We’ve got a lot on our plate lately; a raw main course and too sweet a dessert is maybe the food analogy I’ll roll with. In America, the country is battering itself over political allegiances (or lack thereof) and the ways in which we’re presenting ourselves to the world. Closer to home, racism has become casually acceptable as a public policy amongst institutions; Nazism and the support for radical and dangerous ideologies aren’t the political death sentence they were and should be, instead being tolerated and even encouraged.
So amidst this daily barrage of madness, we have to sit back and keep ourselves sane somehow, and entertainment is the outlet for millions of Americans and billions across the globe, consuming American pop culture. In April we had the ten year climax of Marvel’s epic cinematic exercise, paving the way for more movies; just this month the ninth Star Wars film–allegedly the last of the “main series”–opens across thousands of screens, while the Walt Disney Company positions both franchises for delivery directly to rabid consumers via their recently-launched streaming service. There’s a bit of a mouse-shaped glut, some would argue. A malaise setting into the entertainment landscape of more spin-offs, more sequels, more adaptations; more of everything, but also less.
In a period where our politics are increasingly losing sight of the morals we as Americans should stand for, and our entertainment landscape is dominated by cookie-cutter franchises, it was inevitable we’d need a shakeup. In light of this, along comes Watchmen.
(Take heed, ye who enter here. This article contains full, casual spoilers for the entire season of HBO’s Watchman and, in full disclosure, Alan Moore and Dave Gibbons’ original graphic novel… As well as Zack Snyder’s 2009 adaptation of that, if we’re really sounding all alarms.)
Where the HBO series had many original fans and curious onlookers dubious of the continuation of Alan Moore and Steve Gibbons’ landmark story, they were all just waiting to be proven wrong. Wrong to doubt that Damon Lindelof, a source of pop cultural controversy depending on whom it is you’re arguing with (Lost fans? Prometheus loathers?), would take such a beloved and iconic franchise and wring it for profit, or an idea he didn’t believe in. Sometimes we get the hero we deserve, not the one we want.
I’d argue that Watchmen‘s timing, airing from October to December of 2019, is something of a pop cultural epiphany and a companion piece to the developing politics of the country. Watchmen is a blisteringly political TV series, angrily railing against so much of what America has become in 2019; you can practically hear the Rage Against the Machine while Hooded Justice beats down Cyclopean Klansmen. But being a big budget series adapting a comic book, there needs to be some pizazz. HBO has to sell Watchmen to an audience, and people (myself included) like a good show; a spectacle. The ways in which Watchmen and its slew of incredibly talented writers and directors (and key grips, and location scouts…) keep us engaged through good old-fashioned entertainment is a high-wire act of brutal violence, clever revelations, and absurd parody of the superheroic content we vote for, time and time again, at the box office.
The politics of Watchmen in no way make things difficult for the audience. Opening with a depiction of the savage 1921 Tulsa Massacre that saw black residents of the city’s Greenwood District assaulted and killed by mobs of white supremacists, we immediately are exposed to cold, illogical brutality. The Tulsa Riots, historically enabled by the city’s deputization of lynch mobs, is an utterly audacious way to open your TV series, whether it’s a historical drama or a series about naked blue men zapping evildoers. Reviving the memory of Tulsa, and spreading awareness to those unfamiliar, is Watchmen‘s first step in screaming out in anger.
And that’s the first five minutes.
Once we’re acquainted with Angela Abar (Regina King) and the world of police-endorsed vigilantism, Watchmen doubles down on its bitter condemnation. Still in the first episode, we see a masked, black police officer gunned down by a white suspect, who turns out to be a member of the Seventh Kavalry, Watchmen‘s fictional contemporary sect of racist Klansmenlikes, who so happen to model their aesthetic after Rorschach, the masked vigilante whose fascistic tactics and political condemnation in the original Watchmen make him ripe for a radical following. Except, readers of Watchmen know something most of the TV show’s world doesn’t: Rorschach was right.
In wanting to expose Adrian Veidt’s (Jeremy Irons) 1985 “extra-dimensional” massacre as being no more than a brutal hoax, Rorschach is on the side of truth. The ensuing cover-up would unite the Cold War cannons of Russia and the United States, leaving Rorschach to go with his morals and, in a splash, die with the truth. Early on during Watchmen‘s run, I theorized the direction in which the Seventh Kavalry story would end in public devastation: Here you have racist lunatics worshiping a man who history alleges to be a violent conspiracy theorist. But the fact is, Rorschach’s conspiracy theories were right. What happens when you give a fascistic paramilitary that kind of ammunition?
Ultimately, the Rorschach connection doesn’t trickle down that trail, but Watchmen allows its audience to think: How terrifying is it when the violent, bigoted radicals are unquestionably right about something? What kind of political power would something like that yield?
