tv review

Watchmen’s Extremist Superhero Dystopia Succeeds on Sheer Nerve

Photo: HBO

One of the first things you’ll notice about Damon Lindelof’s Watchmen is that the characters who wear masks seem to have trouble keeping them off. The HBO series is a follow-up rather than an adaptation of its source, set in an alternate present, more than three decades after the events of Alan Moore, Dave Gibbons, and John Higgins’s industry-realigning 1986 comic — er, graphic novel. Watchmen was ground zero, along with contemporaneous works like Frank Miller’s Ronin and The Dark Knight Returns and Moore’s The Killing Joke, for the “grim and gritty” craze that continues to this day. True to the spirit of those inquisitive, psychology-driven revisionist ’80s works, Lindelof’s series never loses sight of the core question of why people would don masks, even in situations where it’s not important to hide who they are.

Watchmen’s restless dystopia (utopias don’t exist onscreen anymore) is riven by racism and class anxiety, even more so than the present-day United States, and the country seems to have made peace with a mutated version of authoritarian rule — although the fact that the strongman running the country is liberal environmentalist and gun-control advocate Robert Redford, still chugging along after 26 years as president, complicates the analogies to Trump’s America. (Redford is not in the series, but his name is spoken often.) There’s a racially motivated hot war between the guardians of the state and racist elements in the populace, represented by a melting-pot police force that wears masks over the lower parts of their faces to prevent enemies from identifying and murdering them. (The official police masks are bright yellow, evoking the Watchmen series’s insignia, the Comedian’s badge.) The main antagonists are the Seventh Kavalry, a Ku Klux Klan–inspired militia that stockpiles weapons and attacks public officials and institutions while wearing masks inspired by Rorschach, a character from the original comic who was the only vigilante who refused to be employed by the U.S. government. (The use of masks here feels like an escalation of one of Moore’s conceits: The U.S. government banned masked vigilantes in the 1970s.)

It makes sense that Kavalry members would wear masks when carrying out terrorist actions and committing crimes, and that the police would wear their own, often more personalized and makeshift masks while on duty, and while carrying out off-the-books vigilante missions — as when detective Angela Abar (Regina King) decides to capture a suspect in a police shooting without authorization, and puts on the costume of her own alter ego, Sister Night, a flowing hooded cloak and black face paint. But there are many other moments where characters wear them even though they have no apparent reason to, like the police surveillance expert who covers her face while monitoring a Kavalry hideout from inside an armored police hovercraft. And one of Angela’s fellow officers, Looking Glass (Tim Blake Nelson), wears a silvery ski mask with no eyeholes (how does he see?) even when he’s at home watching the news and eating an old-fashioned TV dinner out of an aluminum tin. Sometimes he lifts the mask up so that you can see his eyes, but usually all you get is that distinctively Nelsonian mouth and scraggly whiskers. Does wearing a mask liberate or hide these characters? A bit of both, probably, because people are complicated.

Fans of the source material are either going to love this Watchmen or despise it — the latter, perhaps, because of the selective amnesia afflicting reactionary comic fans who insist that the art form “didn’t used to be political” when it was political from the jump, and progressive more often than not. Moore and Gibbons’s series was released midway through Ronald Reagan’s second term and contained many elements that seemed to warn of latent fascistic tendencies within the United States’ cultural identity, including an obsession with superheroes and supervillains who settled ideological and personal differences through city-leveling mayhem, and often claimed to be acting on behalf of higher principles even when projecting their personal issues onto the world. The series’ storylines concentrate on American discrimination from Watchmen’s opening sequence, a recreation of the 1921 Tulsa riot, in which a white mob destroyed an affluent African-American section of town known as Black Wall Street. (Survivors and descendants of the victims of the Tulsa riots sued for compensation, referred to here as Redfordations.) This theme threads through each successive hour, investing even moments that are theoretically about the characters’ personal lives with a dread of impending racial violence. There’s plenty of the literal kind, including police raids on a Kavalry staging area and a crackdown on a fenced-in trailer park called Nixonville. (There’s a giant statue of the disgraced president out front, both hands raised overhead in a “victory” symbol.) But Lindelof and company invest these and other seemingly straightforward scenes with touches that complicate an easy reading (or just muddle things up). The images of poor whites fenced in by armed police plays into Trump fantasies of the dominant demographic in the U.S. as an embattled minority, beset by deep-state forces and muzzled by political correctness. And for avatars of righteousness, the cops on this show are quite comfortable with torture, which the series portrays as a not merely defensible but effective means of extracting useful information.

While early episodes keep a tight focus on the race war happening on the ground in Tulsa (this is surely the only time that a lavishly budgeted TV fantasy has been set there), Watchmen slowly widens its view to incorporate other characters, some of whom are drawn from the original series. Adrian Veidt (Jeremy Irons), a.k.a. Ozymandias, long missing and officially declared dead, is secretly living in a remote château, where he rides horses, dines in the nude, and is attended to by young servants who double as actors in his plays. The great Jean Smart, fresh off FX’s psychedelic comic-book adaptation Legion, plays an older, more hard-bitten version of Silk Spectre, a crime fighter from the source work. The all-powerful Dr. Manhattan, who left Earth at the end of the original story, is briefly mentioned as living on Mars, and his non-presence here eventually becomes Kurtz-like: You feel his ominous energy even when nobody’s discussing him. Among the new characters, the standout is Angela’s boss, Chief Judd Crawford (Don Johnson), who wears a white hat and professes to have enjoyed an “all-black” local production of Oklahoma! (This is the most charming that Johnson has been since the original Miami Vice — although his casting in this part, as well as the character’s Oklahoma!-derived name, guarantees that the character’s no saint.)

Beyond the embellishments and reimaginings of the source material, the biggest hurdle this Watchmen will face is the way it tells its story. Although each chapter has the feel of a stand-alone, à la The Leftovers, it’s ultimately a highly serialized tale, though one that takes its sweet time easing you into its world and making you work to understand who’s who and what’s actually happening. It’s easy to imagine viewers who aren’t already invested in the very idea of a Watchmen sequel growing impatient with the show’s gradual doling out of exposition; this might turn out to be a case where it’s better to watch the entire thing later, in a single sitting, to see how it all comes together, and to eliminate the feeling that not enough is happening. Still, the sheer nerve of the thing is admirable, as is Lindelof’s determination to make a newish comic-book series that’s bound to be as divisive as the work that sparked his imagination as a teenager.

Correction: An earlier version of this review incorrectly spelled Seventh Kavalry with a “C.”

*A version of this article appears in the October 28, 2019, issue of New York Magazine. Subscribe Now!

Watchmen’s Superhero Dystopia Succeeds on Sheer Nerve