An interview with famed novelist Alan Moore from 2017 was recently made widely available on the web. In it, the writer of Watchmen is naturally asked about superheroes (an idea he worked hard to pick apart in that book) and their place in pop culture. In response, he muses 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.” This is an interesting twitch of kismet, since the HBO television sequel to Watchmen, currently in the middle of its debut season, has precisely such concerns on its mind. In imagining the world of the graphic novel more than 30 years later, the series scrutinizes less the idea of the superhero than it does broader questions of power and authority — specifically around policing and America’s unhealed racial wounds.
This does not mean that show creator Damon Lindelof and his crew are operating on Moore’s wavelength though, or that this justifies Watchmen breaching Moore’s longstanding (entirely justified) antipathy toward his work being adapted. It almost certainly wasn’t enough to save Lindelof and co. from a wizard’s curse. Leaving that thorny issue of creators’ rights aside, Watchmen exists as its own cultural entity, claiming attention for itself with some provocative subject matter. It opens with a recreation of Tulsa’s Black Wall Street massacre of 1921, of all things. This is a program that I’ve felt differently about with every installment; the review I write now, having seen five out of the season’s nine episodes, is different from the one I would have written last week. That’s frustrating for a critic but intriguing for a viewer. The show may yet collapse under the weight of its ambitions, or it may follow through and override any concerns I have (of which there are many).
In a world in which superheroes were once real but have been outlawed for decades, the police in Tulsa now adopt their own colorful costumes and nom de guerres. Regina King plays Angela Abar, aka Sister Night, a hyper-competent detective and martial artist. Tim Blake Nelson is Wade Tillman, aka Looking Glass, an interrogation expert wearing a mirror-like mask. Jean Smart is Laurie Blake, one of the leads of the original comic, a former costumed vigilante now working as an FBI agent. Tulsa PD masked up in the wake of dozens of their officers being killed by the Seventh Kavalry, a group of white supremacist terrorists who wear masks inspired by Rorschach (another main character from the book). As the show begins, the Kavalry, dormant for years, has reemerged, leading to the cops getting all restrictions lifted to fight them. There are other vague conspiracies and mysteries going on around this, though, such as the machinations of an enigmatic trillionaire played by Hong Chau, or the bloody misadventures of super genius Adrian Veidt (Jeremy Irons), trapped in a bizarre prison surrounded by cloned servants.
If Watchmen‘s analysis of racial tensions ends up falling apart, it will definitely be a case of too much liberalism on the brain. In the show’s alternate 2019 America, Robert Redford has been president since 1992, presiding over a dystopia-lite that’s supposed to be at turns disquieting and cartoonish. At some point, reparations for past racial injustices (including the Tulsa massacre) were enacted, TV shows now come with lengthy content warnings, and the cops treat white supremacists they same way they treat anti-racist activists in our world (i.e. with hostility and violence). The problem is that this is not actually a similar-but-different-enough scenario to get the viewer to examine their own world through this divergent lens, but rather an entirely different situation. Repressing fascists is absolutely a good thing. It is authoritarian, sure, but meeting fascism with authoritarianism is not itself fascism. Fascism is palingenetic ultranationalism. Swapping around the expected roles of oppressor and oppressed does not in fact lead to pertinent questions around how that dynamic operates in the real world.
And that’s all after you’ve accepted the premise that, in the wake of Richard Nixon serving five terms (as depicted in Watchmen), the US would somehow turn around rapidly and become this society under a Robert Redford. This is, put kindly, highly symptomatic of how blinkered wealthy liberals see themselves as far further left than they actually are. In an interview, Lindelof (making sure to assert that he is “wildly progressive”), said that he wanted to explore what America would be like “30 years into a liberal regime,” and also that “if you said to me, ‘How do you feel about a Senate that is divided 70-30?’ I’d say that’s no bueno. That’s not going to be representative of America.” So things need to change, but any scenario within which that change could conceivably happen is bad. Got it. (Later on in that interview, Lindelof says that he would “one hundred percent” push a button to kill three million people to save the world, which, OK guy.)
The show still has time to pull some reversal, and is clearly gearing one up, revealing secret ties between the authorities and the Seventh Kavalry. But it’s hard to imagine this doing anything more than confusing the issue. Approaching the persistent ingrained white supremacy of American institutions through a scenario in which American institutions are openly at war with white supremacy is so drastically divorced from the ways white supremacy operates in our world (particularly through law enforcement) that it approaches the alien. What cogent message could it impart?
There are other issues as well. The careful worldbuilding of the comic stands in stark contrast to the details the show doles out about this constructed history. In its version of 1993, Steven Spielberg directed a drama about a real-life otherworldly catastrophe instead of Schindler’s List. This seems to understand Spielberg directing Schindler’s List solely as a function of him wanting to do a black-and-white historical drama and not, you know, having numerous personal ties to the Holocaust (which still very much happened in Watchmen‘s alternate history). And sometimes the writing is just functionally dumb, such as when Looking Glass walks directly into what he knows is a Seventh Kavalry den without backup, for no reason other than that it being what the plot needs him to do. In some ways, Lindelof still hasn’t moved past the “Do something provocative first, justify it later” thinking that plagued Lost. Mainly, what’s most irritating is that, where Watchmen the book folded a good deal of outside cultural references into its story, something like 90% of Watchmen the show’s references are just to the book. Such intertextuality has the appearance of depth without providing much of it.
But for all those issues, Watchmen remains magnetic in the moment of watching it. The production values are sky-high, and the score by Atticus Ross and Trent Reznor is divine. Most vitally, the show continues the streak of excellent character work that Lindelof and writing collaborators like Carly Wray and Nick Cuse brought to The Leftovers. Nelson radiates melancholy and loneliness, while King moves with unparalleled precision, simultaneously physically rigorous yet highly internal. Though politically uncertain, the series possesses immense emotional intelligence, exploring its characters’ trauma, regrets, paranoia, and confusion with grace. Even if it falls apart, that core is powerful.
Watchmen airs Sundays on HBO and is available to stream on HBO GO or HBO NOW.