HBO's Watchmen is both a prequel and sequel to the Alan Moore-Dave Gibbons comic; here's a look at its universe
In the world of HBO's Watchmen — as in Alan Moore and Dave Gibbons' comic book — the mask you choose to wear reveals as much about you as it hides.
Entering the world of HBO's latest big ticket series, Watchmen, can be discombobulating: a little like being air-dropped into unfamiliar terrain and navigating with the bare minimum of clues.
This is not least because the series — by David Lindelof (Lost) — occupies the curious position of being both a sequel and (arguably) a prequel to the original Watchmen, the pioneering comic book by Alan Moore and Dave Gibbons. Qualitatively, it is truer to Moore and Gibbons' vision than the 2009 Zac Snyder film adaptation, which was faithful to the story-line but not so much its ethos.
Before we plunge into the show’s universe, a brief recap of Moore and Gibbons' Watchmen: The murder of a superhero called The Comedian brings together his former comrades, who're convinced by one among them (Rorschach) that someone is out to murder them all. The presence of superheroes has impacted world events in unforeseen ways — the US won the Vietnam War, Nixon was never impeached, and Cold War hostilities between the US and Russia are precariously contained courtesy the presence of the all-powerful Dr Manhattan on American soil.
This isn't a world where superheroes are welcomed, however. After civil riots in the late '70s, superheroes have been outlawed; the majority of them in retirement, and a handful employed by the government. The world-threatening event at the climax of the story — an extra-dimensional giant squid that wipes out three million people in New York — is triggered not by some anarchic super-villain, but from one of the superheroes themselves: Adrian Veidt aka Ozymandias. Veidt's rationale is of ends justifying the means; getting the world powers to unite against a common threat (an alien creature) means they won't be using nuclear weapons against each other. And if world peace comes at the cost of millions of lives, well so be it.
HBO's Watchmen doesn't depict the events from Moore/Gibbons' comic, but traces them into their past and the future. We start with Tulsa, Oklahoma in 1921 — a city caught in the throes of race violence. Black citizens are being mass murdered in broad daylight, their businesses looted and homes destroyed. Entire families are separated and annihilated. We follow one survivor, a little boy who is packed into a trunk by his soldier father and sent away in a friend's car. The car crashes and the boy awakens all alone in a field. The city is burning behind him. He hears a baby cry and sees that his saviour's daughter has also survived the crash. He lifts her in his arms and walks away.
In the present-day, we are in Tulsa, 2019. Being a cop is dangerous business, especially since a bloody event (dubbed “the white night”) three years ago, when several members of the force were targets of assassination plots. Now the cops wear masks to protect their identities. Our protagonist is a policewoman — Angela Abar (Regina King), known as Sister Night in her law enforcing avatar. The peace of the past three years is shattered when a cop is shot dead during a routine traffic stop, and Angela and her colleagues — under the leadership of police commander Judd (Don Johnson) — investigate the involvement of a white supremacist organisation called the Seventh Cavalry. The Seventh Cavalry, however, has far more ambitious plans than getting rid of individual cops, as Angela and the others soon realise.
We can't delve into more of the plot at present, without giving away spoilers from the six episodes that were made available to the press. Instead, we'll piece together this universe that HBO's Watchmen exists in.
Briefly, the race riots of 1921 have deeply shaped the Tulsa of present-day. While race relations seem calm on the surface, resentments fester just below. “Redfordations” — reparations made to black victims' families under the “Victims of Racial Violence Act” by the US President Robert Redford — have created yet another fault line for fringe groups like the Seventh Cavalry to exploit.
The events of Moore/Gibbons' Watchmen too have impacted this society: the giant squid attack of 1985 has — more than 30 years later — led to global squidfalls (like rainshowers, but with small squid falling from the sky); Dr Manhattan is still on Mars; superheroes are despised and hunted down by the authorities (in fact, a task force for the purpose is headed by the former second Silk Spectre, Laurie Blake); Vietnam is (possibly) a US state; there's confusion over whether or not Adrian Veidt/Ozymandias is alive or dead; and oh, the headgear of choice for the Seventh Cavalry is Rorschach's mask.
