Adapting a graphic novel as beloved as Dave Gibbons and Alan Moore’s Watchmen will always be fraught, as the makers of the 2009 Hollywood blockbuster discovered. The nerds take their ur-texts seriously, and that film was a patchy, brooding, cartoonish version, if that doesn’t seem an odd criticism to level at a comic, from which Moore formally distanced himself. The announcement that HBO was to revisit the subject matter was met with a degree of scepticism, especially when Zack Snyder was originally said to be in charge again. Even when it was announced that Damon Lindelof (Lost, The Leftovers), had taken the helm, what could he do differently?
A lot, it turns out. HBO’s new nine-part Watchmen, billed as a “remix”, is different in many ways, but in spirit it is truer to the dark comedy and complexity of the original. It’s a compelling demonstration of what can happen when source material is treated with sensitivity and imagination. Among other things, it is a meditation on race and power and politics, and one of the most unusual explorations of the superhero concept on television. It won’t be for everyone.
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It’s set in the present, 35 years after the graphic novel, but still in a parallel universe. There are flying cars, people living on Mars, hover-paparazzi, but the internet and smartphones have not been invented. Their absence is notable. Characters communicate with landlines and pagers, like a cult of the Nineties.
Most of the action takes place in Tulsa, Oklahoma. The gruelling opening depicts the real-life racially motivated massacre there in 1921, as a jumping-off point for what follows. In present-day fictional Tulsa, race relations are strained to breaking point, aggravated by the reparations instigated by Robert Redford, who has apparently been president for decades (he doesn’t appear). The police wear yellow masks, for fear of being attacked by white-power vigilantes calling themselves the Seventh Kavalry. In a demonstration of how the series plays with the original Watchmen, the group has adopted the novel’s anti-hero Rorsach as a hero, wearing his distinctive mask as a mask.
We follow Angela Abar (Regina King), a mother of three who runs a bakery by day and spends her downtime as a black-clad vigilante-style detective. She’s part of a group run by Judd Crawford (Don Johnson), trying to maintain the fragile order. King excels as a complex figure in a bewildering world, but she is ably supported by the rest of the cast. The most curious turn is Jeremy Irons’ Ozymandias, living in isolated splendour, typing naked, riding horses, and generally having a jolly time of it away from the rest of the cast. It’s not all ponder and wonder. There are enough fights and shootouts to satisfy any lust for action. But they rarely go as intended. Being a masked vigilante with superpowers is not as easy as it looks.
Where most superhero films settle into easy routines of good and evil, and familiar arcs of redemption and self-discovery, Watchmen keeps us guessing. Fans have strong feelings about the graphic novel, and no doubt some will find this adaptation infuriating, or question the involved depiction of race relations by a largely white executive team. But it’s hard to imagine watching Watchmen and not having an opinion, which is an achievement enough to make this curio worth a spin.