In the same way that you’re never more than 10 feet from a rat (or an estate agent) in London, it feels like you’re never more than 10 minutes away from a superhero movie or TV show at the moment.
With the Marvel Cinematic Universe doing great box office numbers, and DC / the CW’s ‘Arrowverse’ also going from strength to strength with its current adaptation of ‘Crisis On Infinite Earths’, it’s almost easy to forget there are comics and graphic novels out there as well. Without the printed page giving us the source material, our screens would have a lot more slots needing to be filled. Superheroes truly are this generation’s mythology, and they don’t show any signs of going away anytime soon.
Thankfully, the superhero genre is such a rich smörgåsbord from which to pick and choose, covering everything from the camp and pulpy to the dark and gritty. Earlier this year, Amazon Prime Video brought us an adaptation of Garth Ennis and Darick Robertson’s comic book The Boys, which owed more than a little of its tone and subject matter – of absolute power corrupting absolutely, and some heroes being far from super – to Alan Moore and Dave Gibbons’ 1980s comic mini-series Watchmen.
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It’s a piece of work which so often has the word ‘seminal’ attached to it, and rightly so, as it helped redefine a genre, along with Frank Miller’s The Dark Knight Returns. Comic book superheroes were no longer solely the lantern-jawed, foursquare, upstanding American paragons of the Golden and Silver Ages, but more complex, morally ambiguous and realistic characters than readers were used to. It almost got to the point where Watchmen felt untouchable, like some holy and sacrosanct text which was unassailable, and this was most likely due to Moore severing his ties with DC for a number of reasons, ending up asking for his name to be taken off any adaptations.
Zack Snyder’s 2009 movie version received something of a mixed reception, and his take on superheroes being false gods or fallen idols carried over to his take on some of DC’s major characters, such as Superman and Batman, which received even more critical resistance. DC itself hasn’t been shy in recent times to exploit Watchmen, with the ongoing ‘Doomsday Clock’ series – merging the DC universe with Moore & Gibbons’ creations over a sporadic two-year run – about to draw to a close this month, having dared to do the unthinkable, and try to carry on after the final issue of the original mini-series.
HBO’s nine-part Watchmen series has also attempted to continue the story, picking up some 34 years after the comic ended. For those unfamiliar with Watchmen on the printed page, it was set in an alternate 1985, where America had won the Vietnam War and Richard Nixon was still in the White House, history having diverged from our own back in 1938, with the emergence of superheroes. 1985’s world was on the verge of nuclear armageddon, so Adrian Veidt (a.k.a. ‘Ozymandias’) – the world’s smartest man – devised a plan to save humanity by faking an attack from a gigantic alien squid, sacrificing millions in the process for a higher cause of ensuring peace by creating a new, external menace the planet could unite against.
In the same way that the comic was an askance look at the Cold War – with mutually assured destruction still being a very real and prevalent threat – the Watchmen TV series addresses something current and relevant to where we are now, by tackling the rise of white supremacy. It takes as its jumping off point the real historical event of the 1921 Tulsa Race Massacre, where an area of the city known as ‘Black Wall Street’ – containing black-owned businesses – was razed to the ground by a mob of white residents, killing hundreds and decimating the black community there. By using this at the core of the series, it gives the whole story an immediacy and potency.
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As well as revisiting some of the original characters – such as Dr. Manhattan, Adrian Veidt, and Laurie Blake (a.k.a. ‘Silk Spectre II’) – we also get some original creations, devised by Damon Lindelof, best known for his work on Lost. The story centres around the Tulsa Police Department’s fight against a white supremacist group known as the Seventh Kavalry, who wear masks which resemble that of Rorschach, having been inspired by his journal which had revealed the truth behind the alien squid attack, and are seeking to fight a race war against minorities.
It’s also a world where the Police have to wear yellow half-masks to preserve their anonymity for the protection of themselves and their loved ones, after Kavalry members targeted 40 members of the Tulsa PD, killing most of them. One of the survivors was Angela Abar (Regina King), who adopted the identity of Sister Night, and she finds herself inextricably linked to a survivor of the Tulsa Race Massacre, as well as the whereabouts of Dr. Manhattan. This world is one of grey areas and fluid morals, where good people will sometimes do bad things for mostly the right reasons.
The cast is impressive, with King managing to carry the weight of the story with relative ease, and making Angela a sympathetic, believable character. There are also strong performances from Don Johnson, Louis Gossett Jr., Jean Smart, Tim Blake Nelson, and Jeremy Irons as Adrian Veidt – he can’t do an American accent worth a damn, and his dentures make it seem like he’s always sucking on a boiled sweet, but you couldn’t find someone who’s better suited to inhabiting the vainglorious narcissist. Hong Chau manages to bring to life the manipulative billionaire Lady Trieu, who is linked to Veidt’s past, and is very much a villain you’ll love to hate.
With Dr. Manhattan being a character who effectively exists outside of any normal chronology, and experiences all the moments of his life simultaneously, it seems appropriate that Watchmen should take a non-linear approach to its narrative. Opening in 1921 Tulsa, we flip back and forth between the past and the present, calling at various points along the way; one episode sees Angela reliving someone else’s memories, watching their history unfold, to make sense of her own life in the process. We also find some events which appear to be taking place simultaneously aren’t actually concurrent, leading to some wonderful ‘lightbulb’ moments for the audience as the various pieces start to gradually fall into place.
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It’s a densely-packed series, and one which will stand up to – if not actually require – a second watching, as you need to go back and view it again from the start once you know exactly what has happened, to see how the drip-feeding of information over the nine episodes retrospectively changes how you perceive the show. Once you get to the end, it also feels like a fitting conclusion, as though Lindelof has said everything he wants – and needs – to, and for once it feels as though it would actually be an awful shame if there was a follow-up or continuation. Let’s hope HBO and Lindelof see sense, and let things lie.
There’s so much that’s good about the show that you can’t hope to fit it all into a review – the amazing score by Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross of Nine Inch Nails for one; the look of the series consistently coming across as cinematic and epic for another. Despite turning up toward the very end of 2019, it’s by no means too late for it to be considered as one of the genuine highlights of this year’s TV, and that’s amongst an already strong field.
Who watches the Watchmen? Anybody that wants to see one of the strongest dramas of the last 12 months, if they have any sense.