Before becoming a movie that was released into cinemas in 2009, Watchmen spent many years in that area of Hollywood known famously as development hell, with many writers and directors attempting to bring Alan Moore and Dave Gibbons twelve-part comic book series to the screen. While Zack Snyder was the one who finally brought the iconic series to the silver screen, various attempts by Paul Greengrass and Terry Gilliam very nearly happened, with the latter opining after the failure of his project to go before cameras that the book might be better served by being a television series.
Ten years after the premiere of Zack Snyder’s adaptation, a film that invokes mixed feelings that range from the highly critical to acclaim, Watchmen has now actually made it to television, courtesy of HBO which is perhaps the perfect home for such a project.
The last few years have seen the cable company devote their resources to financing and producing works based on the likes of George RR Martin’s A Song of Ice and Fire series, not to mention The Leftovers, the latter of which was brought to the screen courtesy of Lost co-creator Damon Lindelof who has developed this iteration of Watchmen, and make no mistake; this is very much an iteration.
There has been a comic book sequel to Watchmen before, and now Lindelof brings to the screen a live action sequel, not to Snyder’s film mind you, but the comic itself.
While Snyder pretty much took whole panels of the page and put them on to screen, it did deviate from the source, most famously in its ending, but Lindelof has constructed a sequel that very much is dealing with the world as it is now and filters it through the prism of the Watchmen universe, in much the same way that Moore himself did when he used the comic book form and his story to comment on Cold War tensions and conservative politics.
In going forward with a sequel, Lindelof has set his sights on American law enforcement, racial tensions and white supremacy as the centrepiece of his story, with the character of Rorschach now having inspired an incel movement named The Seventh Kalvary, and police officers now wearing yellow face masks to disguise their identities, alongside comic book style vigilantes who now work for the police.
It’s a fantastic set up for a series and one that will no doubt invoke the ire of a certain subsection of fans and loyalists to the original book and Snyder’s film. The series opens with a visceral recreation of the Tulsa Race Riot, a brilliantly staged moment that sets out the stall and uncompromising feeling of the series, but which is also incredibly uncomfortable when one learns that it’s a moment ripped from the pages of history.
Race plays a massive part in the series, not least in the catalyst moment that introduces us to this alternative 2019 that Watchmen is setting itself within; an African-American police officer pulls over a white man, who is then revealed to be a member of the Seventh Kalvalry and ends up being shot anyway by the white man when his gun, which he needs permission to unholster, is jammed.
It’s an incredibly disturbing moment, but it feeds into what it is that made the original Watchmen so good and what makes this one of the best opening episodes to a television series in recent years.
The character of Rorschach is incredibly popular,his morphing face mask and dark soliloquys on humanity being some of the most famous ever written for a comic book, helped even more by the superb portrayal of the character in Snyder’s film by Jackie Earle Haley, but this is a character who is undeniably fascist in his actions and would be deemed an incel in today’s climate and that is exactly the approach that Lindelof has taken here.
Some fans may mock and declare the television series to be nothing more than a SJW take on the material and even declare that Lindelof shouldn’t be bringing politics into the story and yet Watchmen has always been uncompromising in being political. Sure, Snyder made the action look cool with that slow motion into full speed thing that he does, and the story has always offered a stereotypical portrayal of Nixon, but it was always designed to be a comment on the world at the time and if you’re going to do the series in today’s climate then this is the right course to take.
It’s easy to mock Lindelof because of what many perceive as the slight that was the Lost finale (which really isn’t as bad as its reputation suggests) but he delivered some of the finest genre television of its era with many of Lost’s best episodes, and The Leftovers is regarded as a critically acclaimed masterpiece and the underrated gem amongst HBO’s recent output, particularly when compared to the behemoth of Game of Thrones, and yet his work here is epic in scope, brilliantly confident and complimented wonderfully by Nicole Kassell’s superb direction and the magnificent, provocative score courtesy of David Fincher regulars Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross.
In front of the camera, the biggest draw here, based on this first episode, is without a doubt Regina Hill as Sister Knight. Without a doubt one of the best actresses working today, here she brings a wealth of charm as a parent when we first meet her, but upon putting on what is a very cool costume and taking out a field full of Kalvalry members and getting into intense fight scenes, she completely owns every scene she is in here, either being as a superhero, a mother or a wife. It’s a brilliant continuation of Watchmen’s core themes of what it means to be a mere mortal playing dress up and fighting bad guys, but it also marks a wonderful acknowledgment in this day and age that Moore’s Watchmen was a very masculine tale of white men dealing with rage and impotent issues. Yes, there was Silk Spectre but there were times when it feels like she was nothing more than an object of affection for either Nite Owl or Dr Manhattan, and then there was also some of the sexual politics and sexual violence that was at the heart of some of Moore’s twists in the original book that might prove to be a little distasteful today.
In putting a woman of colour front and centre in this manner, Lindelof and Hall’s performance are truly bringing the story right up to date, although since she is female this will no doubt draw even more anger from traditionalist fans who hate anything new or different being done with their favourite properties.
The only member of the original comic to appear in this episode, at least fully on camera and not via an easter egg, is Ozymandias, and in an inspired piece of casting is played by Jeremy Irons, who would have been perfect Adrian Veidt if they had ever made any of the attempted film projects in the late 80’s or early 90’s. Even better, there is also the witty sight of seeing Irons playing a super-rich superhero, complete with posh butler having just come off playing Alfred in Snyder’s DC Cinematic Universe movies. His screen time is brief, but it plays with a sense of mystery and foreshadowing in a manner that somewhat reminds one of Lost and how it would introduce elements, but we’d have to wait a while to understand what it all means.
It’s the icing on the cake, and there is a literal cake at one point, of what may very well prove to be the most adult, provocative and uncompromising take on a comic book put to television.
Yes, we’ve had darker, violent superheroes with Netflix’s Marvel shows, as well as the adaptations of Garth Ennis works such as Preacher and The Boys, but this is on a whole other level. Sometimes great first episodes can lead to somewhat mediocre shows, and vice-versa of course, but already it looks like we might be in for something special, relevant and amazing. It delivers one hell of a shock in its final moments, that reminds one a little of the original plan for the ‘Pilot’ of Lost, and once the end credits roll, it leaves you with the wonderful feeling of not being able to wait for the next episode.