Where Watchmen takes its Seventh Kavalry might ultimately fizzle out in the series’ final two episodes, wherein we learn that their white supremacy-minded ambitions (including a bid for the presidency) are merely pawns in the maneuverings of Lady Trieu (Hong Chau), the trillionaire genius who is revealed to be the show’s ultimate puppet master. At this point we see the history of the Kavalry as being tied deeply to the Tulsa Massacre, as well as a KKK plot (under a sect known as Cyclops) to use mind control to incite black communities to perpetuate violence amongst themselves.
Manipulation is Watchmen‘s game, both in the way its characters pull each other’s strings as well as the way the episodes are written and edited, transcending space and time to peel back the layers of its world for maximum dramatic effect, but Watchmen‘s spandex-clad aesthetic never lets the mind wander too far from the truth. The Cyclops plot to cause self-harm and incite disorder amongst the black community reads as a pulpy sci-fi spin on the very real ways in which local governments and hate groups would look to push black populations out of their cities, or sequester them in ghettos. The Tulsa Massacre that plays so prominently in the show resulted in the government acquisition of much of the Greenwood District’s real estate, putting formerly-black property in the hands of white Oklahomans. Thematically, the Cyclops plot of mind control fits in neatly with Watchmen‘s constant string-pulling, both in its written construction as well as its political message.
What Watchmen indicts so furiously in its action is the ways in which individuals like the uber-rich Trieu or hate groups like the Ku Klux Klan can morph into “interest groups.” Interest groups that shift the balance of political power in their favor, pulling strings via institutions, the way we see the police complacent with the Cyclops operation via the memories of Angela’s grandfather Will Reeves, the original Hooded Justice (played in the present by Louis Gosset Jr, while Jovan Adepo portrays the young Will Reeves). Adrian Veidt, or “Ozymandias” as his masked moniker refers to him as, is Watchmen‘s original puppeteer, playing a farce on the world that cost three-million innocents their lives. Was Ozymandias’ scheme “good,” because it meant to sacrifice those lives to prevent nuclear annihilation? Is that “good,” while Lady Trieu’s ambitions to harvest the power of Dr Manhattan (Yahoo Abdul-Mateen II), our singular atomic-powered demigod, for her own global ambitions is “bad?” Of course, Watchmen doesn’t particularly answer that question.
But for all of the questions Lindelof’s series raises in opposition towards the criminality and farce that uphold so many of our modern institutions, Watchmen doesn’t sustain itself on political commentary on its own. I would argue that the politics of the show are so inseparably baked into every waking moment of the story’s development, to talk about “story” versus “message” is a futile exercise. But for the sake of technical aspects of HBO’s Watchmen, we’ve got to start to talk cinema.
Martin Scorsese kicked off a tirade of angry Internet commenters with his remarks disparaging Disney’s Marvel films as “not [being] cinema.” He would criticize the films for their familiarity, eschewing heart and human drama for amusement parklike feats of engineering and dazzlement. Other filmmakers like Francis Ford Coppola and John Woo would echo Scorsese’s comments.
Where you stand on Scorsese’s comments or the state of Disney’s monopolization of entertainment isn’t a subject to be dissected here–the end is nigh, as they say, and we don’t have time for that! But the discussion over the state of cinema, including the premium television we see in new series like Watchmen or Disney’s The Mandalorian, as well as past and continuing favorites like Game of Thrones or Stranger Things, the discussion is what matters. In its own gonzo way, the Watchmen series gives both sides what they want and makes it all look effortless.
The fifth episode of Watchmen (Little Fear of Lightning, directed by Steph Green) would seem to be among the episodes generally considered “best” of the series, at least from impressions I’ve gathered across Twitter, and critical reactions. It holds a 100% rating on aggregate site Rotten Tomatoes. In the episode we learn the origins of Wade Tillman (Tim Blake Nelson), the mask-wearing, Southern-drawling masked interrogator for the Tulsa PD who goes by “Looking Glass.” In his flashback, a young Wade (Philip Labes) is seen to be a survivor of Ozymandias’ 1985 “extra-dimensional squid” attack on New York. Reflecting the trauma of surviving such a terrifying and incomprehensible event, in 2019, Wade is a man of few words and an imposing presence, but revealed to harbor a deep anxiety down to his bones. Left paranoid by the event, he’s the image of the doomsday-prepper: He hordes canned food in a bunker, wears a tinfoil hat to protect himself from any psychic squid rays. Wade attends meetings, similar to AA, wherein he and others paralyzed by fear of the return of the squid or its cohorts confide in each other.
