HBO’s Stunning Reimagining of Watchmen
Watchmen may be the greatest graphic novel in history, and it’s not just the usual people who think so. Alan Moore and Dave Gibbons’ masterwork about superheroes was listed on Entertainment Weekly’s 100 Greatest Novels of the 20th Century and Time magazines 1000 Greatest Literary Works… Ever. The Cold War era set fiction, with layers that would impress Hemingway and Dickens; for much of the time after its publication, it was considered unfilmable. Some people still considered that after the 2009 Zack Snyder film, which many thought was a masterpiece, and just as many thought was blasphemy. Those same people are no doubt up in arms about HBO’s new TV series, even though creator Damon Lindelof has made it perfectly clear that this series takes place in the world of Watchmen and is not a direct to screen adaptation. Things like this remind me just how much I have come to loathe people who make snap judgments without even bothering to look at the work.
Its Tulsa in 2019. Robert Redford is serving his sixth term as President. There is no Internet and no cell phones. Policeman are forced to wear masks and capes and hide their identities, and aren’t even allowed used their weapons without authorization. A group known as the 7th Kavalry, who wear the same kind of masks that Rorschach did, and represent the white supremacy of this world have returned to action after a decade of radio silence. Angela Abar (Regina King) already has a dual identity as a cop who wears a mask. She has a family, and there is a possibility she was in a polyamorous relationship with the Chief of Police Judd Crawford (Don Johnson, doing some of the best work he’s ever done). At the climax of the series premiere, Crawford is found in a classic lynching scenario, with a man in his nineties named Will (Lou Gossett, Jr.) claiming that he hung the man, and that he has great powers and ‘friends in high places’ — something that seems to be literally true, when she tries to take him home — and her car is lifted up by a helicopter. Will says the man ‘had skeletons in his closet’. The fact that this is literally true is probably just the beginning.
And that is quite enough of the plot. Because even without knowing a single detail more I am stunned by the work that Lindelof has managed to put into this new world. It may not be Watchmen, but it sure as hell plays like it. Dr Manhattan lives on Mars. Vietnam is now a state. The world still has to deal with a rain of squids every now and then. TV series called American Hero Story are playing everywhere. And the only real holdover from the original series, Ozymandias/Adrian Veidt (Jeremy Irons) seems to have gone even more mad with creativity and power than he did when he played his practical joke. He seems to have developed a whole new capability for cloning, but his only actions seem to be to have them serve as his servants, and he literally treats them as if they were actors in his own drama. There are flashbacks to the world that existed in this America, and if anything, they’re even more frightening than the world we live in today.
As is the case with every Alan Moore production that has been adapted, Moore insisted that his name be taken off the credits. One wonders why as this series has in spirit the exact nature of what was running under Watchmen. At its core, Moore and Gibbons wanted to create a world that had problems not even superheroes could solve. In the novel, it was nuclear war. In the series, it’s racism. And just as the comic book was central to the time it came out, this Watchmen is just as vital to the era we live in.
Of course, if you want to ignore that, you can just spend your time looking for the glorious Easter eggs that are in plain sight through out the series. (Jean Smart is schedule to play an Agent Blake in coming episodes. Does that mean she’s the Comedian’s daughter?) And if you don’t care about comic books at all, you can still enjoy all of the visual, the sly humor, the dark pathos, and the brilliant performances. King has always been one of our greatest actresses, but the whole cast is good, particularly considering how many of them have to emote while wearing masks. Tim Blake Nelson is particularly good at this as Looking Glass. Looking at the body of his Chief, he seems hard and cold until he tells Angela’s he’s crying under his mask.
Lindelof continues to prove that he is just as well served adapting complex literature for television as original series. My major complaint so far about Watchmen? Lindelof has indicated that the series may end up standing on its own. I really hope that the ratings persuade him to do otherwise. No matter how this story ends, this is a world I want to spent more time in.
My score: 4.5 stars.