The recent earthquake in Tulsa, Oklahoma heralded me finishing viewing HBO’s Watchmen! I finally got to watch it when HBO put it up for free Juneteenth weekend. Hot on the paws of Cats, here’s my cold take on HBO’s Watchmen! I did it thirty-five minutes ago. You’ve probably seen it by now too, but the nonlinear Spoiler Warning remains at one minute to midnight. Much like the original, it doesn’t center around a timepiece-themed team. I believe their continued omission is a mistake!
When I first heard of HBO’s plans to make a Watchmen series, I was very skeptical. DC struggled to recapture Alan Moore’s & Dave Gibbons’s magic in its original medium. (Marvel boasts it would’ve exploited Watchmen earlier!) Very rarely does something good like Justice League: The Nail come of this. Most of the time it’s superficial imitations like Identity Crisis that learned the wrong lessons from it. I seem to be one of the few people that appreciated what Zack Snyder was able to accomplish in the movie adaptation instead of bemoaning how the squid was excised to streamline the conclusion. Ironically an HBO miniseries would be the ideal adaptation format. Hearing it’d be a sequel written by Damon Lindelof filled me with dread as I was quite disappointed by Lost, Cowboys & Aliens, Prometheus, & Star Trek Into Darkness. Then I was shocked by all the great reviews the series received. A broken clock is right twice a day.
This sequel shows that Ozymandias’s masterplan succeeded. As expected, Rorschach mailing his journal to a crackpot magazine didn’t have a noticeable mainstream impact. International peace is maintained through randomized storms of baby squid, which are harmless because Veidt sees no need to raise his death toll. Richard Nixon has been replaced with Robert Redford. Thanks to reparations for descendants of racial violence, Tulsa is once again a black boomtown. Plus nobody wants to live in NYC anymore after the psychic squid attack. Although there’s no Internet, the world is more science fictional thanks to the innovations of Trieu Industries. The ultraviolent American Hero Story documentary TV series with American Horror Story’s Cheyenne Jackson seems to be dig at Snyder’s adatation. Although the world appears to have grown more progressive, Redford’s policies have spurred violent racist reactionaries called the Seventh Kalvary.
Moore wrote Rorschach as a critique of Steve Ditko’s, creator of The Question, Objectivist philosophy. The Seventh Kalvary co-opting Rorschach’s mask is commentary on fans missing that he’s not supposed to be aspirational. It’s akin to police & military using the Punisher logo, although DC merchandises Rorschach much less than Marvel does its murderous vigilante. Rorschach was an avid reader of the racist New Frontiersman, so maybe Walter Kovacs would’ve become an Alt-Right terrorist too if he hadn’t been disintegrated?
Much like The Comedian, Captain Judd Crawford is revealed to be a scumbag with a costume hidden behind his mirror after his murder. Instead of a smiley face pin, his human bean juice drips onto his police badge. It turns out the Seventh Kalvary & the Tulsa Police are both run by the same racists. Police being tools of white supremacists turned out to be relevant in reality too!
After many police were murdered by the Seventh Kalvary (after Crawford provided their addresses), a new law allowed police to wear masks to protect themselves. Most just wear yellow turtleneck masks around their mouths. Some have distinctive masks & codenames like superheoes who are still outlawed but otherwise half-ass their costumes. Is Red Scare really a Russian immigrant or just very dedicated to maintaining his alter ego’s cover? Is there some sort of hierarchy to who’s allowed a personalized disguise? Only Angela Abar really commits to her theme. The costumed cops are still responsible for arresting costumed adventurers unaffiliated with the fuzz like the mysterious Lube Man. (Or is he FBI fanboy Dale Petey?)
Whereas the original was an ensemble, Angela is clearly the protagonist here. She’s a solid character, yet oddly not as compelling as some supporting players. She’s so entwined with the mysteries of her grandfather (Louis Gossett Jr. is splendid), husband, & mentor that she’s sometimes subsumed by them. She has a tragic backstory, but she’s very well-adjusted to her trauma.
Just as Regina King is twice royalty, Angela Abar’s name is a spoiler. Her surname comes from Abar, The First Black Superman. Not only is her grandpa the first black superhero, his origin directly parallels Superman’s. Angela eats Dr. Manhattan’s egg at the end, transforming her into the first black woman to acquire superpowers like the cinematic Abar. If you’re not up on Blaxploitation cinema, Angela foreshadows divinity.