Now, in pleasing both the dramatists and pulp-fans of motion picture entertainment, Watchmen gives us everything here. The way in which Wade is peeled back, layer-by-layer, from being something of a badass in his mask, harboring a cowboylike minimalism, to being a lonely, terrified man (one whose fear of the squid, we know as the audience, to be totally without merit, given Ozymandias’ scheme) is nothing if not human. Peering into the privacy of someone who puts on an act, a mask for the world, only to discover their truth is the ultimate expression of cinema’s power to empathize. It’s not unlike what Todd Phillips and Joaquin Phoenix attempted with this year’s Joker; deconstructing an iconic, flamboyant character of comic books–a medium some might incorrectly consider “lower”–in a deep character study.
On the flipside, I just typed out “extra-dimensional squid.” In this episode, flashing over to Watchmen‘s mysterious parallel Ozymandias narrative, we see Ozy flinging clones to their deaths in space, eventually teleporting himself in a ramshackle way, looking to forge an SOS sign out of their frozen corpses. Watchmen is absolutely nuts. Though its mechanics all make perfect, logical sense in the world Moore and Gibbons constructed and Lindelof and his writers continued, there’s no getting around how utterly silly so much of it is. In terms of the squid, that would seem to have been Moore’s original point with the comics. But in sustaining that attitude of bizarre and visually-bold storytelling, HBO’s Watchmen caters to an audience who might not sit down for a political rallying cry for accountability and destruction of racists. Sometimes, the mere thought of “politics,” broad as that may be, turns people off; they’re turning the TV on or sitting down for a movie to escape the drudgery of politics and the real world. In concocting giant squids, insane camera techniques, and utterly outrageous characters, Watchmen looks to appeal to the escapist in all of us, putting on its showman’s cap for a pulpy, stylish spectacle.
Watchmen can come across as a bizarre concoction to swallow, for those who might not know what they’re getting into. The aforementioned spectacle, to an extent, carries on the visual language established by Zack Snyder’s 2009 feature film adaptation of Moore’s series. Snyder, known for his visual bombast, would populate his film with extensive slow-motion, and digitally-enhanced sets and effects. His overuse of digital special effects isn’t a point of contention for this piece, but that style, that “digital sheen” certainly carries over to the HBO series. I’m thinking of moments like Hooded Justice diving through a window in the sixth episode, only for time to freeze, our camera navigating past the glistening shattered glass in an omniscient, “3D freeze frame.” It’s also something as basic as the title cards, where the episode title appears rendered in the show’s world. To meet its thoughtful substance, Watchmen has style to spare.
But as you might have realized by my own adulation, Watchmen‘s pulpy comic book tropes and visual excesses are all a part of its impact and perhaps why the thematic depth and dramatic resonance are so effective. Like all good science fiction, Watchmen‘s aesthetic is a skin under which its real intentions and aspirations blossom. Like Moore and Gibbons did with their original book, Lindelof and his team are working with superheroes–now saturating the global entertainment market now more than ever–to tell a story that can entertain and enlighten. The masked vigilantes delivering beatdowns and bonkers science are means to an end in Watchmen, making our very real, very present issues like the corruption of institutions, the prevalence of racism, and the fragmentation of communities.
And still, there’s more.
I’ve talked this much about Lindelof’s show and not nearly touched upon Adrian Veidt, or the atomic Dr Manhattan. Trieu’s motivation for harnessing Manhattan’s power, possibly to apply his limitless energy to use for world change, is the sort of gray morality Watchmen seeps with. In this world, Manhattan’s apathy towards humanity, and self-indulgent hoarding of his godhood is, in many ways, the science-fictional parallel to the likes of Jeff Bezos and the uber-rich; individuals whose power (in our reality, coming from their gluttonous wealth) could change millions if not billions of human lives for the better, but are instead amassed and left to stagnate. Adrian Veidt, literally playing with human lives while he puzzles with an escape plan from his extraterrestrial prison, is the sort of desensitized fascist whose ends justify any and all means, despite his dry wit and flare for showmanship.
Watchmen is a show that we can and will talk about for years to come.
But in this moment, when we’re seeing dramatic developments in the US government, and fans are taking to the Internet to vent or defend the goings on in a particular galaxy far, far away, Watchmen might be at its most relevant here and now. This is a work to be pored over on so many levels, from its technical construction in its editing and pacing to its political aims and social commentary. I would argue that Watchmen is the single most relevant piece of television this year, and perhaps the most important piece of entertainment this year. It’s angry and up-to-date in its message, but also campy, exciting, and dramatically devastating. It hits at least three moments, by my own personal count, of Inception-like wonder. That is, the ending of Christopher Nolan’s fan-favorite 2010 sci-fi film has become a pop cultural icon of “oh shit” revelation and suspense. Watchmen does that. And it does it again. And it does it again.
Now if you’ll excuse me, I think I feel like some eggs.