A Review of HBO's "Watchmen"

Updated on January 29, 2020
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Filipe is a Msc in Management graduate living in Lisbon, Portugal. Despite that, he usually prefers to write about his more geeky interests.

Introduction

I have been a fan of Watchmen for several years, having been introduced to the story through the 2009 movie by Zack Snyder and after that by several Youtube videos on the topics and themes of the story, as well as on the differences between the book and film. However, only recently did I actually receive and read the original graphic novel by Alan Moore and Dave Gibbons. Published initially in 1986 and released in 12 separate issues, the original Watchmen is a well known and respected piece of comic book literature, being among Time Magazine's Top 100 novels in the English language since 1923. It's considered by some to be the best comic book ever created.

My experience with the graphic novel doesn't refute any of those claims. Even though I don't have any experience reading comic books, I had an amazing experience reading Watchmen and was completely enveloped in its themes, its structure, its artwork and its characters. Despite the fact that I knew the ending all too well, it was still very difficult to put the book down as I desperatly wanted to find out more and the novel's pacing beckons you to keep going. I agree that it is a masterful piece of comic book literature, that leverages the unique aspects of the genre to its fullest advantage in order to convey its story with maximum impact.

I think this poster looks really good
I think this poster looks really good

Overall Impressions

In spite of this, I don't consider myself a purist in regards to the adaptations of Watchmen. Especially because I was introduced to the story through one adaptation and only recently was truly exposed to the source material. Therefore, I was open to the prospect of a sequel, of sorts, from HBO in a 9 episode series set in the present day. I knew that it would certainly not live up to the name of the original, but if it was done by people that respected the material and wanted to not only pay homage to it, but also build on its ideas, it would be a dignified addition to the mythos and definitely a show worth a fan's time. And to sum up this review, I have to say that I think it's exactly what HBO's Watchmen is.

That's right, if you expect me to bash this show into tiny little pieces, this is probably not the review for you. While I do recognize the show's faults, I also believe the creators and crew show knowledge and understanding of the themes in the original story, and attempt, to the best of their ability, to add to them, quite successfully in some areas, always adhering to what I believe is one of the central ideas of Watchmen, and that idea is: the integration of the concept of the masked vigilante, or superhero, into the social and psychological constructs and issues of the modern real world.

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Plot Overview

The show centers around the city of Tulsa, Oklahoma, in 2019, and the world looks quite different from our own. The most relevant aspects being that the world still believes in Adrian Veidt's plot, with Veidt himself still orchestrating random Squid-Falls across the world to maintain his illusion of a pending possible alien invasion. In addition Robert Redford is president of the United States and the country has taken a sharp turn towads liberal ideals and politics.

In Tulsa, a terrorist organization promoting hard-right, racist ideals called the Seventh Cavalry is on the rise. The group wears Rorschach masks emulating the past deceased vigilante and are hostile against the town's police, particularly African-American officers. As a result of this, the police now wear masks as well to conceal their identity and prevent against reprisals. The series' protagonist, Angela, is a part of that police force, and dons a full vigilante outfit, calling herself Sister Night. Throughout the course of the show, Angela endeavours to uncover a conspiracy surrounding the Seventh Cavalry, her own chief among the police force, her grandfather Will, a mysterious trillionaire that has an obscure plan centered on her town, and her own origins in how they relate with the 1921 Tulsa race riots.

Social Themes

From now on I'll be covering SPOILERS as it would be too cumbersome and pointless to summarise the rest of the season. On top of that, I genuinely believe that is very hard to discuss this show past what I already said without getting into spoilers, so be warned.

One of the main criticisms that people bring up against the show is that the show tackles issues that are in many ways unrelated with the themes explored in the original story. An expression used among the harshest critics is that the show is "too woke". However, I have to disagree. The show does tackle different subject matters from the 1986 comic, true, but it is due to the fact that the social, political and psychological realities of 1986 are very different than those that we are living in now. Ultimately, it becomes less relevant to talk about the role of superheroes as metaphors for global superpowers exercising their will upon the world with little to no authority. Not that these things are no longer relevant today, but I believe the universe of Watchmen is one that can explore the theme of superheroes and superpowers in the context of any social issues, and the theme of racial and cultural differences, and the role of legacy in shaping every person and their world views is perfectly relevant and fitting for exploration, I believe.

Legacy

Legacy in particular is probably the best word to describe the central themes of HBO's Watchmen. Angela comes face to face with the legacy of not only Judd Crawford, Tulsa's chief of police, but also her own, as her grandfather reveals himself to be Hooded Justice, the first masked vigilante who was in fact an African-American survivor of the Tulsa riots, who struggled against the discriminatory reality of the 1940s as a police officer. Adrian Veidt deals with a lack of a legacy for himself, as no one knows he was the one who prevented nuclear war, and now finds himself bored, without challenge or recognition.

