Watchmen and Superhero Mythology

HBO’s Watchmen may be the biggest TV surprise since Brian Fuller brought Hannibal to our homes. The show has taken what was once thought of as an “unfilmable” property and not only has it continued the story with an intriguing new mystery that carries on the themes of the original, but it has even improved upon the original graphic novel.

From the very first episode, clear parallels were drawn between a young boy named Will, and the original superhero, Superman. But where Superman stood for “truth, justice and the American way,” Watchmen has spent the last weeks showing us the dark reality behind those words. Before the final episode of the season airs, let’s explore how Watchmen is turning the entire superhero mythos on its head.

This article contains spoilers for the first season of Watchmen.

…And the American Way

The first episode begins with a sequence familiar to comic book fans, as we see a young boy being placed on a carriage that takes him away from his dying world as it is engulfed in flames and death. Only instead of an unknown, alien world succumbing to “old age” (as it said in the original Action Comics #1), we see an actual American town whose black citizens are being slaughtered by white mobs, and the young boy is watching his parents get shot in the back.

When Jerry Siegel and Joe Shuster, both children of Jewish immigrants, wrote Action Comics #1, they wrote a story of America as they saw it. Superman was an immigrant who had come to the U.S. escaping his home world, and he used his extraordinary powers to fight injustice. The very first appearance of Superman is about him trying to convince a governor to pardon an innocent woman on death row. The earlier Superman stories were all about fighting for social change, and we see the superhero fight against lynch mobs, corrupt politicians, and even help provide better housing for the poor. Superman fought Nazis (before the U.S. entered the war), and even the KKK. Since DC Comics’ New 52 reboot, Superman has fought for more current issues, like when he joined a protest against the police in Action Comics #42, and more recently, Superman fought a white supremacist who was about to gun down the undocumented workers he blamed for losing his job in Action comics #987. 

By placing Watchmen in a real historical context, the show made the story of Will Reeves also one of America, even if it is in a different reality than ours. Superman doesn’t fail, not because he’s all-powerful, but because the DC Universe is a more hopeful place, mostly because of Superman himself. The phrase “truth, justice and the American way” didn’t exist when Superman first appeared in the pages of a comic. Instead it was a creation of the Adventures of Superman TV show, which was made in the ‘50s and took advantage of the paranoia and patriotism of the Cold War era to make Superman a symbol not of the American people, but of America as a culture.

But by showing us the story of Will Reeves, Watchmen dismisses the idea of “the American way” by showing that only a select group of people see the benefits of that ideal. Instead, Will Reeves is forced to assume a different identity and wear a mask because that was the only way he could achieve justice in a broken system. As Laurie Blake says in episode 7, “white men in masks are heroes. But black men in masks? Are scary.”

Inspiring the Golden Age of Heroes

Before the Watchmen TV show premiered, most people would have probably thought of Doctor Manhattan as the Watchmen equivalent of Superman. Even Geoff Johns made that comparison when discussing his Doomsday Clock comic event with SYFY Wire, saying that “at the core of it, there’s a being who has lost his humanity, and distanced himself from it [Manhattan], and an alien who embodies humanity more than most humans [Superman].”

But even Doomsday Clock works a key difference between these characters into its story – that Superman is the catalyst that starts the age of heroes. Not only did Action Comics #1 inspire other comic book writers to create their own superhero stories, but even the New 52 reboot of the DC comics made Superman’s first appearance the moment that inspired other superheroes to arrive. By comparison, Doctor Manhattan was part of a second generation of masked vigilantes, with the first superhero actually being Hooded Justice. 

Only Watchmen doesn’t make Hooded Justice a Superman figure who inspires others to be the best they can bee. Instead, the show follows the ideas explored by Alan Moore and Dave Gibbons in the original comic: vigilantism as a power fantasy. 

In the original graphic novel, we find out about the Minutemen through the supplemental material at the end of every issue, which compiled excerpts from an autobiography written by Minutemen member Hollis Mason, AKA the first Nite Owl. The comic tells us that the Minutemen were not really in it for justice or any sort of bigger ideals, but it was more of a white power fantasy, with members getting endorsements and film deals. This is more in line with a recently surfaced interview with Alan Moore where he compared current superhero nostalgia with white supremacist dreams of the master race and with the opening scene from episode 6 of the TV show, “This Extraordinary Being” where two FBI agents theorized that Hooded Justice and the Minutemen put on their masks because of “sex stuff.”