Jeremy Irons is a magnificent bastard as Adrian Veidt. He rocks the original Ozymandias costume! Veidt is Lex Luthor if he was sincere about helping mankind & didn’t have an archnemesis. The Europa sequences are a bit too surreal to mesh with the restrained spirit of the comics (it could fit with a different Moore adaption), but watching him put on plays & make spacesuits set to the Zardoz music is delightful! (Manhattan teleporting a castle to Jupiter’s moon & populating it with clones before fixing Earth’s environmental woes is proof he doesn’t have his priorities in order.) If he’d been provided with a new Bubastis instead of doting servants, Veidt would be less eager to depart.
My favorite new character is
Mirror Guy Looking Glass. He’s a survivor of the initial squid catastrophe who was protected from the psychic blast within a Hoboken hall of mirrors. He’s so paranoid about future extradimensional incursions that he constantly wears Reflectatine headgear. Unlike Abar’s bakery, Wade Tillman’s day job as a focus group tester is legitmutant. As he’s evocative of Rorschach & Tulsa native Tim Blake Nelson plays nefarious geniuses in comic book movies (I’m still waiting for payoff to him becoming The Leader in the MCU), there’s some ambiguity over his alignment. Has he rigged the the racism detector to confuse the precinct? No, I just overthought his mirror gimmick.
Silk Spectre II returns as an anti-vigilante FBI agent. Not only is she using her father’s surname, she’s telling elaborate jokes of dubious humor too. This feels like a more dynamic follow-up to Jean Smart’s role in Legion. Everybody knows she’s an ex-superheroine, but it’s unclear why President Redford pardoned her for violating the Keane Act but not Nite-Owl II. Despite all proclaiming to be “the girl who threw the brick that killed God,” Agent Laurie Blake is foiled by a rickety trap door? (It is a funny scene though.)
Many characters are privy to crucial plot information thanks to Dr. Manhattan’s blabbermouth. Although he doesn’t physically time travel, his mind is unstuck in time like Slaughterhouse-Five’s Billy Pilgrim. This is an amusing narrative contrivance that avoids the paradoxical pitfalls of most time travel series like Legends Of Tomorrow & Agents Of SHIELD.
Being a survivor of the Black Wall Street Massacre who turned vigilante after being was lynched by his racist police peers is such a good origin for Hooded Justice that it makes me retroactively mad at Moore for not even hinting at it. There’s nothing in the original comics that necessarily precludes this, yet the text also doesn’t even suggest it’s an option. (Hooded Justice hiding his identity as a black man from the prejudiced public for decades is also Blue Marvel’s deal.)
If he really debuted being chased out of a racist’s store in a botched attempt to stop the Ku Klux Klan’s Cyclops brainwashing scheme, why did he become regarded as the first superhero rather than the first supervillain? Why would the shop owner & eyewitnesses report the story backwards to make the intruder more heroic & successful? This retcon scene undermines an otherwise extraordinary episode.
Since Hooded Justice is never shown unmasked, he’s the only candidate of the Minutemen who could’ve been black. What little we do see of him in the comics, however, seems out of character with TV’s anti-racist crusader. When The Comedian is itching to be sent to kill Nazis prior to the US entering WWII, Hooded Justice dismissively replies “We should avoid political situations….” Televisual Hooded Justice keeps tabs on Nazis & gets mocked for wanting to go on political crusades against the KKK. Instead of being one of the last three original Watchmen hanging out instead of accomplishing anything as the original Nite-Owl reported, this Hooded Justice appears to have ditched the team early to bust racists skulls by himself. You could argue Sally Jupiter & Hollis Mason are unreliable narrators, but then that puts the veracity of everything else in doubt too.
Under The Hood supports The New Frontiersman’s claim that Hooded Justice was circus strongman Rolf Müller. Both could be wrong, but it’s pointless to introduce him as a red herring if there’s no genuine unmasking for this minor player. (Apparently Before Watchmen: Minutemen devises a different role for this throwaway character.) I got the impression that The Comedian was the one who murdered his ex-teammate because he discovered he was a fifth columnist, he was vengeful about being interrupted mid-rape, or both.
Ozymandias killed three Vietnamese refugees at his base in his cover-up but somehow forgot there was also a cleaning lady? How’d Lady Trieu’s mom safely escape Antarctica by her lonesome? Lady Trieu being Veidt’s biological yet nonconsensual daughter is unnecessary save for making her parallel Silk Spectre II. (Whether Veidt would keep a hidden freezer stocked with his purity of essence that can be unlocked with his obvious password is another kettle of fish.)
Although it’s an official sequel, it’s more elegant to set this TV sequel in its own distinct continuity from the comics. This avoids straining suspension of disbelief needed to crowbar in the above points. This is surely a controversial opinion opposed by its authors. I don’t think this de-legitimizes it though.
