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Watchmen is often considered one of the best comics of all-time. The searing satire of superhero stories and Reagan-era politics signified a cultural shift in how the world perceived sequential storytelling and the way that the comic book industry viewed itself.
There’s no questioning the importance of the book and the impact it’s had, but more than 30 years later it’s easy to spot some of the more problematic tropes on which it relies. As HBO embarks on its highly anticipated adaptation/reimagining of the comic — set decades after the original story ended — it will be interesting to see just how the cabler handles the complex legacy of Watchmen while also possibly elevating it.
Alan Moore, Dave Gibbons and John Higgins’ 12-issue series is nothing short of seminal and has, over the years, gained another mantle: unfilmable. This came partially from the writer himself, who has often spoken critically about adapting the comic. “There is something about the quality of comics that makes things possible that you couldn’t do in any other medium. Things that we did in Watchmen on paper could be frankly horrible or sensationalist or unpleasant if you were to interpret them literally through the medium of cinema,” Moore said in a 2009 interview that touched on Zack Snyder’s film.
The “things” that Moore references include murder, rape and the execution of a pregnant woman by one of the story’s “heroes.” In this way, Watchmen falls into the “women in refrigerators” trope. Coined by Gail Simone in 1999, it recognizes a trend in which women in comics are sexually assaulted, killed, tortured or depowered often to further the narrative arc of male characters. Due to the lauded nature of the graphic novel, when Snyder adapted it he chose to stick to almost every beat of the comic, including the misogynistic violence against women.
HBO appears to be challenging the idea that Watchmen is an untouchable text by setting its story decades later and casting Regina King as its lead. The comic arguably features no lead female characters and definitely no black women. In an open letter to fans that was shared when the show was announced, showrunner Damon Lindelof highlighted the diversity of his writers room and why “understanding the potential” of Watchmen through the eyes of an inclusive audience was key.
King’s casting and the move away from the canonized narrative hint that HBO’s interpretation of the story could turn a critical eye back on the pioneering work that inspired it. So, what can viewers expect? Lindelof himself has established that the status quo begins the same: “The Comedian died. Dan and Laurie fell in love. Ozymandias saved the world and Dr. Manhattan left it just after blowing Rorschach to pieces in the bitter cold of Antarctica.” This is confirmed in an enigmatic clip in which viewers see Jeremy Irons as Ozymandias standing in front of a banner that references the date and the place of Dr. Manhattan’s creation.
In 2017 Lindelof stated, “We should not trust people who put on masks and say that they are looking out for us. If you hide your face, you are up to no good.” First-look footage has revealed glimpses of police in yellow masks, which, alongside the more inclusive cast and contemporary setting, could be a clue that the show will tackle authoritarian or even police violence. After all, Watchmen is at its core about the abuse of power and how it allows people to exploit systems that were set up to protect. There’s a chance that this world directly inverts the original setup of Watchmen, where superheroes were outlawed, and instead presents one where the governing bodies have chosen to give masked vigilantes far-reaching power after the “success” of Ozymandias’ nefarious plot to save the world.
One teaser shows someone wearing Rorschach’s mask. Could he have become a martyr after his death? That could be an interesting meta-text examining the idolatry of a character who was created to be an example of all that was dangerous about the vigilante mentality but was interpreted by audiences as a hero. Another glimpse focuses on the face of an older woman in a car. Could Laurie Jupiter return as an elder with a more critical view of the past, coming to warn the new generation of the horrors that were wrought by the heroes of old?
The concept of placing Watchmen in a different era and using it as a tool to dismantle and comment on the political landscape of the time — just like the original did with Cold War-era America — seems like the most intelligent and respectful way to adapt the property. And in 2019, there’s never been a better time to use the often analogous world of superheroes as a way to excavate the darkest parts of society.
A premiere date for Watchmen has not been determined.
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