When asked about Alan Moore’s annoyance with the Watchmen adaptations and spinoffs made without his consent, Dameon Lindelof (writer and showrunner of the Watchmen show) said this: “I love [that] Alan has a punk rock spirit. I’m channeling his spirit to tell him, ‘F*** you; I’m doing it anyway.”
To imply that Watchmen (2019) contains a punk spirit insults both punk as a genre and creators of the original comic. A million-dollar show made for one of the biggest networks in America that have received wide media coverage is in no way punk. Not that the original comic was punk in a major way—it was made for DC comics—but with an anarchist writer at the helm who refused to change the script to the point that the editor left the project, it’s certainly more punk than this show. The comic also wasn’t content to uncritically present superheroes and the world they live in; it holds a sharp lens up to vigilantes and the institutions of the world and ends in a way that makes the reader skeptical that any of the characters had the best intentions for humanity in the first place. HBO’s Watchmen, on the other hand, is content to portray heroes and the society they live in uncritically, reaffirming the beliefs Alan Moore wanted to challenge.
Let’s start at the beginning. The show takes place in 2019, 34 years after the events of the comic, and focuses on an investigation surrounding the hanging of the chief of police in Tulsa, Oklahoma. In this city, cops are allowed to wear masks to hide their identities after a series of targeted terror attacks by a white supremacist group known as the Seventh Kavalry. While there is a wider cast of characters like the comic, the show is different in that it has a central protagonist. Angela Abar (Regina King) is a black woman from Vietnam who moved to Tulsa to get away from her old life and start anew. Disaster soon struck again, however, when on the midnight of Christmas Day she is attacked at her home and shot by Seventh Kavarly due to her job as a detective. She barely survives, and when the police are required to dawn masks to avoid another series of shootings, she takes the opportunity to become a masked nun known as “Sister Night.” (She and the other detectives are allowed to have special costumes.)
Watchmen had a positive reaction amongst viewers and critics upon the release of its first episode. Many praised the show for understanding the original comic’s characters better than the previous movie adaptation, mostly because of the use of Rorschach masks by the Seventh Kavalry. This repurposing of iconography from the comic takes the extreme ideologies he had to their logical conclusion in the modern-day, showing that Lindelof and the other writers have at least some understanding of the comic’s messaging. However, their handling of other characters from the comic fails to demonstrate that same understanding.
Take the Silk Spectre, now using the last name of her father, the Comedian, and going by Laurie Blake. Her disillusionment from Ozymandias’s doomsday attack mirrors her father’s cynical nature; she is now an FBI agent hunting down vigilantes wearing masks she once dawned herself. However, this exploration of how her character would react to a terrible event is undermined by her still having a longing desire for the partnership she had with Dr. Manhattan. In the comic, her and the blue guy’s arc centers around Laurie realizing that the superbeing capable of omnipotence doesn’t seem to have a real affection for her and that Dr. Manhattan’s powers remove him from the people around him. It almost feels like a retcon to have her turn around and miss that relationship, especially when the rest of her no-nonsense portrayal by Jean Smart is so good.
Other returning characters experience similar treatment for their character development from the comics. Adrian Veidt, despite Jeremy Irons doing the absolute most in his portrayal, is given a subplot that doesn’t really dig into his character all that much and only significantly affects the in the very last episode. His arc feels more like the writer trying to “correct” the ending of the comic rather than see how he would continue to live his life. Dr. Manhattan gets a similar treatment, and while I won’t spoil the specifics of his role in the show, I will say that the way he is handled similarly misunderstands the purpose of his character in the comic. I’m fine with making changes to the source material for adaptations, as the Marvel movies have done, but when you set out to make a sequel to work and ignore the motivations and beliefs of its original characters it shows that you’d rather tell your own story at the expense of the original.
The show is better when it’s not trying to be Watchmen, but only marginally. The new characters it introduces are interesting to learn about and watch them interact with the rest of the world, but they are never utilized to their full extent. Sometimes we might get an extended look at a character’s backstory, only for that backstory to never matter after the fact. Other times we might see an interesting aspect of the world, only for that aspect to never be brought up again. For example, there’s probably some commentary that could be done about how cops hiding their identities can’t be held accountable for their actions and how the public is blindly accepting of this because of a superhero craze, but the show never digs into any of that. It’s content to just say that there are good cops and bad cops, and the good cops will always do the right thing.
On a micro level, Watchmen has good pacing. Scenes flow together nicely, the audience learns new information at a consistent rate, and it slows down at the appropriate moments while speeding up at others. However, if you zoom out and look at the show at a macro level, it all falls apart. Take the Seventh Kavalry for instance. This white supremacist militia is revealed from the start but kept mostly shrouded in mystery. We learn of their terror attacks in the past and get hints at what they might be planning, but after episode three they never matter in a meaningful way until the finale. There is never a point where we learn why they wear Rorschach masks or what their motivations are, save for a quick lore dump right before the ending. And it turns out, Lindelof has another threat that’s even worse than the white supremacists, except this threat is handled even more clumsily. Again, I won’t spoil the who or what, but I’ll just say that it feels like the writers went, “Well, the white supremacists want to hurt people and are extremists, but what if there was someone who wanted to make the world a better place, but was also an extremist?” Because of course, someone who wants to fight for change by any means is comparable to someone who wants to use guns to kill people.
And that is what we are left with after the show is over: messy and inconsistent politics. Watchmen starts strong with a depiction of the Tulsa Race Massacre of 1921, an event many don’t even know about. It tries to tackle racism in America head-on, something other prestige TV shows don’t do at all. However, just talking about race isn’t enough; a show needs to handle it’s content and messaging well for it to succeed, and Watchmen just doesn’t. Aside from some of the interesting ways it plays with the lore of the comic to make a point, Lindelof doesn’t seem to understand the issues he’s making an entire TV series about. It acknowledges America’s racist past, but it reduces that past to individual actors rather than larger systems of oppression. At one point the massacre, which was a real historical event, gets blamed on the fictional cult which started the Seventh Kavarly. Watchmen would rather make up a conspiracy to blame for racism rather than face the fact that citizens and even the government were complicit or active in the oppression of black people less than a century ago. It takes steps forward in putting racism and America’s problems front and center in its writing but then looks for an easy answer to those problems in a way the original Watchmen never did. As film critic Leslie Lee puts it: “The alternate world of HBO’s Watchmen is one in which fighting white supremacy head-on is ultimately less important than making peace with your anger at white supremacy, even if you’re a superhero.”
You can tell the people working on this show were at least trying. They have a reverence for the comic and a passion to tell a unique story. You can read articles about how there was an effort made to include writers of color and to be respectful when they were filming scenes from the Tulsa Massacre. Lindelof himself said that he was inspired to center the show around race and make the Tulsa Massacre a focal point of the story because of Ta-Nehisi Coates’s essay “The Case for Reparations.” Well, all I can say is that I recommend Lindelof read a little bit more of Coates. Between the World and Me is a fantastic book that captures the American experience as a black person and puts it in a wider historical context. More importantly, it asserts that racism is more than a klan gathering to burn a cross. It’s more than some conspiracy by a white supremacist cult to start a race war. It’s more than some people with one skin color being angry at people of another skin color. Rather, as Coates puts it, “Racism is not merely a simplistic hatred. It is, more often, broad sympathy toward some and broader skepticism toward others.”