Superheroes

HBO's Dazzling Watchmen Was a Show About the Limits and Dangers of Power

Damon Lindelof’s remix of Alan Moore’s seminal graphic novel took on race, policing, and political power in an alternate-present America.

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One of the many strengths of HBO's Watchmen, a sequel and "remix" of Alan Moore's seminal 1986 graphic novel that finished an extraordinary first season Sunday night, was its ability to engage with a multiplicity of themes: This was a show about racism, police abuse, 20th century American history and politics, celebrity, inequality, vigilantism, superheroes, the nature of god, and, in the end, the enduring and transcendent power of love. The show is notable for the sheer density of ideas it managed to pack into nine hourlong episodes; it wasn't quite a show about everything, but it sure was a show about a lot. Considering the well-deserved esteem in which Moore's original story is held, it's hard to think of any other recent pop culture high-wire act quite so conceptually ambitious—or successful. 

Yet if there was a single thread connecting the show's many themes and questions, it was that those who seek power will inevitably do so badly—even when they have the best intentions. This idea was stated explicitly in the finale, when Adrian Veidt (Jeremy Irons) declared that "anyone who seeks to attain the power of a god must be prevented at all costs from obtaining it."

Veidt, of course, was speaking from a position of firsthand knowledge, as a supergenius who in Moore's comic arranged a fake interdimensional attack by a giant squid thing, killing three million in the process in order to bring the world together and stave off a nuclear apocalypse. 

Moore's comic, which took place in an alternate-present America in which the U.S. had won the Vietnam War with the help of Doctor Manhattan, was highly engaged with the Cold War politics of the 1980s. But the political elements were secondary; they existed first and foremost to serve Moore's fatalistic deconstruction of the superhero genre. The story was structured as a kind of argument that superheroes, if they actually existed, would inevitably lose touch with humanity, and as a result would become either cold and distant (Doctor Manhattan) or flat-out monstrous (Veidt). The quest for power, even in the guise of good, would turn supposed heroes into villains. It was a radical upending of the superhero genre and the comic book form: Comic books, with their simple stories of good and evil, were selling a lie. 

In HBO's Watchmen, by contrast, the relationship is reversed: Showrunner Damon Lindelof uses the trappings of superhero stories to deconstruct America's fraught racial history and current racial politics. 

Once again, he has constructed an alternate present, this time in Tulsa, Oklahoma, the site of a horrific 1921 massacre in which white mobs murdered untold numbers of black residents, an event searingly dramatized in the show's opening sequence. That event provides a foundation for the show's altered timeline, one in which city police wear masks and take on superhero guises after being targeted by The Seventh Kavalry, a group of white nationalists who idolize Rorschach, a character from Moore's graphic novel. Richard Nixon is no longer president, but Robert Redford is, and his liberal policies—reparations, gun control, limits on police use of force—are despised by many, and shown in some cases to be ineffective.

Further complicating the situation is the presence of Lady Trieu, another Veidt-like supergenius with a vast fortune to deploy. And, of course, Doctor Manhattan, last seen on Mars, is still lurking out there somewhere—or perhaps hidden in plain sight.

To say much more would be to spoil the series' many well-executed surprises, and to risk simplifying what is ultimately a complex message about the moral imperative to do good and the dangers of concentrated power. It's a show that simultaneously suggests that individuals have a duty to do more, to be better humans, to live more fully up to classically liberal ideals, and also that the pursuit of those ideals on a grander, less distinctively personal scale can, like superpowers, turn someone into a cold and distant monster. 

Moore has famously never given his blessing to any adaptation of Watchmen, and he generally takes a dim view of superhero-dominated pop culture. In a recently unearthed interview, he linked today's superhero movies to Birth of a Nation, saying "these books and these iconic characters are still very much white supremacist dreams of the master race." Yet Lindelof and his team of writers channeled both the spirit of Moore's original work and these more recent comments. This is an adaptation and sequel that lives up to its source material, and its creator.  

Like Moore's graphic novel, Lindelof's story is structured as a kind of argument about cultural and political power—its limits and its abuses. And like its source material, it resists becoming a simple morality tale. The difference is that, in this case, it's not comic book notions of good and evil that are the target, but simple notions of societal justice. No one, not even a superpowered person with the abilities of a god, can solve every problem, the show seems to say—nor should we want anyone to try. But all of us can, and should, do a little bit, maybe a lot, more to try to change ourselves.

