HBO’s Watchmen: A Dystopia of Our Times

Over the past decade, the superhero genre has quickly taken its place as, perhaps, the most successful and popular genre on the big screen and in the homes of millions. Where Marvel and DC have continued to compete for dominance by offering big and better action offerings to the entertainment of comic book fans worldwide, the earlier works of such controversial writers such as Alan Moore have continued to divide opinions due adult themes and political controversy. In 1986, Moore’s Watchmen helped demonstrate to the world that a deconstructed superhero story could rival literature for an adult audience and, even among its own controversy, became a blockbuster in 2009 with Zach Snyder at the helm. In 2019, HBO attained the services of writer-producer Damon Lindolf to pen and produce an ambitious semi-sequel to the origin comic, keeping the themes of justice and politics intact, but with the modern twist of taking place where Moore left off. It’s no surprise that the critically praised television show quickly inspired the same divided opinions and fan debates that rocked the comic book world upon the publication of Moore’s original graphic novel. But as our real world slowly begins to parallel the HBO sequel, so YouTuber commentators continue to debate the originality and artistic agenda of the new work. As YouTuber Robert Storms began in his own review:

[Alan Moore’s] Watchmen was a very layered story. It covered so many different things: it’s about the destruction of the world, just so corrupting and [everyone] hating each other, and the Doomsday Clock, and [how] we were so close to the brink of destruction, and how doing a heinous act brought about world peace—but is that heinous act justified? Is [Adrian Veidt / Ozymandias] right to kill millions of people in order to save billions of people? … And I watched the first episode [of HBO’s Watchmen] and it doesn’t feel like we’re in the same universe …

YouTuber The Critical Drinker shared in Storms’ confusion and anger towards the new series’ artistic liberties and social commentary, offering his own observation:

Well, the good news is that … the Watchmen TV show is related to the comic book in name only. In reality, it’s a cheap, clunky agenda-pushing piece of trash set 35 years after the events of the comic book, featuring almost none of the original characters, setting, themes, ideas, or tone of the Watchmen comic.

The Critical Drinker continued:

The more forgiving option is to see Watchmen as simply a generic crime-fighting drama set in a dystopian America rife with racial tension. But, even under these circumstances, I’d consider it to be weakly-plotted, cheaply shot, badly acting, and ham-fisted with dull characters and preachy self-righteous dialogue that sounds like it’s been written by a 16-year-old social justice activist with no life experience and limited understanding of adult behavior.

However, many viewers agreed that the performances of Regina King, Jeremy Irons, Tim Blake Nelson, and Jean Smart brought a seriousness and elegance to the comic book material. It was showrunner Lindolf’s original characters and political themes that angered many, some of whom were very unhappy with the supposed fictional legacies of the 1986 comic’s beloved characters. Here, Robert Storms echoed the outcry and concerns of many other Watchmen fans, taking particular aim at the new representation of popular antihero Rorschach:

How the hell does someone like Rorschach become end up being idolized and used as a white supremacy group? … And it feels like its completely undone in the first episode of this show.

Other YouTube commentators found the ironic historical speculations correctly in-line with Alan Moore’s original aims, using the fictional Watchmen universe as the ideal stomping ground for political discourse and social commentary. The Cosmonaut Variety Hour offered that the angry fans had, perhaps, merely miss the original intention of Moore’s 1986 novel, commenting:

Now, this is an interesting idea to me because, if you didn’t know, the original Watchmen comic is, like, the most liberal shit I’ve ever read in my life. So, I don’t really know what anybody else expecting, going into this.

The YouTubers at Double Toasted championed this new approach to the original Moore material, adding that the politically “woke” stance of the show was an adult-oriented way of indicating flaws in real-life American social norms. In their review, Double Toasted stated:

This [show] is addressing racism in in politics today and it’s doing it in a very head-on, very, very graphic and noncompromising and unapologetic way … The question is, ‘Why is it that we’re seeing this?’ And [the fact] that we might even be seeing more of it.

