Who Watches The Watchmen? – Part One: Episodes 1-3
By Chris M. Barkley:
WATCHMEN by Alan Moore and Dave Gibbons, 12 Issues, September 1986 –
October 1987, omnibus edition DC Comics/Warner Books, 1987.
“This city is afraid of me…I have seen its true face”
It is widely regarded that Jack Katz’s The First Kingdom
(1974) and the late Will Eisner’s A Contract With God and Other Tenement
Stories (1978) should be credited as being among the first great, modern
Watchmen, by writer Alan Moore and artist Dave Gibbons is, without a
doubt, acknowledged as the first masterpiece of this literary form.
This psychological and sociological deconstruction of the
nature and mythology of superheroes has been a towering inspiration to nearly
everyone who has aspired to work in the comics industry since its publication
in the mid-1980’s.
I had the privilege of reading Watchmen in its
original twelve issue run when it was first published. I vividly remember being
very excited about reading this series. And I, as a jaded 30-year-old-reader,
had not been taken by surprise by a graphic novel or comic book since I was
nine years old and encountering the Fantastic Four and the Justice
League for the first time.
I was mesmerized as Ozymandias’ (Adrian Veidt) diabolical
plan to unite the world by making it fearful of a faked alien invasion played
out; the murder of a remorseful ex-hero Eddie Blake (The Comedian), the
relentless and brutal investigation of his and other murders by Rorshach
(Walter Joseph Kovacs), Doctor Manhattan’s (Jon Osterman) growing alienation
from humankind and the personal struggles of Sally Jupiter (Silk Spectre) and
Nite-Owl (Dan Dreiberg) and the eventual destruction of a good portion of New
York City and a massive death toll., .
And the plan worked. Or did it?
A nuclear war between the Soviet Union and the United States
was averted, and the surviving heroes, with the exception of Rorshach, agreed
to keep silent. Doctor Manhattan kills Rorshach to ensure his silence. But
knowing he might not be able to speak out, he cleverly planted a diary
outlining most of plot with a tabloid newspaper. We, the readers, were left
with an ironic, ticking time bomb waiting to go off…
Moore and Gibbon’s original contract with DC Comics
stipulated that if Watchmen went out of print, the publishing rights and
characters would revert back to them to do with them as they wished. But, not
only a critical success but a big moneymaker for DC. Moore, citing this and
other contractual disputes with DC, is totally estranged from the publisher and
has repeatedly refused to have anything to do with Watchmen. And I don’t
blame him a bit. If we were all moral and ethical people, we would boycott
anything and everything Watchmen-related.
Unfortunately, we are not very moral or ethical people. Are
WATCHMEN (Director’s Cut: 3 Hours 2 minutes, 4/4 stars,
2009) with Malin Åkerman, Billy Crudup,Matthew Goode,Carla Gugino,Jackie
Earle Haley, Jeffrey Dean Morgan and Patrick Wilson. Screenplay by David Hayter
and Alex Tse, based on Watchmen by Alan Moore and Dave Gibbons, Directed by
“People’s lives take them strange places. They do strange things, and sometimes they can’t talk about them… I know how that is.”.
Laurie Jupiter/Silk Spectre II
The film rights to Watchmen were immediately snatched
up by renowned producers Lawrence Gordon and Joel Silver. They were the first
of many who tried, and failed, to make a movie out of Watchmen. Several
writers and directors were employed to give it a go, among them Terry Gilliam
of Monty Python fame, who exclaimed at one point it would be better as a
mini-series and at another said the graphic novel was “unfilmable”.
In 2005, Gordon and a new partner, Lloyd Levin, tapped
director Zach Synder, who had just completed the special effects historical
epic, 300, to try to bring it all together. Synder and new screenwriter
Alex Tse used elements of an earlier script by David Hayer, restored the Cold
War setting of 1985 and an element involving Doctor Manhattan working on an
energy conversion project backed by Adrian Veidt.
I saw the film when it premiered a decade ago but hadn’t seen
it since then. I remember being impressed with it and thought was a very good
adaptation. Looking back, I gave it three out of four stars (on the Leonard
Maltin rating scale) because as good as it was, I found the underlying themes
of the source material somewhat muted.
To re-acquaint myself with the film, I purchased a copy of
Zach Synder’s director’s cut (which has 24 minutes of additional footage) and
found it that it was a more satisfying experience. Sure, it features extended
action scenes but it also gives more nuance and character motivation to Laurie
Jupiter (Malin Ackerman), her mother, Sally (Carla Gugino) and Nite-Owl (Partick
Wilson). Their character arcs actually heighten the performance of Jackie Earle
Haley’s Rorshach, whose contrasting performance as the hard ass, uncompromising
vigilante burns even brighter. In a fairer world would he have been nominated
for an Oscar and aced the winner Christoph Waltz (for Inglorious Basterds)
for the award.
