When HBO first announced that they were making a television adaptation of the seminal graphic novel “Watchmen,” I was understandably concerned.
Alan Moore and Dave Gibbons’ masterpiece is considered one of the best graphic novels of all time and almost any attempt to add to it, whether it be in the form of a prequel comic series or a Hollywood movie, has ended disastrously, often because of a lack of understanding about what made the original “Watchmen” so special.
For those not familiar, “Watchmen” was released between 1986 and 1987 as 12 original issues showcasing a world in which superheroes existed in real life, with all the character flaws of real people, in a world as unforgiving as our own.
Characters like Rorschach and Doctor Manhattan might use the tropes of Batman and Superman, respectively, but they are far from the perfect heroes that can do no wrong we are used to, and instead are flawed, broken people who often make the wrong decisions in their quests for justice.
Using this setting, Moore relayed the dangers of nuclear brinkmanship, the fallacies of objectivism and the value of human life.
So, when a 2009 feature film directed by Zack Snyder transfigured the work into an action film that was too busy reveling in its own gory violence to actually understand who the protagonist of Watchmen is (spoiler alert, despite what the film may say, it’s not Rorschach), it seemed to most that maybe the original graphic novel just could not be adapted or commented on in any meaningful way.
In general, adaptations of classics don’t go well, which made the success of “It’s Summer and We’re Running Out of Ice,” the pilot episode of the 2019 HBO series “Watchmen” even more surprising.
Written and showrun by Damon Lindelof, the co-creator of “Lost” and “The Leftovers,” the series “Watchmen” is not an adaptation of the original graphic novel, but instead a sequel, set in 2019, more than 30 years after the original’s ending.
Notably, most of the major characters from the original are absent in this pilot, with only cursory mentions of Doctor Manhattan and Ozymandias. However, this show is still unmistakably “Watchmen,” and still commenting on a reality where real vigilantes existed and were widespread.
This show cleverly reframes the entire notion of masked vigilantes by rooting the concept in American history. In reality, the true vigilantes of the past were not pulp heroes like the ones the characters in the original “Watchmen” were trying to emulate.
Instead, as the HBO series depicts, people wearing masks and taking the law into their own hands throughout American history have typically been members of white supremacist organizations like the Ku Klux Klan.
By reevaluating the entire superhero concept into a conversation about race, the pilot touches on taboo issues such as the case for reparations and the long history of racial violence that has plagued our national conscience.
The pilot opens with the oft-forgotten 1921 Tulsa Race Massacre when mobs of masked white men attacked the black community of Tulsa, Oklahoma, firebombing stores and shooting residents for their success.
Then, it cuts to 2019 Tulsa, where a present very different than reality is detailed. Mobs of masked racist vigilantes still exist, and are now wearing the Rorschach mask following the character’s actions at the end of the original graphic novel.
Police officers are also forced to wear masks to protect their identities and use their own vigilantes, like Sister Night, an undercover detective played by Regina King.
It is also a world where reparations for African-Americans have been implemented, with racial tensions further strained as a result, Vietnam became the 51st U.S. state after Doctor Manhattan intervened in the Vietnam War.
However, much of the details of this jarring world are purposely left a mystery, leaving an intriguing puzzle box waiting to be figured out.
You should read the original Watchmen before watching this series, as not much is explained about the minutiae of the world, at least in this first episode.
The only thing left is waiting to see if the mystery can be unraveled in a satisfying way in future episodes. If “Watchmen” can continue to touch on important issues as masterfully, this might be a worthy companion and commentary to the original.