Should HBO's Watchmen Be Called "Watchmen"?

by Jay Hill on October 21, 2019

The Beginning is Nigh

Fourteen minutes into the pilot episode of HBO’S Watchmen, although I was enjoying myself, I thought, "People are going to be mad about this," which can be said about anything produced in the age of the internet. However, to say anyone would be completely unjust in disliking this show wouldn’t be correct. As a television show, it has everything you can want; there’s great writing, great performances, it’s shot great, a great score, etc. It’s a deserving addition to the catalog of amazing HBO dramas. The luckiest viewers and those most likely to enjoy it, are people who have never read or have only a passing familiarity with the source material. That being said, anyone tuning in because of their love of the comic book is in for a bit of a jarring departure from the original work.

The Spirit of ‘86

Watchmen, the seminal 1986 comic book by writer Alan Moore, artist Dave Gibbons, and colorist John Higgins is a groundbreaking work of fiction that has gone on to influence countless others. It examines the deeper ideas of what would make someone put on a mask and fight crime. Its characters have a depth to their idiosyncrasies that had rarely been, if ever, explored in the form and on the chosen subject. Each hero has a different mix of problems, emotions, and personality traits that get examined and dissected by the writer with an overwhelming level of intricacy. It also has commentary on Reagan era Cold War politics and is filled with other subjects that intrigued Moore. A lot of those aspects, including the execution and style of writing, is why Alan Moore and many others have deemed it unfilmable. Which is what they did in 2009 to its own fair share of criticism.

But Zack Snyder’s film adaptation and the original comic book hardly resemble this “sequel”. Damon Lindelof has used the original story to tell a new tale. The ways in which it excels at what the book did is to use this idea of “superheroes” to speak on very real current issues. The Regan era Cold War has been swapped for the Trump era Civil War. It does it in an artistically fluent way. Usually, it knows when to pull its message back and let the story speak for itself. But, in finding its own voice, it has lost a lot of quintessentially “Watchmen” aspects of the story.

Very few would say the comic was about its “story” or “plot”. It was very obviously about its characters. It used each personality to play off, with, and against each other. The commentary on modern 80s society was done in the environment these characters navigate through, not their part in it. In fact, the character with their hands directly involved with society as a whole did their work in the background until the end of the series. All the other main characters, Nite-Owl, Silk Spectre, and Rorschach felt like they were helpless in the grand scheme of the world’s problems and the only one of them that could do anything about society’s self-destruction, Dr. Manhattan, didn’t care all that much.

HBO’s Watchmen is all about the society of its story. Its focus is on the war between the masked police force of the United States government and the masked radical white supremacist group, the Seventh Cavalry. It is viewing concerns of a very real nature through the lens of fiction. Sure to be seen by some as sensationalist and others as exploitative. But, like Orwell writing 1984 in 1949, it’s not saying this is where we are, it’s saying this is where we could end up if we don’t change. Obviously, omitting the masks but including the civil war of ideologies.

If this show was called “Next Watch” or “New Watch” or “Watchers” and billed as a loose spiritual successor to Watchmen, it would be much more well off. But they made the very bold choice of naming it after a work that has years of legacy and love for the material behind it, while also being nearly unrecognizably linked to the comic that started it all. That gives people the right to be upset. Many other stories have come since the printing of Watchmen that borrowed the “what if heroes were in the real world” aspect of the story and the “let’s use superheroes to explore human problems” themes without being directly tied to the Watchmen property. In this first episode, the connections to the comic seem insignificant compared to the new ideas added by the team behind it. Of course, that will change as more characters from the comic appear in the show, but, as is, the show is about 90% independent ideas and 10% Watchmen dependent ideas. The boldest choice in the show is the indiscriminate use of the Rorschach mask as an icon for racism and white supremacy. People have loved that character and story for decades and now the tattoo on their body or the cosplay they made is now linked with that ideal.

Trying to critic this show in any effective way is going to be difficult. Since the themes are so “black and white”, to talk about disliking it immediately puts you in unfavorable company. This show will, no doubt, get ignorant and unjust hate from some groups for the topics it tackles. And, trying to get an intelligent word in edgewise when the loudest voices are going to be those written in all caps and using derogatory terms is going to be a challenge. The lead is an African-American female seen bashing Caucasian male racists. To judge the character for its possible shortcomings may seem like you have other biases. I saw a similar issue arise with Star Wars and The Last Jedi when there were some legitimate gripes with it, then some idiot made an anti-feminist and misogynistic cut of the film which grouped some people’s hate of the film’s execution with a different type of hate. Also, some people adopt, “If you’re not with us, you’re against us,” codes that can be just as harmful to what they’re fighting for, as what they’re fighting against.
To say the show is perfect or that it executes everything it attempts is just unreasonable. A big flaw, I find, is the lack of characters to root for. The main “bad guys” motives are unrepentantly evil, but the “good guys” are also pretty terrible. Once again this immediately puts me in a bad spot. Criticizing the demolishers of white supremacists seems like I’m sympathetic to their causes. However, the police force’s methods are near fascistic or totalitarian. We see the happy citizens who abide by the law live peacefully; the only criminals are terrible racists, but they are taken down by a government force using methods we (in the real America) have deemed morally unrighteous and unconstitutional. Sure, we “know” the Seventh Calvary are evil, but that doesn’t give the government the right to act like thugs. America has a history of finding out their government has used torture or other unconstitutional means of bringing people deemed “terrorists” to “justice” and have immediately and almost unanimously deemed it wrong. But this show’s main protagonists are using said tactics. Clichés like “Don’t fight fire with fire,” or “An eye for an eye…” come to mind. We can’t even make a Batman story “realistic” if at some point someone doesn’t question if he’s as bad as the criminals he stops. The character Rorschach has always been more extreme than Batman in his actions and although the Seventh Calvary wears his mask, the police use his methods. The teasers for the next episode even show the cops using his objectivist “black and white” views.

I have faith, though, that this show is completely aware of that and plans on flipping it on its head. But to judge its pilot alone, you must criticize them choosing to focus on these characters and frame them in such heroic ways. They make Regina King’s character looks “badass”, but not only is she using unconstitutional methods, she’s fighting on a lie (to use another HBO show’s words). If you’ve read the comics, you know that the truth isn’t as plain as good vs bad. It is questionable that Rorschach’s journal would create racists instead of a revolution based on the startling truth. But, again, only time can tell what the show has up its sleeves. What is Ozymandias’ plan? Where is Dr. Manhattan? Maybe like the comic, they’ll wait until the twelfth hour to reveal their master plan. Either way, the pilot was nothing if not an intriguing start to a series that is sure to make waves. HBO has rarely steered me wrong (David Benioff and D.B. Weiss, on the other hand…). So, until this show does, I’ll be watching Watchmen (even if I think they shouldn’t have named it that).

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