Considering the glut of superhero stories we’re experiencing in movies and TV, right now is either a great time to revive Alan Moore and Dave Gibbons’ legendary Watchmen comic, or perhaps the worst. The TV spinoff’s premiere episode leaves me feeling conflicted on that question.
HBO clearly intends Watchmen to be its new major event series. The show is officially positioned as a sequel to the original 1986 comic book, which means that the giant squid monster that got deleted from Zack Snyder’s 2009 movie adaptation is canon. Although Gibbons is credited as co-creator of the source material, the famously cranky Alan Moore is not, per his demands. (Moore wants nothing to do with any adaptation of his work, beyond collecting the royalty checks.) Damon Lindelof, the once-reviled co-mastermind of Lost whose reputation was somewhat rehabilitated with The Leftovers, is in charge of the TV version. He’s made what some viewers will likely consider a frustrating decision to tie the show very closely to the comic, enough that reading it ought to be considered mandatory, while radically changing the setting, time period, characters and, frankly, just about everything else about it.
The premiere episode opens with a prologue depicting the real-life Black Wall Street Massacre of 1921, in which an affluent African-American community in Tulsa, OK was destroyed and hundreds of black residents were murdered by white mobs. In this telling, we follow a very young black child who’s orphaned by the events, left with only a hand-scrawled note saying “Watch over this boy” in his pocket.
We then jump forward to the present day, almost a century after the prologue and more than thirty years after the story told in the comic. The existence of masked vigilante heroes, including one genuine super-powered individual (Dr. Manhattan, currently living in solitude on Mars) has changed the world in dramatic ways. America won the Vietnam War and incorporated Vietnam as a state. Nixon was President for multiple terms through the 1970s and ’80s, succeeded by Robert Redford (yes, the actor), who’s been in the White House ever since. Periodically, the skies will open up and rain baby squids down to the ground – a common enough occurrence that most people take it in stride.
Most importantly, a not-fully-explained event called “White Night” resulted in all police and law enforcement being required to wear masks to conceal their identities while on duty. Cops are also not allowed to carry or use firearms without express approval granted by a designated superior officer. That becomes a big issue when a Tulsa cop is gunned down during a routine traffic stop. The perpetrator belongs to a White Supremacist group called the 7th Kavalry, who have misappropriated the misanthropic rantings of the deceased vigilante Rorschach and wear masks in his honor.
The only cop who doesn’t hide his face is Chief Judd Crawford (Don Johnson), a classic Midwestern cowboy in many respects. He authorizes the emergency release of firearms and orders the police force to roust the usual suspects. Angela Abar (Regina King), his top detective and an incontrovertible badass who goes by the street name Sister Night, brings in a suspect and (with Judd’s consent) beats some info out of him identifying a ranch compound where the 7th Kavalry operates from.
In the episode’s biggest action set-piece, Angela leads a raid on the ranch and is met with resistance from a .50-caliber machine gun, resulting in a rather disgusting amount of bovine gore as the cops take cover behind cows in a field. Eventually, most of the Kavalry members are taken out. Two try to get away in an airplane, but Judd is nearby with what appears to be the famous Owlship from the original Watchmen. Although he winds up crashing the ship, he destroys the plane and walks away unscathed. The only surviving Kavalry creep takes a cyanide pill rather than be captured.
This threat seemingly neutralized, Judd is later lured away from his home into a trap. Angela receives a mysterious phone call from someone who knows exactly who she is. The voice directs her to an oak tree in a field, at which she finds Judd dangling from a noose. An elderly black man (Louis Gossett, Jr.) sits in a wheelchair next to him, holding the “Watch over this boy” note from the prologue.
Far away from Oklahoma, at a castle in some presumably European locale, the aging Adrian Veidt (Jeremy Irons), formerly known as Ozymandias, is doted on by two loyal but imbecilic servants who celebrate his anniversary (of what is unclear) with the gift of a pocket watch. Veidt announces that he’s written a play called The Watchmaker’s Son for the two of them to star in for him.
Episode Verdict / Grade: B+
I’m honestly not sure how I feel about this version of Watchmen, or even if it’s at all fair to make snap judgments about it based on only one episode. Although I enjoyed the premiere while watching it, the more I’ve thought about it afterwards, the more I’m baffled by some of the choices Lindelof makes. It’s possible, and perhaps even likely, that the change in setting from New York to Oklahoma (not to mention the reduction from a global scale to a very local one) will pay off later, but I don’t understand the purpose of it yet. The show feels very tonally different from the comic (and the Zack Snyder movie). As much as I like the idea of Lindelof making the material his own, I can’t figure out what he’s doing with it.
I’ll admit to being surprised that one of the show’s top-billed stars was killed off in the first episode, but Game of Thrones stole all the thunder from that type of twist a good eight years ago.
On top of that, I’m nagged by doubts about whether Watchmen really needed reviving now. The comic’s revisionist take on the superhero genre was innovative, even revolutionary back in 1986, but already started to feel redundant when Zack Snyder regurgitated it in 2009. Our culture has been so consumed by all manner of superhero stories over the past decade that we’ve cycled through almost every possible type two or three times since then. Amazon’s darkly comedic The Boys from earlier this year offered what felt like a fresher form of revisionism than this does. As much as Watchmen is undeniably a stone-cold classic superhero comic, sometimes classics are best left enshrined in the past. Not every title with moderate name-brand recognition needs to be franchised and milked dry.
Again, however, it’s early. The premiere is a very slow burn focused mostly on world-building. Scenes from the next few episodes actually look a lot more interesting than this one. I’m intrigued enough to want to see where this goes.