(Or watching Watchmen)
by James Palmer
Many have attempted to refine the political elements of the superhero genre, but Damon Lindelof’s Watchmen feels like the first truly successful superhero polemic, skilfully replicating the political resonance of Alan Moore and Dave Gibbons’ graphic novel. For his contemporary ‘remix’ of the original work, Lindelof transposed the atmosphere of the Cold War into the contemporary anxiety of resurging racial tensions in the U.S, a masterful replication of theme and aesthetics that somehow faced backlash with ‘original’ fans.
Lindelof’s attempt at representing progressive politics was immediately met with stringent outrage, facing complaints like “it’s injected political correctness into the show.”, as per hundreds of audience reviews on platforms like IMDb and Rotten Tomatoes. This change in story was rejected by many fans of Moore’s work with the pilot’s first scene taking place during the 1921 Tulsa Race Massacre, “the single worst incident of racial violence in American history”. However the topic went viral the very next day because so many viewers were baffled that they had never heard of or been taught about it before. Far-right accounts flooded Rotten Tomatoes in order to give the show a rotten rating of 51%, refusing the centrefold of black characters and black stories. Contrasting this, Snyder’s film adaptation of 2009 – an attempt perhaps too devoted to reproducing the original graphic novel – was met with lukewarm reviews but virtually no backlash amongst this audience, an attempt perhaps too devoted to reproducing the original graphic novel. There is only one key difference to the depiction of the U.S. government in these versions, with Lindelof focusing on internal issues like Tulsa rather than external ones like Vietnam. This change in story clearly aggravated these types of fans who wish that events like Tulsa could stay hidden, a piece of American history that highlights how hatred can take any form and how easily it can be mobilized. It may also be due to hostility towards what Tulsa, known as “Black Wall Street” then signified at the time, the slow uphill battle towards equality for American minorities.
Another key element to the miniseries was the inclusion of the Ku Klux Klan, reformed as the Seventh Kavalry, who employ Rorschach as an icon and a martyred figure. This notion examined false icons and how people seize the ambiguity of a political message in order to fuel their own agenda. Rorschach was a violent and bigoted force in the graphic novel, traits that Lindelof stayed faithful to. Whilst the German-born, blonde billionaire Adrian Veidt, formerly the vigilante Ozymandias, was the aesthetic representation of white supremacy in the original graphic novel, the concept that Rorschach’s journal had been misinterpreted thirty years after his demise to fuel the far-right hate movement of the Kavalry reproduces the same message of Veidt in Moore’s work.
Whilst Rorschach is a false icon in the eyes of the Kavalry, Ozymandias self-identifies with this false iconography, believing his acts as akin to divine intervention. Similar to the graphic novel, Lindelof’s adaptation allows a grey area for the character in his ability to assist other enhanced beings like Doctor Manhattan. The moral ambiguity of the graphic novel and Lindelof’s depiction in the characters of Ozymandias and Doctor Manhattan are identical. Whilst they are both false deities, on opposite scales in their viewpoint, they both reach the same moral conclusion that the world can be saved through destruction, an important note when the rest of the show reflects on our historical mistakes.
The focus and relevance of Ozymandias’ story may differ the most from the graphic novel in its way of storytelling but is similar thematically. Lindelof experimented the timeline, date and information as the episodes went on. Although Angela Abar is made clear to be the protagonist at the beginning of the show but, for fans of the graphic novel, she was an unknown character with no obvious link to any established Watchmen character. Thus the emergence of familiar characters like Ozymandias and Silk Spectre threatened to steal the spotlight as the show progressed. Yet, Abar remained the protagonist, and was transposed to embody the literal fabric of the graphic novel; she was a blood relative to the ‘first’ vigilante and ends at a point of further transformation, inheriting the power of Doctor Manhattan. Supporting this, the most surprising reveal of the show being that her husband Cal is Doctor Manhattan in disguise – a traditionally white character re-cast and reformed – having both of the show’s main characters being black characters. That is the real subversion of the show, how even with its world-wide implications in both the graphic novel and the TV series, the show is essentially about one family and one specific historical event. It gives further evidence that a singular person can have these long-lasting repercussions; Angela is just as important as Rorschach and Ozymandias in these matters.
The finest stretch in storytelling ranges from Episodes 1×05 to 1×09, as they strive to move away from an ensemble-focused episode to place more emphasis on one or two main characters. It’s a tool that’s been used by Lindelof before on his previous shows and allows to dive deeper into the psyche of certain characters. Episode five, ‘Little Fear of Lighting’ which focuses on Wade Tillman, the vigilante known as Looking Glass, depicts the debilitating effects of trauma and paranoia, both themes comparable to Moore’s original anxiety surrounding the Cold War. But the following episode, ‘This Extraordinary Being’ is the standout episode for the series’ focal and contemporary theme of historical racial tension. Focusing on the character of Will Reeves, a black man who joins the New York Police Department in 1938, it’s an episode that examines institutional racism and a hidden plot that has threatened the Reeves family for generations. The character of Hooded Justice, identified as a white European in the graphic novel, now being the first modern black vigilante highlights once again the TV series’ focus on black stories and black history.
Although Lindelof has stated it is incredibly unlikely he will return for a new story in the Watchmen universe, he has had more to say in nine hours of television than many showrunners and studios have had in decades. His focus on uncovering the horrid truth of our ancestors and the atrocities that everyday citizens can cause is something that we should never cower away from. An event like Tulsa has been used as a deterrent to try and signify the long last damages that can be caused by this upheaval of racial tension, similar to what the graphic novel’s giant squid attack signified about the Cold War. Many audience members may say that this story is no longer about Watchmen at all, but if you look at Watchmen as a story around contemporary issues rather than just the Cold War, you’ll see that Lindelof’s take on Watchmen is by far the most faithful adaptation you could ever make today.