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  1. Why do you waste so much time watching television?

    1. Because Pete is waiting for someone or something to show him the way?

    2. Beats reading your comments. Why do you waste so much time generating them?

      1. Fuck off Mary.

  2. “It’s a show that simultaneously suggests that individuals have a duty to do more, to be better humans, to live more fully up to classically liberal ideals, and also that the pursuit of those ideals on a grander, less distinctively personal scale can, like superpowers, turn someone into a cold and distant monster.”

    So true.

    1. The only thing owed to any flavor of liberal is a punch in the face. If they claim to be a “classical” liberal, hit them with a grand piano to boot.

  3. I really hate that I enjoyed a show as much as Suderman did. It really makes me want to reevaluate my life.

    1. He’s been on best behavior the past two weeks. Something is up.

  4. I’ve always felt that Watchmen was purely a Cold War phenomena and any post Cold War adaptation was implicitly missing the underlying premise.

    1. I thought the movie did a very good job, and was even better than the novel by getting rid of the magic squid monster and replacing it with something that actually fit the theme of the novel. It was very cold war.

      1. Yes, the movie did replace the weakest part of the book with something still weak but less so.

        However, overall the best part of the movie was the independently-produced opening credits sequence. The rest of the movie was mostly a mistake. It attempted to reproduce too much of the novel, yet in some cases very misleadingly. The opening fight scene implied that the Watchmen were all superhuman — able to smash thru kitchen countertops with their heads, for instance — which is a bad idea if you’re trying to convey a predecessor work faithfully. I wouldn’t mind an alteration like that if it were a real, creative change to the story, i.e. in this version they are superhuman, for creative reasons to be seen; but since that was not what was attempted, it’s just senseless. The need to keep out material for length made some of the stuff that was kept in (but needn’t have been) incomprehensible to someone unfamiliar with the original story. It would’ve been much better for a feature film to adapt either just the first or the second chronologic half of the story.

        1. They’re superhuman in the broad, “action movie hero” sense, as opposed to the “psychic witch” or “god of thunder” sense. I don’t really see how that changes the theme drastically. Arguably even going “Full Thor” would keep the theme intact — It doesn’t matter how “special” you think you are, or even actually are. The greater the power, the more it will corrupt what it does.

    2. The movie was one of the best films about the nature of Man ever made.
      The novel was good, but the movie superior

      1. Wow, I have trouble understanding anyone’s coming to that conclusion. Could be an interesting explanation.

        1. Maybe because the book was about Moore working through his anger issues with the industry he chose to immerse himself in. The movie didn’t have that baggage.

          1. Robert/Hihn pretty obviously doesn’t understand the source material.

          2. I thought that baggage made the graphic novel fun. I tend to enjoy the works of creators with baggage.

        2. I actually buy it. I read the book after seeing the movie, and the “psychic squid” thing seemed like an unnecessary digression.

          The whole “pirate comics filled the market niche of superhero comics because superheroes were tainted by working for The Man” didn’t make a whole lot of sense to me either, especially if the “real” superheroes of that universe are really just costumed vigilantes. The wish-fulfillment element would assert itself, regardless.

          And, honestly, I found the whole timeline of book and movie to be basically absurd — I don’t see how successfully crushing the Communists in Vietnam would somehow have been morally beyond-the-pale, any more than their wearing down the US-supported South was. Annexing South Vietnam as a state (before Guam or Puerto Rico)? Making Nixon President-For-Life? Flat out ridiculous — Hallucinations of a British hippie gazing across the Atlantic.

          That latter part was still in the movie, but pretty much glossed over for the characters and their interactions, and I think much the better for it.

          1. The pirates thing was a tribute to EC’s series on the topic.

            Some of it was a matter of a Brit hip hallucinating, but mostly just being satiric. But did you think crushing the Communists in Vietnam was being depicted as morally beyond the pale? If it was Dr. Manhattan’s balloon, “The morality of my actions escaped me,” or words to that effect, I thought he was referring to things much closer to the frame, particularly raiding vice dens.

  5. I am not watching anything Damon Lindelof is involved in. Fuck that guy.

      1. Moore is VASTLY overrrated and Lindelof is trash. It was a steaming pile from jump.

        Chipper got this one right.

