The Relevance of HBO’s Watchmen

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In 1986, DC Comics published the first issue of Alan Moore’s Watchmen, one of the greatest pieces of American literature ever written. Watchmen was highly acclaimed throughout its year long run, and the graphic novel is nowadays seen as an incredibly important work of art. Moore was able to use comic books to both deconstruct the superhero ideology and deliver a scathing criticism of 1980s America, specifically in terms of how he felt that the country was becoming more fascist due to how we handled the Cold War. 

The success of Moore’s novel kickstarted a small franchise, leading to several prequel comics and a feature film adaptation by Zack Snyder. However, nothing else with the name Watchmen ever came close to matching the brilliance of Moore’s graphic novel, as many of his imitators weren’t able to capture the depth and poignant commentary that made the original book so powerful. That is, until Dameion Lindleof’s Watchmen miniseries came out on HBO last year. Lindleof’s Watchmen is a powerful, provocative, and tragically timely follow-up to the Watchmen novel, and is both a worthy successor to Moore’s original story and scathing indictment of how racism is still infecting American society. 

Taking place 34 years after the original novel, Lindleof’s Watchmen shows us an alternate America far different from our own. In this universe, Robert Redford is president, the country is predominantly left wing, racist hate groups are rightfully called out as terrorists, and the police are heavily militarized (okay, so some things have stayed the same). The biggest threat to this version of America is a group of white supremacists called The Seventh Kavalry, who are inspired by the writings of Rorasch, the deranged ultraconservative anti-hero of the original novel. Superheroes still exist, but now work with the police, and all officers are required to wear masks to protect their own identity from the Kavalry. Our protagonist is Angela Abar, a detective and police sanctioned superhero, who begins her own private investigation after a close friend is murdered. During her investigation, Abar discovers the cracks in this seemingly utopian society, realizing that this version of America is just as rotten as our own. 

Part of what makes Watchmen so brilliant is the way Lindelof and his writers fearlessly tackle the topic of racism in America, as they are not afraid to show how much this toxic ideology has ingrained itself in American culture. The very first scene of this show is a recreation of the Tulsa Race Riots, a horrifying massacre in which an estimated 100-300 people lost their lives, the majority being African Americans. 

The Tulsa Massacre scene sets a precedent for how this show demonstrates the major problem of racism throughout our history, a theme that feels especially relevant given the recent push to “sanitize” our history. Watchmen depicts the struggles of African Americans from the 1920s to the 1950s to modern day, demonstrating that although the disease of racism has taken various forms throughout the years, the issue itself has never truly gone away. Even in this ultraliberal universe where police have to be given clearance before drawing their weapons, those with racist ideologies are still able to gain power and allow their warped views to influence the country as a whole. 

However, Watchmen is more than just a scathing indictment of white supremacy, as this would be an extremely compelling television show even if it lacked the insightful social commentary. Watchmen is one of those rare successes in which almost every aspect of its production is completely flawless. The performances across the board are outstanding, for there is not a weak link among this entire cast. Regina King makes an endlessly compelling lead, for she manages to give her role both strength and depth, making Angela Abar an extremely watchable protagonist. Jean Smart plays Laurie Blake from the original book and quickly proves to be a scene stealer. I loved watching this older, cooler, and surprisingly funny version of a character who was admittedly little more than a blank slate in the comic. A lot of Laurie’s watchability stems from Jean Smart’s razor wit and cold charisma. Hong Chau as Lady Trieu is a dominating screen presence, and she commands the scene in every frame she’s in. Tim Blake Nelson as Looking Glass proved to be truly inspired casting, for his work on Watchmen is quite possibly the best of his career. Looking Glass is a broken character, and Nelson communicates his character’s pain flawlessly, all while maintaining a chilling persona that proves to be very unnerving during the earlier episodes. And Jeremy Irons is the best he’s been in years, as he is chewing the scenery with ravenous enthusiasm, and it is a joy to behold. 

All of these performances do justice to each episode’s impeccable script, and the filmmaking on display is nothing short of masterful. Featuring great cinematography and brilliant direction, each episode is a feast for the eyes, with episode 6, This Extraordinary Being, being a true stand out in terms of its visual splendor. 

Watchmen is a genuine masterwork of creative entertainment, and easily one of the best things to come out of the recent superhero craze. As a sequel to an iconic work, Watchmen brilliantly expands upon Alan Moore’s world without losing the soul of his original novel. As a commentary, it’s bold and tragically relevant to modern day, for it refuses to sugarcoat the severity of America’s systemic racism. And as an engaging miniseries, Watchmen is in a class of its own, proving to be a worthy showcase for it’s talented cast and crew. Those in search for a show that is equally provocative and entertaining can’t do any better than Damion Lindleof’s Watchmen.