watchmen updated for 2019

When writer Alan Moore, artist Dave Gibbons and colorist John Higgins made Watchmen, it was like nothing the audience had ever seen. Everything from the nine-panel grid structure, to the supplemental fictional documents at the end of each issue, to the intertwined narratives, to its use of flashbacks and nonlinear storytelling served to make the graphic novel a deconstruction and satire of the superhero story. Because of how much the story depended on the comic-book structure and aesthetic, it was deemed unfilmable – the most common criticism of Zack Snyder’s adaptation is that it was too close to the comic and didn’t add anything that wasn’t already on the page.

By all accounts, HBO’s newest adaptation of Watchmen, creator Damon Lindelof and executive producer Nicole Kassell succeed where Zack Snyder did not. Instead of doing a straight-up sequel, the show is — as Lindelof kept calling it in the months before the show’s premiere — a “remix” of the original graphic novel. It serves as both a sequel and a brand-new story taking inspiration from the core ideas. The show satirizes current politics and our mythologizing of authority figures, and updates it to 2019 politics and sensibilities. This is how Watchmen manages to bring the comic to 2019.

On Friday Night, A Comedian Died In New York

While Rorschach and The Comedian died in the graphic novel, we know that Nite Owl and Doctor Manhattan are very much alive. And of course, we have already seen Ozymandias and Silk Spectre II.

The only character from the novel who actually had superpowers, Doctor Manhattan, is briefly seen where we last saw him in the graphic novel — living on Mars in some giant structure that looks like a castle. Manhattan was crucial in creating the world we see in the HBO show. Most, if not all, cars in the show are now electric, and most of the advanced technology we see comes in one way or another from Manhattan. The show’s official companion site called “Peteypedia” also gives some additional information to the events of the first episode, explaining that after rumors that proximity to Manhattan caused cancer, society became massively technophobic, which explains the lack of internet and cell phones. 

Of course, episode 3 showed us both Ozymandias and Laurie Juspeczyk, now Laurie Blake, a.k.a. Silk Spectre II. Jean Smart plays an older, way more nihilistic and badass Laurie. If you need a refresher, Laurie was one of the most interesting and controversial characters from the graphic novel because of the way Moore handled her story. Laurie is the daughter of Sally Jupiter (the first Silk Spectre) and the sole female main character in the original Watchmen. Her story had her reluctantly become a superhero to satisfy her mother’s wishes, getting romantically involved with Doctor Manhattan, and finding out her mother’s would-be rapist, The Comedian, was also her father. While her story ends abruptly and we don’t explore how she deals with these new revelations beyond the surface level, the show introduces a different Laurie. In an interview with Vulture, Lindelof talked about how the HBO show would present an “evolved” Laurie. Peteypedia tells us that after the events of the comic book, Laurie took her father’s last name Blake, and even went as far as becoming a vigilante called The Comedienne. In the interview, Lindelof talks about wanting to give Laurie the same level of nihilism and cynicism as The Comedian had in the graphic novel, something which is seen once she joins the show. Indeed, when we finally meet her, she is sarcastic in all her interactions with her fellow agents and seems like she’s just done with humans. She is a woman who saw how ugly the world was — not only because of her family’s history, but because her boyfriend literally abandoned the planet and moved to Mars — and realized it was all “a practical joke” as her father once said. When she talks to Angela in her Sister Night costume, she correctly notes that all masked vigilantes use the anonymity as a way to deal with a past trauma, obsessing with justice because of an injustice done to them. This may not be exactly the same Laurie we saw in the comics, but it’s the only natural progression for a vigilante who ended the graphic novel with a deep desire to go get a buttload of guns.

Then there’s Adrian Veidt, aka Ozymandias, played by Jeremy Irons. While we may never know why the show decided to keep his identity a secret even though everyone guessed it the moment the casting was announced, Iron’s performance shows an updated and older Veidt. So far, we’ve spent a few episodes watching this mysterious man do a series of bizarre things that initially make no sense, until we eventually see his grand plan come to life — which sounds exactly like Veidt. Though he seems to be trapped in a prison somewhere, in a mansion full of creepy servants, he remains the smartest man in the room. The supplemental materials reveal that following Manhattan leaving Earth, faith in Veidt’s products fell, until his company went bankrupt and he was forced to sell. So far the show has shown Veidt as a tragic figure – one who saved the world and is now paying dearly for it.

“But, Doctor… I Am Pagliacci.”

In the days since the premiere of HBO’s Watchmen, the show has been yet another victim of the “review bomb” from waves of crybabies hurt by what they think is an attempt to inject politics into what they think was never political (not entirely sure what Watchmen they were reading). Noticeably, some audience members were angered by the show having a white supremacist group called The Seventh Kavalry adopt Rorschach masks. The thing is, Rorschach was never intended to be an actual hero. 

