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Why watch these 'Watchmen'?

  • Damon Lindelof’s series, set in the present day, borrows its world from Alan Moore’s ‘Watchmen’ comics
  • This adaptation is occasionally exciting and visually impressive, but it has little to truly say

‘Watchmen’ borrows its world and context from Alan Moore’s classic comic.
‘Watchmen’ borrows its world and context from Alan Moore’s classic comic.

Comic books can be divided into periods before and after Alan Moore’s Watchmen. With his deconstruction of superhero myths, Moore spelunked down complex literary alleys, while the rarefied world of the novel finally opened up to sequential art. From 1986-87, DC Comics published this 12-issue masterwork, illustrated by Dave Gibbons and coloured by John Higgins, which continues to influence and inspire all writing about superheroes. Here, for instance, is where Pixar’s The Incredibles got that great gag about superhero capes being unsafe.

Moore does not own his Watchmen. DC never respected the creator’s rights over his works, which has resulted in adaptations of Moore books—V For Vendetta, The League Of Extraordinary Gentlemen and the 2009 Watchmen film—officially cursed by the bearded author and that, frankly, serve little purpose. Moore feels his comics are meant to be read a certain way, with a pace determined by the reader but dictated by the words and images, and watching a Moore comic on screen defeats the art and the intent. You are meant to pore longer over certain panels, to flip back to a paragraph from a fictitious memoir, to re-examine pages for clues. Having a Watchmen adaptation play out with groovy music and flashy editing feels…vulgar.

Damon Lindelof, creator of Lost and The Leftovers, never shy of ambition, takes on this uphill adaptation with the new HBO series Watchmen, available in India on Hotstar Premium, and launching on Star World on 1 December. With impressive visual flair and imaginative storytelling, Lindelof borrows the world and context from Moore’s Watchmen but yanks it into the present day, creating his own heroes and establishing his own narrative bearings. This is a tremendous show of craft, and it can be overwhelming.

Sometimes claustrophobically so. Be warned, this Watchmen is pompously pleased with itself.

The year is 2019, and there is no internet. There is also, I assume, no Sundance Film Festival, given that in this world, Robert Redford has been president of America for decades. Culture itself is pretty awful as The New York Times dubs a trashy superhero show “the most important television event of the new millenium." Vietnam lost the war, and is now an American state. The Cold War ended because a giant squid fell on New York and smothered millions—forcing the world to unite against a common foe. Oh, and policemen wear masks and keep their identities secret—for fear of being attacked by white supremacists, who also wear masks.

The details are elegant. An entire episode is built around a joke told into a payphone meant to reach a listener on another planet, and one’s DNA is reshaped into a little acorn you can plant to see your virtual family tree. Watchmen is nuts, and that’s the best part. This show is so incredibly, indulgently absurd that it’s a wonder it exists. The little touches are beautiful, underlined by a great score by Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross. One character in particular, Laurie Blake, played by the fantastic Jean Smart, deserves her own spin-off where she wryly exchanges one-liners with her big blue ex.

It is an intriguing, befuddling world, anchored by the steely and resolute Angela Abar (the reliably excellent Regina King), who is not only a cop but a masked vigilante called Sister Night. She has just lost a colleague to seemingly racial violence, but the truth is murkier than that. It must be remembered that Lindelof is a master of puzzle-box narratives, feeding his audience jigsaw pieces of information to keep them guessing, and his Watchmen feels, at times, like a thrilling and timely metaphor—energized by actors like Smart, and the marvellous Jeremy Irons having a ball. But as it reveals itself, it begins to look increasingly obvious. The narrative masks should have stayed on.

The symbolism is painfully heavy-handed. It appears fascinating until Lindelof’s characters spell it out, after which it all falls to pieces. Even the stirring idea of policemen forced to wear bright-yellow masks to protect their families is exposed merely as a smarmy politician’s relatively thoughtless gambit.

The series paints its heroes and villains literally in black and white, using racism as a marker of character—the racists are evil (and acknowledged as thus), while those being discriminated against are good and upright. This is fine for a period drama, which is why scenes of lynching set in 1921 feel authentically powerful, but it is a reductive approach unworthy of a Watchmen adaptation. The comic featured superheroes like Rorschach, who was compelling and charismatic yet a misogynistic homophobe, and Hooded Justice, a pioneering hero who was also a fascist. One of the comic’s motives was to make us question the very idea of trust, and rethink our desperate need for figureheads to place atop pedestals.

Over the last three decades, comic and film writers have frequently grappled with the themes and questions laid out by Moore and Gibbons. The idea of superheroes as self-serving narcissists is explored better in the Amazon Prime series The Boys, another comic-book adaptation. It is cheesier and far less artful than the HBO series, but drives at deeper, messier truths and features far greyer characters. Here, thematic complexity is replaced by overbearing style. Watchmen features phenomenal performances—Don Johnson, Hong Chau, Jovan Adepo, Louis Gossett Jr all shine—and the cinematography is superb, but smugness gets in the way of the storytelling.

The best visual reference to the comic has Smart’s character falling into bed, and bringing out a gigantic blue sex-toy—she’s missing her godly ex-boyfriend, Dr Manhattan, the most powerful being in all of comicdom, and so are we. It is possible for something to be both masterful and masturbatory, and here lies a show auto-erotically smitten with itself. This adaptation is occasionally exciting and often impressive, especially visually, but as it becomes clear how little it has to say, it feels ultimately unnecessary.

“A dead body and a live body have the same number of particles," as Dr Manhattan said in the comic, and Laurie Blake quotes on the show. Yet we must note the difference: Only one lives. The other is cold.

Stream of Stories is a column on what to watch online. Raja Sen is a film critic and the author of The Best Baker In The World (2017), a children’s adaptation of The Godfather.


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