How do you solve a problem like Watchmen? The graphic novel by Alan Moore and Dave Gibbons remains iconic, but it’s already been the subject of a questionable film adaptation that attempted to copy the panels and splash pages shot for shot, angle for angle, color for color, and yet failed to genuinely encapsulate what made the book so special.
Rather than attempt to re-adapt the seemingly unadaptable, Damon Lindelof has instead opted for something altogether different: a sequel series. This could’ve backfired, yet Lindelof and his team have done the impossible – they’ve captured the superhero deconstruction elements that stood out in Moore and Gibbons’ work while also expanding on their world-building. The end result is destined to be one of the year’s most compelling shows.
It’s been nearly 35 years since Adrian Veidt, also known as Ozymandius (and the World’s Smartest Man), dropped a gargantuan “alien” squid onto Manhattan, killing millions and bringing about world peace in the process. Welcome to 2019 – a 2019 different than our own, yet eerily familiar. Smartphones and the Internet are unheard of, Robert Redford has been President of the United States for the last 30 years, guns are on lockdown, and superheroes are outlawed. But that doesn’t mean the streets are free of masked crusaders.
In this world, it’s the law enforcement that dons masks and costumes. Uniformed patrol cops cover their faces in bright yellow masks while detectives adopt full-blown superhero-like personas. Three years ago, a white supremacist group known as The Seventh Cavalry – a group fond of wearing masks that emulate the long-dead vigilante Rorschach – staged a coordinated attack dubbed the White Night. The masked right-wing group descended upon 40 different police households in Tulsa, Oklahoma, with deadly results. The action leads to a full-blown resignation from almost all the surviving cops in Tulsa, and left a law enforcement vacuum.
The solution: Oklahoma Senator Keane (James Wolk) passed a law that enabled all cops to wear masks and hide their identities. Now it’s against the rules for anyone to even admit they’re a cop – they hide in the shadow and adopt secret identities. On the surface, this might make sense. But as one character in Watchmen says, “You know how you can tell the difference between a masked cop and a vigilante? Me, neither.” A masked cop living in secret might be safer, but they’re also freer to bend the law.
Watchmen unpacks all of this information gradually, and, most impressive of all, organically. There’s no sudden rush of exposition; no on-screen title cards to fill in the blanks. Instead, show creator and writer Damon Lindelof and his team have managed to overload Watchmen with intense world-building that comes naturally. This is no easy feat – just look at the dozens upon dozens of movies that attempt the same thing, with terrible results. Even if the narrative and the mysteries Watchmen has to offer up ended up disappointing, the world-building elements alone might be enough to knock the series into the stratosphere.
Thankfully, the plotting is just as intriguing. The Seventh Calvary has been dormant, and thought dead, for the last three years – but now they’re suddenly back, and they’re killing again. A murder of a high ranking police official catches the attention of Detective Angela Abar (Regina King), who has adopted the persona of Sister Night – an ass-kicker in a sleek nun-like outfit. Angela tells everyone around her that she’s retired from law enforcement to open a bakery, but it’s all a front. Whenever trouble arises, she stalks off to her Batcave-like bakery to slip into her costume.
The more Angela looks into her case, the more the world of Watchmen opens up, introducing us to its characters and its ever-growing world. There’s the oddball detective known a Looking Glass (Tim Blake Nelson), who wears a mirrored mask and has a knack for giving people the creeps. A strange 100-year-old man (Louis Gossett Jr.) in a wheelchair seems to be keeping plenty of secrets. A lordly upper-class figure (Jeremy Irons) stalks about a vast castle, aided by a pair of slave-like servants (Tom Mison and Sara Vickers). A trillionaire (Hong Chau) is in the midst of buying up land for a project. And former superhero Silk Specter, aka Laurie Blake (Jean Smart), who has become an FBI agent specializing in catching masked vigilantes. If that seems like a lot to take in, just wait until you see the show itself – we’re only scratching the surface here.
A series so packed with colorful characters and an extensive fictional universe might strike one as overwhelming, but Watchmen remains surprisingly breezy. The pacing of the series is impeccable, never rushing or cramming the details in, with the on-screen events bolstered by a moody, thumping, haunting score courtesy of Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross.
King is the anchor of the series, and she brings a raw, ferocious energy to the part – when she breaks down in rage at one point, we can feel the pain echoing in her hoarse cries. But the character is also playful to an extent, and it’s a treat to watch King’s character unpacking an unfolding, confusing mystery. The cast around King is equally stellar, with Don Johnson stealing many of his scenes as Angela’s Chief and Smart bringing a wonderfully droll, sarcastic sense of humor to her been there-done that character.
Watchmen deals with weighty issues – police brutality and racism being at the forefront. But like the other elements of the series, the script attacks these issues in organic ways. There’s no preachy messaging here, and indeed, the storyline makes for complex viewing. Angela and her fellow cops are going up against white supremacists – characters we’re in no way meant to sympathize with. Yet at the same time, the notion of law enforcement hiding their identities is a terrifying one, rife with corrupt possibilities. There are no easy answers here, just difficult questions that burn their way into your brain. The biggest question is one that harkens back to the original graphic novel, and rings out truer than ever these days: “Who watches the watchmen?”
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