Editor’s Note: Warner Bros Home Entertainment provided me with a free copy of the Blu-ray I reviewed in this entry. The opinions I share are my own.


99 years ago today, Tulsa Oklahoma was the site of one of America’s deadliest acts of concerted racial violence as mobs of white people and private aircraft attacked the residents and businesses of the Greenwood District (known as Black Wall Street because it was one of the most prosperous African American communities in the country at the time), destroying 35 square blocks, injuring over 800 black people, and killing somewhere around 300 more. In just over 12 hours, nearly 10,000 black people were left homeless and the property damage amounted to more than what would be over 32.25 million dollars today. You can read about it on Wikipedia, watch news about it on CNN, or read more interesting takes from Tulsa World or from writers like Michael Harriot.

It’s also where HBO’s Watchmen begins. We don’t know it at the time, but 1921 Tulsa is essentially the Krypton of the first costumed vigilante in this alternate history, Hooded Justice.

It’s a bold and controversial beginning to what was already a controversial project – at least in nerdville, where all the nerds live. Alan Moore and Dave Gibbon’s groundbreaking comic book limited series, Watchmen, was published in 1986-87 and has been in print ever since (robbing Moore and Gibbons of the rights, which were to revert to them if it ever went out of print). It, alongside Frank Miller’s Dark Knight Returns, and Howard Chaykin’s American Flagg!, changed the modern landscape of comics and we’re still dealing with the repercussions – good and bad – of the late Eighties. The rift between Moore and DC is why you won’t see his name on any Watchmen related tie-ins, at Moore’s insistence.

Watchmen is part of the bedrock of modern comics storytelling, and when news that Lost’s Damon Lindelof was going to be adapting it for HBO, there were rumblings of fear and displeasure. To be fair, though, while his movie scripting leaves something to be desired, Lindelof had also co-created The Leftovers for HBO, and that was some next-level shit. Plus, we’d already been pummeled into dazed submission by Zack Snyder’s 2009 movie adaptation, which proved to the world that Snyder was a brilliant visualist, but a garbage storyteller, if anyone were to ask me about it.

Go on, ask me about it.

There will be spoilers from this point on.

No really. Spoiler alert for a nearly 35 year old comic and a show that wrapped last year.

Okay, there’s still a bunch I don’t spoil, but it’s pretty indiscriminate. Be safe!

Watchmen, the TV series, serves not as an adaptation, but an extension of the original comic (wisely ignoring the film), following up on what happens 34 years later in a world of costumed vigilantes, a single god-like superbeing, and a giant, interdimensional squid that caused the deaths of millions in 1985 New York.

When Adrian Veidt, once known as the vigilante Ozymandias, created the fake alien attack on New York, he achieved his goal. The nations of the world came together against a common, if manufactured, threat and averted nuclear holocaust. He didn’t realize though, that Rorschach, another vigilante with a decidedly black and white, Randian moral absolutist approach, had sent his journal documenting Veidt’s plan to a fringe magazine, the New Frontiersman. Rorshach is killed by Dr. Manhattan, that god-like being I mentioned, who then leaves earth to live on the moon. And then Robert Redford is elected president and the country moves in a liberal direction after decades of life under Richard Nixon.

So HBO’s Watchmen has the almost impossible job of telling a new story in this world without losing the flavor of the original comic. And for the most part, it’s a success. But it’s a success only because it has mischaracterized a fundamental element of history, systemic racism, particularly with regards to the institution of the police. The fact that the Blu-ray is being released on the day after the 99th anniversary of the Black Wall Street massacre, and while violent protests against police violence toward the black community are being responded to with even more intense police violence, makes writing a review difficult.

The show basically takes the standard liberal assumption about racism; that it is an individual failing. Racist cops are just “bad apples” and most cops are good people doing a difficult job. White Supremacists stand outside the system and are aberrations. After decades of Liberal politics and social reforms, the world of Watchmen is no longer institutionally racist and is under siege by the fringe racist group The Seventh Cavalry (who have taken inspiration from Rorshach’s journal), and after a coordinated attack on around forty police officers in their Tulsa homes, Senator Joe Keene Jr. (James Wolk) – the son of the Senator Keene from the comics who passed the bill outlawing costumed vigilantes – passed a bill allowing the police to wear masks to protect their identities.