Watchmen’s biggest change to the mythos of the graphic novel is making the original masked adventurer someone who is genuinely motivated by a desire to see justice done. This of course only adds to the episode’s commentary on cultural appropriation of black culture and history. We not only see Hooded Justice’s identity whitewashed by history, but his ideals are muddled the minute the Minutemen are created and Captain Metropolis dismisses Will’s pleas of help to battle a vast white supremacy conspiracy in favor or endorsement deals with banks. 

You’re an Angry Man, Will Reeves

As Laurie Blake herself said back in episode 4, “people who wear masks are driven by trauma.” This deviates from the Superman analogy, but as young Will Reeves actor Jovan Adepo himself said in an interview with IndieWire, Will using the noose he was threatened with as a symbol in his costume is perfectly in line with the Batman mythos. “[The noose] is something that’s a reminder to him of a traumatic experience in his life, something that would probably weight on his hard for the rest of his life. Instead of allowing it to be a crutch or allowing it to be something that has a constant, crippling effect, he wants to use it as a symbol of fear for criminals. He uses it to empower himself.” This, of course, brings to mind Bruce Wayne using the image of a bat (something he was afraid of, at least in the Year One comic) as a way to scare criminals. 

But as Will’s wife June said in episode 6, Will was already an angry man before he the mock-lynching and before he put on the hood. At his police academy graduation ceremony in that same episode, a police lieutenant warns that “the uniform a man wears, changes him.” Even back in episode 2, the show-within-a-show, American Hero Story shows a fake version of Hooded Justice deliver a monologue about watching an angry man every time he looked in the mirror. Only by wearing a mask could both men become one. Instead of a power fantasy, putting on a mask becomes a coping mechanism against the deep trauma people like Hooded Justice faced. And he’s not alone. Angela Abar, Wade Tillman, and Walter Kovacs all wore masks as ways to hide from their own pain and trauma.  

The Cost of Wearing a Mask

In most comics, the hero wears a mask and a costume to protect those they love. Except that’s not true in Watchmen. Will Reeves wasn’t thinking about his wife and it wasn’t even his idea to put on the mask. Instead, June suggests he wear makeup because “You ain’t gonna get justice with no badge. You’re going to get it with that hood.” Indeed, as series creator, Damon Lindelof explained it, “he had to hide his identity because you could not be a black superhero in the 1940s. You would literally be murdered if your identity was known.” 

In contrast, the rest of the Minutemen saw an opportunity not to get justice, but to fulfill some power fantasy without accountability. But Watchmen the show goes back to the original idea of Hooded Justice by showing that the police are now wearing masks to avoid another scenario where white supremacists could attack their families.

But the very first masked hero didn’t need a secret identity – he wanted one. While some stories have been written to explain in practical reasons why Superman needs Clark Kent – again, they would target his friends, and he couldn’t be left alone – the truth is, in contrast to Batman who wears the disguise of a playboy millionaire to live the life he wants as a costumed vigilante, Superman desperately wants to be Clark Kent. Even Alan Moore himself knew this. Before the British author wrote the original Watchmen, he wrote a Superman story titled “For the Man Who Has Everything” where an alien infects Superman and gives him hallucinogenic visions of what Superman’s deepest desires. What does he dream of? A normal life on his long-destroyed home planet of Krypton, happily married and with children.

This is why the character in the graphic novel who most resembled Superman, Doctor Manhattan, was the one character who didn’t choose a secret identity, but had one assigned to him. Of course, his powers and omnipresent way of looking at things affected his humanity, further separating him from his past life until Jon Osterman becomes the cold, detached being we meet in the comic. Again, Watchmen turns this on its head and reminds us that Manhattan, just like Superman, wants nothing more than to abandon his powers and be human. This was seen in the past two episodes, which focus on Manhattan’s decision to live as a normal human being for the past few years, happily married and with children. 

Just like the original Watchmen commented on the superhero stories of the time and made something new that subverted old tropes, so does the Watchmen TV show upend what we know of the superhero mythos to comment both on the stories we find in the comics, as well as the stories from our own real world.

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