaptation last weekend. The other was HBO’s Watchmen, and of those two options, only one of them required me to put on pants. And now that I’ve watched Watchmen, I’m definitely prepared to say that it is a show I have now watched.

Let me explain.

So if you’re not familiar, Watchmen is Alan Moore’s 1986 graphic novel that was a biting satire and deconstruction of superheroes, one of the first books to look at superheroes and say “yeah, these are cool in comics, but if they were real that would be kinda shitty, right?”  It also was a reflection of late 80’s social anxieties and a direct attack on the right-wing, pro-Reagan movement of the age. 

Yeah, this? This wasn’t the hero. 

And I know there’s someone looking at that last clause and going “Wait, what?” Yeah, Watchmen was super unkind to a particular string of right-wing politics that blended “traditional values,” Objectivism, and Libertarianism that was rising at the time. Rorschach is a direct indictment of this worldview, but much like how so many people missed the point that Fight Club was an indictment of a particular type of fragile masculinity and chose to idolize Tyler Durden, a lot of readers of Watchmen thought Rorschach was super awesome and stopped the analysis there. And unless you think I’m being judgmental, I say that because when I first read the comic back in high school, I was absolutely one of those people. It wasn’t until I re-read the comic as an adult that I realized that Rorschach was a terrible person that just happened to be on the right side.

Still don’t believe me? Well, when Alan Moore originally pitched Watchmen to DC, he wanted to use the characters they’d recently acquired from Charlton Comics as opposed to creating new characters for the book. Charlton Comics published the Blue Beetle (who became Nite-Owl in Watchmen), Captain Atom (who became Dr. Manhattan), the Question (Rorschach), Nightshade (Silk Specter), Thunderbolt (Ozymandius), and Peacemaker (the Comedian). Prior to acquisition by DC, Charlton Comics also had a looser editorial mandate than other comic book companies at the time, which writers like Joe Gill and Steve Dikto to insert some of their very strongly libertarian and Objectivist viewpoints into these characters, especially the Question. So the nasty, selfish, short-sighted, and disconnected characters Alan Moore created for Watchmen were originally intended to be characters that were often used as right-wing mouthpieces in their original incarnations. 

Yeah, a lot of these were spouting lines that would make Ayn Rand cheer in her grave.

This will become important later.

The 2019 HBO Miniseries picks up 30 years after the disaster at the end of the original comic. Well, technically it starts off long before the original comic, with the opening scene of the movie taking place during the 1921 Tulsa Race Riots, one of if not the most violent acts of racially motivated domestic terrorism in American history, where an African American community in Tulsa Oklahoma was attacked by the KKK using firearms and actual aircraft. This, by the way, is a real historical event that actually happened. Including the planes. That…was a detail I didn’t know about the 1921 riots. 

I’m not going to put any of the pictures I found when searching. Here’s my cat.

The show then jumps up to present day. In this alternate timeline, police now wear masks when going about their daily duties. This is a response to a terrorist group that was inspired by Rorschach’s journal from the end of the original series that has been hunting down police. This organization, known as the Kalvary, is very clearly inspired by our real world alt-right, and the show is making a very clear statement that such things are bad. 

Our protagonist is Angela Abar, played by Regina King, who is a costumed figure working with the police under the name Sister Night, and is called in after the Kalvary shoots a cop during a routine traffic stop. She is joined by Looking Glass, played by Tim Blake Nelson, Red Scare, played by Andrew Howard, and the Chief of Police Judd Crawford played by Don Johnson. There’s also a character played by Jeremy Irons that appears in a single scene that is trying very hard to preserve the mystery of who this character is, but if you read the original comics or watch the 2009 movie, I’m betting you’ll have the same theory as I do. I don’t know if it’s true! But I strongly suspect it. 

Yup. He’s reprising his role as scar. 

And now getting to my loaded statement at the beginning of this post. The first episode of this show is mostly spent establishing characters and setting up the world and seeding intrigue for future episodes, which is not an inherently bad thing but means the first episode feels so damn insubstantial, I can’t really say if I like it or not. The characters are engaging and have good chemistry, the world is built well and done with background details and letting the audience infer things which is a plus, and the intrigue is definitely intriguing, but it’s hard to say too much about the story because of that. It has me interested enough to want more, so I’m going to watch the next couple episodes and once I know if I enjoy the show, I’ll report back.

Also, the costumes for Sister Night and Mirror Mask are absolutely awesome.

So if my entire response to the show is “I’m going to wait and see,” why did I make you read three-hundred and fifty words of backstory on Watchmen? Well…the show is already embroiled in a controversy. See, some subset of internet trolls have been review bombing the show and crying about it on social media because it is so obviously anti-alt-right. First of all, if you’re getting mad at a show because you want to defend people who are supposed to be hyper-militarized Klansmen, you should probably consider the fact that you are defending a hyper-militarized group of domestic terrorists that are also Klansmen. Second of all, one of the big things these trolls have been saying is …well, let me get a direct quote I pulled off an IMDB review from one of the people angry about the show’s politics.

…the plot is uninteresting and basically just another race-baiting vehicle. What this has to do with the original Watchmen graphical novel or movie, which both satirized the super-hero concept in a very entertaining ways, is a complete mystery. Really, really tired of preachy Hollywood buffalo biscuits.”

Also, I made the mistake of looking up buffalo biscuits in Urban Dictionary. Do not make that mistake. 

That’s why I decided to start this off pointing out that Watchmen the comic has always been strongly, strongly against certain political views, and regardless of how the show turns out, the politics are something it absolutely gets correct from the original source material. Because so many people saw the satire of superheroes and didn’t see anything else. No, anonymous internet user, this has everything to do with the original comic. Just because you missed the politics doesn’t mean they weren’t there. 


tenor (4)
Yup. it has themes. It’s also not an 8th grade book reports. What? No, you’re beating a dead horse.

Speaking of the source material.. if you’ve only seen the 2009 movie, you should pick up the original print comic before watching the TV show. See, the movie changed an important element of the ending of the comic book – namely, the exact nature of the disaster that occurs at the end of the story. This TV show is going with the original ending, and there’s a particular scene in the TV show that will make absolutely no sense if you haven’t read the comic book. You can pick it up here if you’re interested in seeing what I’m talking about. 

So….yeah. Kinda wish there had been more to the episode so I could talk about the show instead of the politics and controversy surrounding it, but the show is doing a slow boil and I’m at least interested in seeing where they go with it. I’ll let you know in a few weeks if I’m glad I stuck around or not. 

As always, enjoy.

Already read Watchmen and want to read something while you wait for Episode 2 tonight? Why not pick up Weird Theology or its sequel, Strange Cosmology? They’re really good and I would know – I wrote them, so I’m clearly an unbiased source. 

2 thoughts on “HBO’s Watchmen Starts Promising, but it’s Hard to Pin Down

  1. Pingback: Game of Thrones is getting a prequel, and I could not be more “Meh” – The Home of Alex Raizman

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