How HBO's Watchmen Embraces Alan Moore's Original Vision While Forging Its Own Path

Love it or hate it, one cannot deny the cultural impact of Alan Moore's 1986 comic series Watchmen. It served as both a subversive deconstruction of the iconic superhero mythos and as a scathing critique of the neo-conservative Margaret Thatcher and Ronald Reagan era. Watchmen asks the question "What would happen if individuals were given unlimited power without checks-and balances?"

Who watches the Watchmen?

Damon Lindelof's new series, which takes place 34 years after the events of the comic book, takes the themes explored by Moore and propels them to their logical conclusion while simultaneously updating them for modern sensibilities. Since the giant squid incident has lessened the danger of nuclear annihilation, other problems have cropped up, mainly a new white supremacist group known as Seventh Kavalry who use Rorschach's mask and ideology as inspiration for their terrorist attacks. The police force wear masks to protect their identity because they are targeted by the Kavalry for assassinations. In this way the police have become the new stand-in for masked superheroes and they work in tangent with other vigilantes. In our modern world, the police are idolized by many as our protectors, but time and time again it has been shown that some of them use their power to subjugate those who are weaker than them (predominately black males) so it's no wonder they are the replacement for the Minutemen.

The ruminations on class from the comic have been replaced with race relations in the show, with the entire narrative swirling around the bloody Black Wall Street Massacre that occurred in Tulsa Oklahoma in 1921. There is an overarching theme of racial memory and the idea that history repeats itself. The story follows Angela Abar (Regina King), a black police officer who moonlights as a costumed hero named Sister Night. While she feels called to her work in law enforcement, something sinister lurks under the surface and as the story progresses the truth comes to light.

Lindelof's Watchmen takes great pains to pay respect to the original source material, but it never feels like cheap nostalgia. It expertly weaves in characters and concepts from the comic into the narrative while expounding on the original ideas. There are three incredible and ballsy decisions made with this show that cement the fact that they truly understood what Alan Moore was trying to convey.

In episode 6, This Extraordinary Being, Angela takes a drug called Nostalgia, which is her grandfather's memories in pill form. She slips into a coma and has a lucid dream where she is reliving her grandfather's memories from his days as a cop in 1930s New York City. This pivotal episode perfectly encapsulates the way Watchmen integrates the old with the new, as it's filmed in a mixture of black-and-white and color, effortlessly combining past and present elements together to form a cohesive whole. Angela and her grandfather are shown as two sides of the same coin, mirroring each others path in life and fighting the same racial injustice even though they are many decades removed. The reveal of the episode is that her grandfather was in fact, Hooded Justice, and he had to pretend he was white on top of also wearing a mask to fight crime. This retcon is one of the most compelling aspects of the show, and it brings to the forefront the type of whitewashing that was rampant in the Silver and Golden age of comics.

A God Walks Into Abar, episode 8, finally brings Doctor Manhattan into the show, but not in the form everyone is used to. He has fallen in love with Angela and it depicts their courting and subsequent marriage. He decides, with the help of Ozymandius, to live as a human man and implant a device in his brain that will make him forget that he is a god. Manhattan asks Angela to find him a recently deceased man with no family ties that he can use as an identity. She takes him to a morgue and shows off several white men and Manhattan tells her "Why not show me the one you really want?" Reluctantly she pulls out the body of a black man. She thought perhaps Doctor Manhattan wouldn't want to experience life as a black man? Would it be harder for him to fit in? Would his life be difficult? I'm sure many things ran through her mind, but Manhattan accepts and becomes Calvin (Yahya Abdul-Mateen II), her eventual husband. And so, the most powerful being in the universe is now a black man.

In the final episode of the show, See How they Fly, many plot threads are tied up and unfortunately Doctor Manhattan is destroyed. However, earlier in the show he casually mentions that he is able to imbue organic matter with his powers, and demonstrates this with an egg, a symbol of potential life and new beginnings, while talking to Angela when they first meet. After the tumultuous events of the episode, Angela is back at home and she finds a single unbroken egg on the floor of her kitchen (she had smashed a carton of them in anger while talking to Doctor Manhattan earlier). Could he have put his power into that egg for her? She takes the egg outside, cracks it into her mouth, and tries to test its effects by stepping into her pool to see if she can walk on water. Although the scene cuts out The Lady, or the Tiger style before the audience can see if it worked, I would like to think it did. And so, the most powerful being in the universe is now a black woman. Even if the systemic racism hasn't been completely defeated, the power has been given to the marginalized.

--Michelle Kisner