Synder and screenwriter Alex Tse received a lot of criticism
for changing a vital element of the original story; the conspiracy behind
faking the alien invasion. Instead, a subplot involving Doctor Manhattan and
Adrian Veidt developing a new source of energy derived from his superpowers and
Veidt framing him for a far more heinous crime, the utter destruction of
several major global cities. While I thought this was a brilliant way to set
the film apart visually from the graphic novel, other critics harped that it
was either still too faithful version or or disagreed with the choices
storywise. As for me, I think that; filmmakers have a better chance of
producing more interesting and innovative art when they bring their
perspectives and ideas to an adaptation than being a slave to the original
(To get an author’s first-hand perspective on how they viewed
an adaptation of their own work, interested readers may want to hunt down David
Mitchell’s essay on how his 2004 novel, Cloud Atlas, was handled by its
three directors. It was originally published in the 2012 movie tie-in edition
and, as of this post, is not available online.)
Watchmen was not the huge financial success Warner Brothers and DC
Comics had hoped for at the box office, earning $185 million worldwide against
an estimated budget of $138 million. Sales of various home video editions have
been moderately good. In bookstores and online, the graphic novel spiked in
advance of the film and did so again this past year upon the announcement from
HBO that a limited series was in the works.
Despite the failure of the film, DC embarked on a series of
prequel stories called Before Watchmen in 2012, featuring individual
characters from the novel.
Naturally, Alan Moore was very unhappy with these developments,
stating in a 2012 interview on the Seraphemera (Books & Music)
“All the nasty comments that I was making when I was angry–about the comics industry not having had an idea of its own in the last 40 years…it would seem that DC are really going that extra mile in trying to prove me incontrovertibly right.”
“What the comics industry has effectively said is, ‘Yes, this was the only book that made us briefly special and that was because it wasn’t like all the other books.’ Watchmen was something that stood on its own and it had the integrity of a literary work. What they’ve decided now is, ‘So, let’s change it to a regular comic that can run indefinitely and have spin-offs.’ and ‘Let’s make it as unexceptional as possible.’ Like I say, they’re doing this because they haven’t got any other choices left, evidently.”
WATCHMEN: White Rabbit, HBO, DC Comics, based on Watchmen
by Alan Moore and Dave Gibbons, with Regina King, Jean Smart, Don
Johnson, Tim Blake Nelson,Yahya Abdul-Mateen II, Andrew Howard, Jacob
Ming-Trent, Tom Mison, Sara Vickers, Dylan Schombing, Louis Gossett Jr. and
“I’ve got a nose for white supremacy and he smells like bleach.”
Angela Abar/Detective Sister Night, Episode 1
- Episode 1: “It’s Summer and We’re Running Out of Ice”, Written by Damon Lindelof, Directed by Nicole Kassell
- Episode 2: “Martial Feats of Comanche Horsemanship”, Written by Damon Lindelof & Nick Cuse, Directed by Nicole Kassell
- Episode 3:”She Was Killed by Space Junk”, Written by Damon Lindelof & Lila Byock, Directed by Stephen Williams
Which brings us to Damon Lindelof’s “remix” of the original
graphic novel for television.The veteran of high profile genre shows like Lost
and The Leftovers, he turned the job down twice before accepting. He
went in knowing that he would never get Alan Moore’s approval and that whatever
may come, the die-hard fans of the graphic novel (or the film for that matter)
would never be satisfied with the results.
Taking a deep creative breath, Lindelof took to Instagram and made the following statement: “I am compelled despite the inevitable pushback and hatred I will understandably receive for taking on this particular project. This ire will be maximally painful because of its source. That source being you. the true fans.”
He also said: “I’m a true fan, too. And I’m not the only
one. What I love about television is that the finished product is not the
result of a singular vision, but the collective experience of many brilliant
Among those brilliant minds is Watchmen’s original
artist, Dave Gibbons, who signed on with Lindelof as a visual consultant. His
contributions are immediately evident in costumes of the characters and the
style and feel of the production itself.
The story begins with one of the most stunning opening
sequencing in the history of television; a brutal recreation of the ransacking,
murderous rampage and destruction of the Black Wall Street of Tulsa, Oklahoma
in 1921. Emerging from the carnage, a young black child rescues an infant and
flees the burning city.
We then shift ninety-eight years into the future and thirty
four after the events depicted in the graphic novel. Loud rap music drones from
of a pickup truck late at night. The middle aged driver become apprehensive
when police lights signal for him to pull over and it appears he is a victim of
racial profiling. And as the officer questions the driver in an antagonistic
manner, it verifies these suspicions with one startling twist; the driver is
white and the Tulsa cop is African-American and wearing a mask. When the cop is
brutally assaulted and critically injured, it set in motion a series of events
that will range far across this alternate universe.