If you can get past the notion that the police force, which grew out of slave catching patrols and has always been the fist of state power against minorities and can literally kill you with near-impunity, then yeah. Okay. We’re good. Police are now all good and non-racist and get to wear masks too. And the racists live in trailer parks, except for the single main secret bad guy racist, who is – you guessed it, the Republican Senator Keene. And then all the racists get disintegrated by a billionaire who had been secretly funding them, before she gets killed by the good billionaire who murdered three million people in 1985 for everybody’s own good.  

If you can accept all of that, reading it as a liberal fantasy critique of racism and capitalism while ignoring the capitalist nightmare world around us and the fucking racist chaos on the news as I type this, then Watchmen is a lot of fun.

No, really. Despite the monumentally stupid parts, it’s a very tightly constructed and well-produced show. The music is exceptional and the performances are amazing. Regina King plays Tulsa police officer Angela Abar, who goes by the name Sister Night and dresses like a kick-ass nun. She’s a cop because when she was a child, her parents were killed by a suicide bomber in the American state of Vietnam, and then she identified the person who supplied the bomb and he was executed within earshot of her. This inspires her to become a cop who now gets to wear a mask and beat the shit out of people and torture them to get information. But she’s also our hero and the granddaughter of Hooded Justice.

Remember him? The first costumed vigilante, who escaped the Tulsa massacre as a child and became a cop in the forties in an attempt to reform the police’s systemic racism from the inside. That didn’t work and after he was nearly lynched by fellow police officers, he started wearing a hood and a noose and beating racists up.

Apparently, in this world, if you put on a mask you are suddenly a super bad ass and can beat up roomfuls of people.

But that was in the forties. There isn’t institutional racism any more. Robert Redford fixed it.

Jean Smart plays Laurie Blake, who in the comic was the second Silk Spectre who is now an FBI agent specializing in capturing costumed vigilantes. There’s no real exploration of how she got to this point, but she gets nearly all the good one-liners and masturbates with a gigantic Doctor Manhattan inspired vibrator.

They used to date.

Tim Blake Nelson is perfectly cast as police detective Wade Tillman, who wears a mirror mask and goes by the supercop name of Looking Glass. He can read micro-expressions to determine when someone in lying, which is definitely real, right? What? It’s a nonsense pseudo-science that gets people put in jail in real life?

Oh.

That’s kind of fucked up.

But in Watchmen, it’s actually cool and he is a great interrogator. The most interesting thing about Wade, though, is that he suffers with PTSD after surviving the 1985 attack on New York by Veidt (Jeremy Irons). Luckily, after discovering that the attack was faked, he gets to hit Veidt with a wrench when everything is said and done.

Now, I’m being pretty facetious with this review, I know. But that’s only because the show is kind of simple and stupid despite having some very interesting storytelling (Episode 6, “The Extraordinary Being” is exceptional!) and trying to do a good job of addressing racism and promoting African American history. Hell, the main character, an African American woman, becomes a god in the end. It’s got a good heart and good intentions, and dammit, while you’re watching it, you get caught up in it and can’t stop.

I loved this show a year ago. I watched it breathlessly every week and couldn’t believe how great it was. I’d have included it on my best of the year list if I had gotten off my ass and written it. Yeah, it’s problematic as hell in retrospect, but I still highly recommend watching it.

It’s better than watching the news right now.

The Extras

There are a LOT of extras with this package, and they’re all spread out over all three discs. Unfortunately the vast majority of them are very short promo spots that HBO ran, so there’s not a lot new there, despite many of them being interesting (just as you get invested, they’re over, though). There are two all-new short documentaries on the characters of Hooded Justice and Adrian Veidt and both are worth a look. The 2019 New York Comic Con panel is included and like all comic con panels, is a bunch of fluff that you may or may not enjoy.

Tim Blake Nelson takes us on a tour of Wade’s Squid Shelter – the fall-out shelter he practically lives in because of how traumatized he was after the 1985 giant interdimensional space squid attack. This one is actually very entertaining.

The featurette that really makes this package worth it though, is “Watchmen: Unmasked” and boy does it highlight a lot of the cognitive dissonance that Watchmen causes. There are a lot of good interviews, but the highlights are Supervising Producer Christal Henry and Executive Story Editor Cord Jefferson. They both are very aware of the irony of being black creators making a television show about masked hero cops fighting white supremacy in today’s world. I can’t help but think that if they had been in charge instead of Lindelof, Watchmen might have been a very different and much more substantive piece of work.


(Visited 43 times, 1 visits today)