When you look at Watchmen merchandise, the most popular character is probably Rorschach. His character, like the red pill from The Matrix, have become symbols for people who feel like outcasts and that society has wronged them. Rorschach has been positioned by many as the moral compass of the story, mostly because he is the main person who cares about the supposed conspiracy (and ends up being right that there’s something big going on). The thing is, Rorschach was not a heroic purist with a clear set of rules and perfect morals, but a psychopath with a death wish who wasn’t capable of ending it himself. 

At its core, the superheroes of Watchmen were caricatures meant to show how silly and ridiculous superheroes would be if they existed. The Comedian is nothing but a violent and nihilistic sadist who takes pleasure in hurting people. Doctor Manhattan, the sole superpowered individual, literally doesn’t care about anyone and leaves the planet. Rorschach was inspired by the work of legendary comic creator Steven Ditko (co-creator of Spider-Man) and his right-wing, Ayn Randian political beliefs. The character was never intended to be a laudable hero; instead Alan Moore highlighted the irony of making a despicably fascist, racist, misogynistic character the one that operates the most rationally — demonstrating how silly it would be to place our faith in vigilantes exacting their own brutal sense of justice.

It seems kind of fitting, then, for the tragic character that is Rorschach to end up becoming the most misunderstood character from the graphic novel. Not only have people twisted the character’s intention from the graphic novel and turned him into the hero he was never meant to become, but the show has made him the symbol of a white supremacist group. In his interview with Vulture, Damon Lindelof talks about how, to a degree, Watchmen is about appropriation. “We’re appropriating the original Watchmen. We’re reinterpreting it. We’re saying, “Instead of just being a cover band, we’re going to try to make a new album that is inspired by the original Watchmen and bears its name.” It is only fitting, then, that a character from the original graphic novel would be appropriated and distorted by a hateful group in the HBO show. In the first episode we see the members of The Seventh Kavalry not only wearing the Rorschach masks, but reciting a speech he gives in the first issue of the comic where he talks about how the filth of the world will look up to him to save them and he will tell them “no.” Reflecting how readers took the politics of Steve Ditko’s characters and applauded them as heroes, as well as the rise of Rorschach as a moral hero to many, Watchmen masterfully satirizes readers not grasping Alan Moore’s intent and turns Rorschach into a symbol of white supremacy in 2019. It is ironic that another one of Moore’s characters, V from V for Vendetta became a symbol for social justice and popular revolution during the Occupy Wall Street movement, even though Moore intended the character to be a morally ambiguous anarchist. 

Who Watches The Watchmen?

The Comedian may have died on page four of the first issue, but his death ignited the whole story of the graphic novel and its view of superheroes. While Batman had already gone through a period of darker stories in the ‘70s, Watchmen is generally considered the comic that jumpstarted the medium’s Modern Age, which redefined the superhero genre with grim and gritty stories that dealt with relevant issues and were aimed towards an older audience. At its core was a story that confronted the idea that superheroes were not all bright and colorful boy scouts, but deeply flawed humans. Throughout the graphic novel we see how violent and despicable The Comedian actually was, despite being hailed as a hero and a patriot. If superheroes had real people behind the masks, they would still be flawed humans doing the deeds, except without any accountability. Despite their best efforts to do good, the characters in the graphic novel are as violent as the villains and thugs they beat up (not unlike Batman, who always leaves his victims bleeding out in the middle of a dark alley for hours). 

The phrase “Who watches the watchmen?” appears throughout the graphic novel, in the background of every issue, multiple times. It alludes to a translation of a question posed by Roman poet and satirist Juvenal, who wrote “Quis custodiet ipsos custodes?” or “Who guards the guards themselves?” While Juvenal originally wrote this in the context of Roman women and wives staying pure until vigilance, it has taken a new meaning thanks to Watchmen. Moore and Gibbons were concerned with the question of who keeps the people with most power in check. If Superman were to decide one day that everyone who has ever told a lie should die, who’s to prevent him from killing the entire world population? The graphic novel uses the superhero genre as a giant allegory to our real-world problems. They use superheroes as stand-ins for the way we mythologize authority figures, and they show the vigilantes of their story as horrible people as a way to show how superheroes would use their powers if they were real. 

Lindelof’s Watchmen may not have superheroes (at least so far), but it very much still follows the core ideas of the graphic novel. The watchmen are still here, but instead of vigilantes, it’s masked cops who have become all-powerful and free of accountability. There was no better way of driving this point home than by ending the show’s first episode with blood dripping onto the dead chief of police’s badge, a reference to one of the most iconic images from the comic — blood dripping across the Comedian’s smiley-face badges after he’s murdered.