The Ozymandias action figure on the desk in Karnak appears to be the Mattel variety. Filming wrapped before DC Collectibles’ Doomsday Clock edition was available, unless they were rushed an early sample. Either would be inaccurate as the ones in the source material are inspired by 8″ Megos or 12″ GI Joes with cloth drapery. The props department dropped the ball here. (To really drive fans mad, they could’ve used his movie toy.) The No-Prize is that updated Ozymandias toys have been produced since 1985. So this paragraph was kinda pointless, eh? Sadly zero Bubastis toys exist in our reality.
Just as I was spoiled that Ozymandias was the mastermind in the comics, I was spoiled that Dr. Manhattan is now a black man. Specifically he’s Black Manta himself, Yahya Abdul-Mateen II! Knowing this ahead of time, it was odd hearing other characters foreshadow to Angela that her husband is superhuman whilst she maintained her pokerface. Veidt lampshades how John Osterman assuming this identity is problematic. It does feel like he’s squandering his power to not duplicate himself before neutralizing his power to play oblivious house husband. As Hooded Justice says, “He could’ve done more.”
The reveal that Senator Joe Kean Jr. wears angular Dr. Manhattan briefs to usurp his power is hilarious. He’s kinda right that waving your genitalia in everyone’s faces once you’re already the world’s most powerful being is overkill. Ironically it also shows a lack of self-awareness for someone whose main grievance is he can no longer openly brag about racism as an example of American exceptionalism.
With Looking Glass disguised as a Seventh Kalvaryman, I was expecting he & Laurie would be instrumental to the climax. For instance, wearing his Reflectatine mask under the stolen Rorschach mask could’ve immunized Wade from Cyclops mind control. Instead the duo are teleported away early to be Veidt’s assistants in Antarctica. They do apprehend Ozymandias to bring him to trial afterwards, yet it feels underwhelming. Technically it was Osterman who threw the Tillman brick at Veidt, which makes Laurie still seem superfluous.
The climax is a race to see who will consume Dr. Manhattan & absorb his nigh-omnipotence! (This may be another strike against The Dolorous Adventure Of Brother Banenose having a resurgence.) Lady Trieu says racist lives don’t matter! (Hong Chau is a delight!) Then her illegitimate father obliterates her in her moment of triumph with frozen calamari! The assertion that she would’ve also used Dr. Manhattan’s power for evil just because she’s a narcissist could’ve been developed more convincingly. This kind of feels like Daenerys Targaryean’s character assassination, although less egregious since we hadn’t been following her development for years. At least she was collecting international prayers so she’d understand what the world would like adjusted. Osterman didn’t intend to acquire his power, & he still committed his share of atrocities with it. Is Angela’s policewoman perspective really a better fit for nigh-omnipotence?
This series is about how representation matters. For everything Watchmen is lauded for as a groundbreaking comic, giving non-white characters vital roles isn’t among them. (Doomsday Clock’s Rorschach II is Reggie Long, the son of the original’s psychiatrist.) Much like how Peter Parker became mega-popular because nerds identified with him, young Angela Abar latched onto Sister Night just because she didn’t have any other fictional role models that looked like her. Her grandpa was likewise inspired by Bass Reeves, whom inspired the whitewashed Lone Ranger. Although originally a white guy, racebending Dr. Manhattan can have a profound positive cultural impact.
It’s only nine episodes long, which felt perfect to me unlike the meandering Westworld. It follows in the original’s footsteps of leaving audiences wanting more. Lindelof isn’t eager to diminish it with future installments. Co-writers Cord Jefferson, Jeff Jensen, Claire Kiechel, Stacy Osei-Kuffour, Nick Cuse, Lila Byock, Christal Henry, & Carly Wray deserve recognition for keeping him from going off the rails. If HBO does commission more, it won’t be a direct continuation hinging on Angela Abar’s ascension.
I was pleasantly surprised this wasn’t a giant dumpster fire. It had enough connectivity to the original while providing enough novelty to stand apart. It’s not pretentious despite its prestige pedigree. The score by Trent Reznor & Atticus Ross is as superlative as the special effects. I considered classifying it as an unnecessary sequel that’s better than anticipated, but I guess there are people who wanted concrete answers to the original’s deliberately open-ended finale. (I’m curious as to how many viewers hadn’t read the comic first or had only seen the movie. How comprehensible was it to them?) Furthermore it directly addresses American racial issues mostly overlooked by the original. Without it, I would’ve remained ignorant of the 1921 Tulsa Race Massacre & Triệu Thị Trinh. It’s not perfect, but it’s astounding that this sequel taps into the zeitgeist as much as the original. Whereas the original was about anxiety over the world ending, this is about anxiety over living with each other when it doesn’t. Whether it meshes with the original continuity is irrelevant.