  6. >>to deconstruct America’s fraught racial history and current racial politics.

    i just don’t fucking care to hear about it anymore. i’m sure the show ist wunderbar.

    1. I wanted to watch it, but it’s kind of a mess.

      1. i’ll start anything bc “hey it might be cool” but i’m really tired of being scolded at every turn … expecially the racism thing. it just isn’t a thing

      2. I enjoyed the show, but I also enjoyed the movie. I’m a mark for the Watchmen I guess. I thought I would hate it so much after the first episode but I stuck with and really enjoyed it.

  7. The whole show feels like it was written by someone with TDS– and particular someone with TDS who had zero familiarity with the source material.

    1. The source material for TDS? Which would be Trump? Or crazy never-Trumpers?

  8. I haven’t watched it, catching small parts when changing channels. It seems interesting but I get the impression that it uses simplistic notions of racism where only white people can be racist. In doing so, it uses racist caricatures itself and panders to the illiberal Left.

    It even turns Dr. Manhattan, a German refugee, into a black man, lol.

    The overall message seems to be “white people are bad.”

    1. You mean in this one his lab accident, or his comeback from it, turned him black? Oh, that’s brilliant, Damon!

      I will point out that Damon’s father David was racist in a very peculiar way. David told me that black people were genetically inferior to whites, and that therefore they should be the beneficiaries of something like affirmative action forever.

      1. That’s not peculiar it’s simlply saying the part current liberals leave unsaid.

        1. It is indeed what I suspect many of them think. He told me this privately in the context of discussing a black friend we shared. I had brought up to him what that black friend told to me that revealed that that black friend believed good behavior was negatively correlated with skin, hair, and eye darkness.

          Dave exhibited some of the weirdest and scariest features of today’s “liberals”. He was also possibly the smartest person I ever knew.

          1. This was someone who unfriended a whole bunch of friends of his because they were Nixon supporters. This was in the 1960s, long before Facebook, so unfriending meant announcing that he would not continue to be their friends unless they renounced their favoring Nixon. Then he sent them a form letter telling them so when they refused to change their minds (or say they had done so).

    2. I thought this too, initially, but I promise it gets better and more complex.

  9. white nationalists who idolize Rorschach

    A complete misread of Rorschach, who was not at all a white nationalist. He started out as a parody of a Ditko Randroid, but ended up being the most moral character in the novel, flawed only by his misguided vigilantism.

    1. The only way you could like this show is if you didn’t know or care anything about the source material.

    2. Duh, his name should give you a clue! Readers project onto Rohrschach…just about every impression you could imagine.

      1. No Hihn, they really don’t. You’re completely misunderstanding the source material.

      2. He was the only character in the novel that had any sort of moral center. That his moral center is repugnant to a lot of people is beside the point. It’s somewhat repugnant to me as well. But at least he had a moral center. Everyone else was amoral, indifferent, or confused.

        1. Perhaps the morals of some of the other characters weren’t so fully explored or apparently simple. That doesn’t mean they didn’t have moral centers. Rohrschach just seemed to wear his on his (dirty) sleeve.

          Or perhaps you’re construing morality too narrowly. It’s clear to me that other characters were pursuing their morals as well. Maybe you just couldn’t define the “center” of any of them. Or maybe any morals that are complicated to you are “confused”.

          The story of Rohrschach’s morality is funny because of its apparently having been derived in whole or part from his mother’s excuse (or joke) that his father disagreed with her because he liked Truman. So in his disappointment with (what he knew of) his mother, Rohrschach embraced all he knew of Harry Truman! Moore and Gibbons were lampooning how morals tend to be derived by random process.

          1. All were moral characters, they just differed in levels of complexity.

            Silk Spectre: feminine supportive
            Comedian: masculine supportive
            Rorsarch: violent conventional
            Owl: idealist conventional
            Ozymandias: philosopher-king
            Manhattan: God-king

            Man is a pyramid consisting of 3 2-sided levels

  10. The one great idea it generated was police keeping firearms locked until specifically called in and approved for use. We should adopt that post-haste.