And what a strange universe it is. Over the course of the
first three episodes several several passing glances and easter eggs have
revealed the following observations and easter eggs:
- That actor Robert Redford has been President for decades.
- That African-Americans were granted some substantial reparations
from the government over the years.
- There are no cell phones or the development of any social media
outlets. But electric cars seem to be a standard mode of travel.
- Author/Attorney John Grisham was appointed to the Supreme Court and
- Masked vigilantes were banned in 1977 but apparently many persist
in the practice.
- A newspaper announces that Adrian Veidt (Ozymandias) has been
officially declared dead.
- Tiny squids fall from the sky on an irregular basis, a stark
reminder that mankind is still living under a threat of an impending
- A dramatization documenting adventures of the first vigilantes
called “American Hero Story” is being promoted on television (a clear call
out to the Tales of The Black Freighter comics in the original Watchmen
AND to Ryan Murphy and Brad Falchuk’s American Horror Story).
- And Doctor Manhattan has been spotted on Mars, puttering around
building and deconstructing things on the surface and, presumably, keeping
an eye on Earth.
Tulsa’s police chief, Judd Crawford (Don Johnson) quickly
deduces that a white supremist group, the Seventh Kalvary, was responsible.
Three years earlier, the force and their families had been targeted in a
surprise attack that left them dead and the few that remained demoralized. In
response, the state government funded a pilot project that allowed officers to
mask themselves and detectives to don elaborate costumes to protect their
identities. Unfortunately, as the first episode amply demonstrates, this
habitually leads to the abuse of the civil rights of criminal suspects and
innocent civilians alike.
Our main protagonist, Angela Abar, is a survivor of the
attack and has adopted the guise of a mild mannered, civilian identity of a
local baker. But, when she’s alerted via pager to an emergency, she swiftly
enters the back room and, like Spiderwoman, the Green Hornet and countless
other heroes, transforms herself into Sister Night; with a nun’s habit and
balaclava clad, she is a total badass supercop.
Sister Night forcibly brings a suspect into Tulsa’s secret
police facility where he is subjected to an interrogation by Detective Wade
Tillman, aka Looking Glass (played a droll and sardonic Tim Blake Nelson), who
wears a reflective mirror mask. After conducting a very strange method that
seems imitate Bladerunner’s Voight-Kampff test, Tillman concludes that
while the suspect may not have been directly involved with the attack, he
definitely knows something. And Sister Night proceeds to beat the location of
the Seventh Kalvary out of him.
Meanwhile, at an undisclosed location, we spy a man (Jeremy
Irons) riding horseback through the countryside. (Although he isn’t identified,
I immediately suspected this regal looking rogue to be Adrian Veidt. And I was
right.) While he seems to be right at home, he gives the appearance of being
preoccupied with writing a play called “The Watchman’s Son” and recruiting his
servants, Miss Crookshanks (Sarah Vickers) and Mr. Phillips (Tom Mison) to help
him bring it to life.
At first, I thought these might be androids, but no, after
Mr. Philips is burned alive during the performance of the play, it’s revealed
that there are multiple copies of him and Miss Crookshanks, clones, doing his
bidding around the castle in various roles. And who knows, they might even be
clones of himself!
It also becomes evident that while Veidt lives in relative
comfort, he is not at liberty to leave the compound at any time. After another
one of his Philips clones expires in a grisly manner during one of his
experiments involving a primitive pressure suit and a trebuchet, it is evident
that the World’s Smartest Man is trying to escape. And the person who is
standing in his way is a mysterious character named “the Game Warden”, who
sends Veidt a written warning that he suspects his current activities may be in
violation of the terms of his imprisonment. And Veidt, being the person he is,
doubles down on his efforts.
Meanwhile, Sister Night and Chief Crawford lead a nighttime
raid on the Kavalry’s remote safehouse, which, like the first two episodes, are
thrillingly directed with precision and verve by Nicole Kassell. And while they
succeed in breaking up the gang’s current plan, they don’t gain enough
intelligence to know exactly what they’re up to.
Angela goes home only to receive a phone tip from a strange
voice who tells her knows who she is and proceeds to demands she drive to a
location in a field she knows well. Fearing that her identity and family has
been compromised, she drives there only to find Crawford’s body hanging from a
tree and a VERY elderly black man in a wheelchair (Louis Gossett, Jr.), proudly
claiming to be the murderer.