As the series' plot weaves back and forth from the past to the present-day, it picks up several other elements from Moore/Gibbons' Watchmen: we get a glimpse of the Minutemen — Hooded Justice, Captain Metropolis, the first Silk Spectre and Nite Owl — the superheroes who preceded the Crimebusters' batch that comprised Rorschach, the second Nite Owl and Silk Spectre, Ozymandias, Dr Manhattan and the Comedian. To show this past, HBO's Watchmen mainly borrows one of the original's storytelling devices: just as Alan Moore included 'excerpts' from the autobiography of Mason Hollis, the first Nite Owl, to narrate the history of the Minutemen, David Lindelof has a show-within-a-show — a special called American Hero Story that is the big TV event for everyone to tune into. (To see more of the Watchmen world, click here.)
Lindelof’s series mirrors the original Watchmen in other ways as well. It has an arresting visual style as seen early in the first episode, when Angela and her colleagues face off against some members of the Seventh Cavalry on a seemingly placid farm, amid a shootout that claims several bovine victims, whose carcasses are then used as shields by the cops. [Also in the same episode, we see an interrogation pod operated by Angela's colleague Wade aka Looking Glass: it's a sort of Rorschach test rolled into a polygraph, which bombards subjects with (racially charged) visual stimuli that picks up their unconscious responses.] Like Moore and Gibbons, Lindelof too has placed his Watchmen amid real world happenings: if the comic book unfolded against the backdrop of the Cold War, then the HBO series premieres mere months after discussions on reparations for slavery being made to African American individuals. And of course, the ongoing rise of the right wing and white supremacist groups in the US, as also Europe.
Just as Moore and Gibbons upended traditional superhero tropes, did away with supervillains, and attempted a realistic depiction of what a world with superheroes might look like (including the marketing/commercial possibilities), Lindelof’s series also presents an intriguing idea: when the good guys and the bad guys both wear masks, how do you really tell them apart? Who even decides what is 'good' or 'bad'? When law enforcement takes on the same guise as vigilante crime-fighters, what differentiates one from the other? In the world of Lindelof's Watchmen — as in Moore and Gibbons' — the mask you choose to wear reveals as much about you as it hides.
Some threads of the narrative arc work better than others in this HBO series. Jeremy Irons appears as a mysterious gentleman of leisure (his true identity shortly becomes evident), living on some vast estate, and carrying out odd experiments that we only realise the import of later. It's tonally a huge shift from the other parts of the first six episodes, and it’s bizarre enough that you can't immediately make up your mind about whether or not it clicks. There's also an enigmatic and uber-rich Lady Trieu (played by the actress Hong Chau; how much her story will reflect her real-life namesake’s isn't clear in the episodes made available for review), who hopes to fulfil some part of Ozymandias' legacy — even as she sends off Superman’s origin into a new direction? Neither character has been particularly compelling in the episodes so far. However, the parts involving Angela (and the Minutemen) do not flag at all. Perfectly underscoring these adrenaline-infused portions of the story is the music by Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross.
Whether or not Lindelof’s series ends on as high a note as its beginning remains to be seen, but it's already several leagues ahead of the Zac Snyder film. In a world saturated with Marvel superheroes, this could be another positive step for DC finding success by stepping in a dissimilar direction, as it did with Todd Phillips' Joker. And in its subversion of the superhero genre and the conflicts it foregrounds, Lindelof’s Watchmen may even — perhaps — prove a worthy successor to the story Moore and Gibbons envisaged.
Watch the trailer here —
Watchmen is currently streaming on Hotstar. Its Indian television premiere will be on Star World, at 10 pm on 24 November.
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