    1. Wut? Gun control is for regular people, not for cops!

    2. An idea that was abandonded half-way through the pilot episode.

  11. Solid show.
    Not nearly as deep, or as successfully deep, as Suderman hopes.
    Did a decent job juggling backstory and plot advance.
    Jeremy Irons is awesome.
    The white supremacist thing is overplayed and out of date, but at least it was set up with the “Redfordations” detail.
    Police weren’t really shown to be overbearing and there was really no commentary on police power. Instead, they were shown to be pretty irrelevant.

    Spoiler alert:

    The season finale was a colossal fuckup.
    They set up a lot for a nice multi season run, but completely ruined it with some happy ending bullshit, which is diametrically opposed to the spirit of the source material.
    They wasted Irons’ Veidt with a way too on the nose speech (that shallow ass midwits like Suderman, of course, loved).
    They killed off the two of the most compelling characters – Lady Trieu and the Senator – who’d only just begun to shine over the last few episodes. They were great villains. Had potential for a good story.
    But they threw it all away.
    Oh, and they also did nothing with Blake or “mirror guy”.
    Huge letdown.

  12. I knew Damon would be the one who could do this, something he’d wanted to do since I knew him as a teenager. Lost was in large part an adaptation of Watchment — and partly a parody of it.

    But I’m not watching Watchmen until I’ve finished solving Lost; http://users.bestweb.net/~robgood/teach . The files are overdue for a new entry, including findings in relationship to The Manchurian Candidate and Strangers on a Train.

    1. Wd get it, you claim to know the shitty family of a shity writer no one cares about, give it a fucking rest Hihn.

    2. Lost was in large part an adaptation of Watchmen

      WTF? Granted I only managed to get through five seasons before I quit in disgust. But I can’t see the connection. Was it he Polar Bear that never showed up again? Is Sawyer Rorschach? Is the Dharma Project trying to create a psychic squid monster? Is the numerical sequence a callback to the Black Freighter?

      Please explain.

      1. No, but it shared with Watchmen the idea of an enormous hoax — in the case of Lost, to gain control of a business empire. You won’t understand that unless you see my analysis at http://users.bestweb.net/~robgood/teach , which is overdue for a new entry.

        Lost was full of allusions to Watchmen in tribute, mostly hilarious when you “get” them. For just one, check out how Terry O’Quinn’s face was was made up in the early episodes.

        Lost was also Damon’s way of telling Alan Moore, “I see what you did there.” Watchmen was largely based on the Arthur Conan Doyle short story, “The Lost Special”; the graphic novel too paid tribute to its source in the form of the character name Jane Slater, for the John Slater in the Doyle story. Lost was named for and largely based on “The Lost Special”. “The Lost Special” in turn was inspired by the real-world disappearance of Engine 115 into a sink hole on September 22, 1892. Does that date ring a bell in connection to Oceanic 815?

  13. The only thing I liked in the Watchmen comic was The Black Pirate, the comic-within-a-comic.

    1. You mean the Black Freighter.

      1. Thanks — for years I was calling it the Black Pirate.

        1. However, on Lost the Black Rock was named, not after this, but after The Black Mogul from Arthur Conan Doyle’s story, “The Club-Footed Grocer”. The boat on Lost was “antiqued” in the same way the evidence of alteration of the rail line was covered up in the Universal Serials adaptation of Doyle’s “The Lost Special”: “We even replaced the weeds.”

    2. Yeah, there are better Alan Moore comics (Swamp Thing, Miracleman). Why it’s often touted as one of the greatest comics of all time is a mystery to me. Dave Gibbons is a good artist, but his Green Lantern run looked way cooler. I’d rather just read Cerebus anyway.

      1. Watchmen was an enormous influence at the time in comics and Hollywood. Jesse Walker featured it highly in his Reason article in the late 1980s or 1990, advertised on the cover as “Comics Grow Up”. I didn’t get around to reading it until a few years later, when David Lindelof (Damon’s father) lent me the bound (graphic novel) version. He’d already lent it to our mutual friend Charles Raspil.

  14. Ctrl + F =”trump” 0/0

    How can I trust this review if there is no mention of what it says about Trump?

    1. Your missing the synonym of Trump’s followers.
      Most of Trumps followers = White Supremacists
      Therefore, Trump must be a whit supremacist.

      It’s the sentence the editor probably removed as it was superfluous.

  15. According to Rotten Tomatoes, it has a 96% critic score and a 50% audience score. That really tells you all you need to know about it.

    1. Too much race baiting and a shitty finale

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