This man, who calls himself Will, also claims to be Angela’s
grandfather and to being 109 years old. Angela takes him to her bakery hideout,
handcuffs him and takes a DNA sample to be tested and later is shocked to find
out his claim is valid. Having kept Will out of the investigation of Crawford’s
death, she decides to formally take him into custody as a material witness. But
as she places him in her civilian car under the cover of darkness, a mysterious
craft swoops in with an electro-magnetic grapple and spirits Will, and her car
(!), away. A paper flutters down from the car; the tattered leaflet with the
words “Look After This Boy” scrawled on the back, the same note that was placed
in the pocket by the father of the boy who survived the 1921 Tulsa riots.
The third episode introduces the audience to a middle-aged
Laurie Blake (Jean Smart, who is equally snappy and ironically sad in her role)
the second Silk Spectre and daughter of Sally Jupiter and Eddie Blake. A hard-bitten
veteran of the FBI’s Anti-Vigilante Task Force, she also appears to be trapped
in a life she doesn’t enjoy very much. It is heavily implied that her
ex-husband, Nite-Owl, is languishing in prison for violating the 1977 federal
anti-vigilante act and Laurie feels guilty for receiving a get out of jail free
card in exchange for her services.
Enter Joe Keene Jr., a US Senator from Oklahoma (and an aspiring
Presidential candidate) who comes calling on Laurie to do him a favor; he has
arranged with the Bureau to send her to Tulsa to investigate the death of Chief
Judd Crawford, who he strongly suspects might not have been killed by the
Seventh Kalvalry but by a masked vigilante. .Should Laurie succeed and he
becomes President, he strongly suggests he just might pardon Daniel Dreiberg.
But Laurie doesn’t only pine for her ex-husband, in her spare
time from the investigation, she also records phone messages beamed directly to
Mars via special booths for her ex-boyfriend, Doctor Manhattan to “hear”.
As sad and lonely as Laurie seems, her demeanor in public is
sharp and professional. In her interactions with Angela, Wade and her nerdy FBI
partner Dale Petey (Dustin Ingram) she lets it be known that does not suffer
fools gladly and that she has read all of the reports, seen all of the video
and is as smart as a very sharp, venomous tack. And if anyone is hiding
anything, she’ll be the one to suss it out. Wade seemingly bows to her
authority but not Angela, who puts on a brave and defiant face. That’s because
she has plenty to hide at this point, including finding evidence that Chief
Crawford may have been on the take and is concealing her grandfather’s role in
And at the end of the third episode, as Laurie completes her
phone call to Mars that evening, pleading for a sign from Doctor Manhattan that
he might still care for her or the human race. As she is walking to her car, a
huge clue falls into her lap from the sky above. And as she looks to see where
it came from, she catches sight of Mars, glowing ominously in the distance. We
leave Laurie as she laughs maniacally at the night sky and the audience
wondering what the hell is going to happen next.
I must admit that I have been fairly overwhelmed by what
Damon Lindelof has done with this production of Watchmen. He clearly
reveres the source material but is totally unafraid in taking it in unexpected
and startling directions.
There has been some blow back from fans who have complained
at great length that Lindelof has made Watchmen too “political”, which
is laughable because a more discerning reader should have caught on to those
themes in the very first issue back in 1986.
Others have vociferously objected to Rorschach being held up
as a modern-day symbol of white supremacy. Well, those people thought he was
the “hero” of previous iterations of Watchmen, when in fact, he was a
damaged human being who was given the worst aspects of Batman, which were then
magnified to the nth degree. A nihilistic, psychotic and inflexible, Walter
Kovacs was the perfect character for other nihilistic, psychotic and inflexible
racists to glom onto as their object of adulation.
Furthermore, Lindelof and his crew of creators are daring the
audience to immerse themselves in a world where they may have to either root
for, understand or have empathy for people, especially police officers, who are
going about their jobs and lives in a completely aberrant and disgusting manner
as they try to grapple with forces and circumstances they are having a hard
Also, in an era where more television shows and films are
telling more diverse stories, it is utterly refreshing to see a gerne-oriented show
tackle racial and political issues head on for a mainstream audience. These are
exactly the sort of entertainment vehicles we need more of in these confusing
and turbulent times; confounding, controversial and profound, they excite the
intellect and stir meaningful conversations about who we are and what we should
This past spring, I stated that I was only going to list
HBO’s magnificent techno-horror miniseries Chernobyl as my lone entrant
on my Best Dramatic Presentation-Long Form Hugo award ballot. Well, I think may
have been a bit premature saying that; if Damon Lindelof and company can pull
it off this daring adaptation over the remaining six episodes, I’ll be
nominating Watchmen as well.
And from what I’ve seen so far, I’ll be VERY disappointed if
they don’t make it. But, after seeing the first three episodes of this series,
I have a sneaking suspicion they will stick the landing, in the biggest way