A lot of talk has, rightfully, emerged in the wake of the first episode of the HBO show portraying police as likable because they’re fighting against a white supremacist group. But the thing is, the show is using the cops in the same way Alan Moore used superheroes. In the first episode alone, we see cops abusing their power, managing to bypass a law that limits the use of firearms after just one rousing speech, violently interrogating suspects that they illegally brought to their secret hideout. Then the show doubles down in episodes two and three, showing police abusing their power to get some answers. When police shootings result in no consequence whatsoever to the officer that shot an innocent man, it isn’t too difficult to see the resemblance to the masked vigilantes of the graphic novel or the HBO show. Director Nicole Kassell even shoots a meeting of the police of Tulsa, Oklahoma in the same way she shoots a meeting of the Seventh Kavalry, driving home a point introduced by Moore, and explore further by Lindelof in episode 6 of Watchmen: “The uniform a man wears changes him.” 

At Midnight, All The Agents…

The original Watchmen has a literal ticking clock counting down to an apocalyptical event. While it ended up being a literal giant squid exploding above Manhattan, the characters in the story, and indeed what Moore and Gibbons alluded to, was the fear of nuclear apocalypse. The fear of global superpowers going to war for some stupid reason is constantly being discussed in the comic, and posters claiming that “the end is nigh” are often seem in the background. Before the Cold War started to wind down and eventually end, by the mid-80s we had reached a point where nuclear annihilation loomed over everyday life. 

In contrast, those fears have changed in 2019, but they have not entirely dissipated. With police violence resulting in innocent people being shot and killed often, and a mass shooting taking place almost every day, we have traded the fear of the big, world-ending, foreign war for another type of violent apocalypse. It seems like today we live in a state of fear as constant as back in the ‘80s, only instead of a foreign superpower nuking us all to hell, we’re afraid we’ll find ourselves in the middle of a shooting at a supermarket, or mall, or even church. Watchmen begins its season with the real-life Tulsa Race Massacre of 1921 which decimated the neighborhood of Greenwood, then referred to as “Black Wall Street.” They didn’t need foreign invaders to drop bombs on them, their fellow countrymen did the job all by themselves. 

Right after that opening scene we see a scenario that’s sadly too familiar in the U.S. – a police shooting. Except, like Moore and Gibbons, Lindelof takes real-world scenarios and twists them for the story’s alternate universe. Here it is a black police officer who gets shot and killed by the white guy he had pulled over. This incident jumpstarted the ticking clock of this version of Watchmen. Instead of bombs dropping, the threat of a war between the Tulsa police force and the Seventh Kavalry looms over the show.

All We Ever See Of Stars Are Their Old Photographs

“Nostalgia” is the name of a perfume that Adrian Veidt was selling during the events of Watchmen the graphic novel. It is also a major theme of both the original source material and the HBO adaptation. In the original comic, bottles or advertisements for Nostalgia are representative of the character’s memories and flashbacks, appearing in the background whenever the story goes back in time. Characters are often reminiscing about the past and commenting on how much better things used to be. Indeed, the graphic novel makes it a point to show that Veidt used the brand and marketing of the perfume to make people long for an idyllic past and be afraid of an uncertain future. He does this to later sell them the idea that they had achieved an utopia following the squid attack, as he rebrands the perfume to “Millennium” during an issue that has the characters stop looking back and start looking towards the future. 

In an interview with Rolling Stone, Lindelof talked the importance of nostalgia in the story. “This is something that’s kind of cribbed from Midnight in Paris: The moral of that movie is that every generation feels like the generation before theirs was the generation they wanted to live in.” The HBO version of Watchmen is not so different from this. Characters lament the state of the world and reminisce about the good old days where things used to be simpler. We see people protesting Robert Redford’s politics in the background of a couple of episodes, and Jean Smart’s Laurie Blake asks in a later episode, “Who wants to be in the present when you can be in the past?”

The original graphic novel plays with this idea even in its structure. When we start the story, we are dropped right in the middle of this world. As Lindelof says, “The original Watchmen is a sequel, but the first story never got written.” Indeed, the story often refers to important events from the ‘30s and beyond that are hugely important to what’s happening in 1985 at the time of the events of the comic; we just don’t see any of that. 

HBO’s Watchmen then updates that idea to 2019 and our obsession with remaking the past and relieving our childhood memories with better production value instead of experiencing new things (the show is still a sequel, after all). The first episode drops us to a story 30 years after a huge event shook the world, and while characters allude to it, we don’t really see it — not yet, at least. Even when characters talk about the events of the original graphic novel, they talk about it as we discuss old historical events, matter-of-factly and without giving it much significance. If you’re familiar with the story of Watchmen, this will not be a huge deal. However, if you have no preexisting relationship to the source material, Lindelof manages to replicate the feeling comicbook readers had all the way back in 1985: being dropped into the middle a detailed lived-in world. If the original Watchmen was a sequel to a story that was never written, then HBO’s Watchmen is both that prequel, and also the sequel to the original middle story. And really, that’s the best we could have hoped for.

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