Here, The Cosmonaut Variety Hour was in agreement, finding Damon Lindelof’s ambitious attempts at a realistic sequel to Moore’s comic a necessity in mirroring what that universe’s future would hold, had the events of the 1986 story continued into the present day:

This show doesn’t feel like a traditional sequel in that it really isn’t a superhero show. Superheroes are kind of outdated and they’ve evolved with the times. The world has also grown a lot after the events of the comic, and the world-building on this show is, honestly, on another fucking level … So, I don’t really get why some viewers are so mad at this show, when the show does work hard to show that there are flaws in every aspect of the world.

In response to many fans’ outrage over the supposed repurposing of character Rorschach and his own fictional legacy as an unintentional icon of racism, the Cosmonaut continued:

Alan Moore himself has said that Rorschach is a bad person and, if you like and agree with him, then you are also a bad person. Now, I think that’s a bit extreme, but this is the guy that made the character, so you kinda have to put his point of view into perspective here. So now in this show, we have a faction of terrorists who all kind of agree with Rorschach and, on its own I don’t this would be a problem. But the problem people have with this is that the terrorists are also racists. So now we have people thinking, ‘Oh, so if I agree with Rorschach, then this show is calling me a racist’—which isn’t really the case at all.

These sentiments were shared by many other YouTube commentators, among them Wisecrack, who claimed that the series had merely used the very same methods as the original graphic novel to get a very detailed and very specific message across. In his own review, Wisecrack stated:

Watchmen is not just about the dangers of vigilante justice, whether from lynch mobs or war-crime committing comedians—but about how war and violence can become embedded in the law—and when violence gets embedded in the law, it can often evade judgement as a result.

Interestingly, the commentators at Double Toasted drew real-life comparisons between Damon Lindelof’s usage of science-fiction in order to broach controversial political themes in prime-time entertainment to that of TV legend Rod Serling, and his own frustrations with corporate censorship affecting socially conscious subject matter. It was that conflict, claims Double Toasted, that directly inspired Serling to create his classic, The Twilight Zone, one of television’s first socially relevant offerings within the genres of science fiction and fantasy:

These superhero shows we have today—that’s our Twilight Zone, man. You see these things we’ve brought up, where people are able to address these issues and not have them resemble our reality, and yet, get the message out there. That’s straight-up tackling the issues of politics and racism have now.

On this theme, Double Toasted continued:

If you like comics, science-fiction, and just overall insightful, deep television, then this is what you need to be watching right here … They’re using the superhero genre to not only go in and re-evaluate everything that we know about the superhero genre … but it also uses superheroes to kind of make us question some of the social issues that we have today and, maybe, even in the past.

YouTuber Wisecrack also agreed with Double Toasted in his review, stating that the new Watchmen series utilized such known characters as Doctor Manhattan and Ozymandias to represent ongoing philosophical and social themes, not only those relevant in 1986 but today, as well—additionally using the innovative visual juxtaposition style of Dave Gibbons’ original 1986 artwork and paneling. Here, Wisecrack continued:

Through these techniques, the show asks the viewer to consider past and present acts of racism as one continual legacy. Other examples are stretched out between episodes … Much like the graphic novel, the show uses the ‘clock motif’ to ask the viewer to consider the idea of time—and how, not unlike a constructed watch—is a series of meticulous cogs that create an illusory march from past to present.

And while Damon Lindelof has already stated that Watchmen is a one-shot miniseries—much like Alan Moore’s original intentions for the graphic novel source material—fans of the new series remain adamant that the show is a worthy sequel and responsible follow-up to one of the most controversial and lasting comics in that genre’s history. And, like the comic before it, the HBO series is very much its own litmus test (or Rorschach test, if puns are permitted!), purposely reaching each individual viewer in a unique way—and leaving deliberate room for interpretation and debate. HBO’s series, like the comic before it, aims to make each viewer think for themselves. The Cosmonaut Variety Hour concluded:

When people get mad about this show, I think it’s really just from a lack of understanding the source material—and I hate saying that because it sounds condescending, and I don’t like being condescending. But with this series, there are a lot of ways to approach it. I first read the comic ten years ago when I was a fucking teenager [and] I didn’t even think I understood half of the real-world elements kin the story—and this week, I reread it and I saw a lot of things I didn’t see before. The comic is very heavily dependent on what you bring into it.