Laurie, the Silk Spectre, seems to have embraced the legacy of her father, the Comedian, having become an FBI agent completely disillusioned with the concept of masked vigilantes, openly treating everyone and everything as a joke and mocking the Tulsa police officers who dress up as vigilantes. The Seventh Cavalry draws from the legacy of Rorschach and Senator Keene, two characters who oddly were in direct ideological conflict in the original story. It should be pointed out though, that Rorschach's legacy is adopted by the Sevent Cavalry in regards to his conservative ideals, not his thoughts on vigilantism or Veidt's plot.

Jeremy Irons is truly great in this role
Jeremy Irons is truly great in this role

Best and Worst

The role of legacy in shaping the lives and ambitions of each of these characters is decently tackled, some better than others. Adrian Veidt's is probably my favourite, in that the exploration of his psyche on Europa and the motivations that led him there are so engaging to see develop that I was invested in his story more than any other. And the revelation that Lady Trieu is his daughter was actually surprising and satisfying. The theme of legacy comes full circle in Veidt's case as the legacy of his actions extends to those of his daughter's, who likewise seeks to save the world. However, how Veidt and the characters deal with Lady Trieu's plan is potentially less captivating, which I'll get to.

The Seventh Cavalry's story however, is probably the one that ends up being the least interesting. And the sad thing is that it doesn't start out that way. The Seventh Cavalry takes center stage during the first few episodes and actually seems like a really interesting take on the legacy of Rorschach and certain aspects of his opinions on the world as expressed through his journal. However, by the end the inclusion of the Keenes and their ultimate motivation being to abolish the liberal regime and use Dr. Manhattan's powers to make life easier for white men feels uninspired and simplistic. Not that there aren't people who think like the Keenes, as I know there are, in sizeable numbers, but the villainous nature of their characters and motivations is perhaps a little too on the nose, to the point where it loses nuance.

Shortcomings

And ultimately, that's where I think the cracks in HBO's Watchmen start to show. Like the original, the show's story presents several outlooks on the world, shaped by the legacy of cultural and racial confrontations and differences through time, but unlike the original, the finale makes up its mind regarding the moral validity of each of these outlooks, which is actually where I think the show deviates the most from the structure and message of the comic book.

Lady Trieu is simply declared by Veidt and everyone else as someone who will not use Dr. Manhattan's abilities in a way that benefits humanity. They just label her as power-hungry, even though the audience knows very little about what Lady Trieu intends to do with that power once she's harnessed it. She and Will both make the statement that Dr. Manhattan didn't do enough with his abilities, but we're never told what was it that made Trieu's plan so devious that it required preventing.

Laurie is probably the best character transitioned from the original to this show
Laurie is probably the best character transitioned from the original to this show

Likewise, the other side of the spectrum is, as I've explained, reduced to a mere extreme plot from the Keenes to lash out at a world order they don't agree with and that, in their eyes, opresses them as white citizens. Angela, Will, Dr. Manhattan, Laurie, and Looking Glass (a great new character) are caught in the middle and it is their middle-ground, almost neutral approach that ultimately prevails, or rather, isn't destroyed. Ultimately, the show is much more adamant than the comic in which positions are declared morally wrong, and which are not, and I think that's a mistake, as it goes against the clear idea of Watchmen of leaving conclusions up to the reader.

This is driven home by the fact that Laurie and Looking Glass arrest Adrian at the end and presumably reveal the truth of his plot to the world, and the scene is played in a very righteous way, suggesting that Rorschach was in the right all along and the correct way is to adhere to justice and trust in humanity's nature to not destroy ourselves, which while optimistic, is still an absolute point of view, and not an ambiguous one.

Ending and Conclusions

Finally, I also believe the show's ending scene goes again a little too far on how it doesn't leave things up to the audience. The original comic book gave the power of choice to Seymour and by extension, the readers to decide what was the right thing to do. The closing line "I leave it entirely in your hands" is even echoed throughout this show. However the closing moment of this show is Angela knowingly deciding to eat the egg that may contain Manhattan's powers and the hanging question is whether she gained the powers or not. In my opinion, the key moment there and where I think the show should have ended is on her choice of whether to eat the egg or not. We can see that she totally intended on obtaining the powers and it removes the ambiguity on whether or not she should. That is the power decision that I believe should have been left in the hands of the audience and wasn't.

I would just like to end by adding that on top of my opinions regarding the overarching story of the series, I do believe each episode is very well shot, acted and paced. Everytime an episode ended I immediately wanted to watch the next one. The show takes its time and is intriguing throughout. There are episodes that are so great on their own that they could function as really good short films. Emphasis on episodes 5, 6 and 8, which are my personal favourite.

Also, returning characters from the original book, namely Laurie, Adrian and Dr. Manhattan are very faithfully brought to life and all have very interesting developments and great singular moments, Adrian in particular.

So those are my thoughts on HBO's Watchmen. What did you think of the series? Have you read the original comic book and how do you think it compares? Share your thoughts down below and as always, thank you for reading.

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