Review: Watchmen

Starring Regina King, Don Johnson, Tim Blake Newlson, Yahya Abdul-Mateen II, Andrew Hoard, Louis Gosset Jr, Jeremy Irons, and Jean Smart.

Music by Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross

Insights originally thought that Watchmen should not be a TV show.

The recently retired creator Alan Moore pointed to this need for Watchmen to remain a comic in an interview in 2008, where he said, “There are things that we did with Watchmen that could only work in a comic, and were indeed designed to show off things that other media can’t.”

Indeed, it would seem that the reticence to follow up or adapt Watchmen had been vindicated. Zack Snyder’s 2009 Watchmen film came and went, barely causing a blip on wider cultural consciousness. The story, it seemed, was one better left to the page.

That is, until HBO announced a TV sequel series.

After watching the first few episodes, Insights’ skepticism over this series faded, replaced with an optimism for what the show can achieve. Watchmen is a worthy follow up to the original comic series of the same name, making a valuable contribution.

The Watchmen TV series manages to take much of what made the Watchmen comic so memorable and present it in new ways. The new series is as dense and rich as the original, with a rich and layered story that explores the superhero mythos, racism, and theodicy. Despite the objections of fanboys who have led a predictable review bombing campaign, the show is deeply political, as the franchise always has been.

Watchmen takes place in the same universe as the original comic, treating the Snyder film the same way that audiences and critics did: like it didn’t exist. And yet, while remaining true to the original’s feel and themes, the show also explores new settings with predominantly new characters.

The story centres on Angela Abar, a retired policewoman who is now something of a government-sanctioned vigilante. In a world where Nixon was longterm president, America is now governed by former actor Robert Redford, whose presidency has long centred on providing reparations to black Americans. Against these efforts for justice, poorer white Americans are responding out of resentment. Police now wear masks to protect their identity and their families from The Seventh Kavalry, a group of white supremacists who have spent recent years targeting them. As things unfold, Abar finds herself embroiled in a wider story involving the 1970s team The Crimebusters and events that date all the way back to the 1921 Tulsa riot.  

One of the show’s best elements is its impressive world building. Taking the lead from the original series, the show engages in real world history, with an as yet untold departure point. The show depicts a world still bearing the scars of the original series’ central incident. Some three decades on, Crimebusters themselves have gone on to become legendary figures, whose presence influences the world in very different ways. Perhaps the most interesting of these is Rorschach, who now serves as the inspiration for the Kavalry, whose masks resemble his. Much as the character has in the real world, Rorshach appeals to these fringe dwellers as a symbol taken out of its original context.

Dr Manhattan, meanwhile, exists as something of an absent god that people try to contact, talking to him via a phone that sends messages via satellite to Mars. Much as the original comic did, the series uses Dr Manhattan to explore questions of theodicy, asking why a seemingly all-powerful being that could intervene in human suffering either fails or refuses to do so. Where Dr Manhattan is different to the biblical God is a matter of detachment. Where Manhattan is a human being who became godlike, the God of the Bible takes the reverse route, giving up power in order to redeem His creation.

Watchmen is visually arresting, with set pieces and design that gives its world a unique look. The cinematography is among the best in any TV show in 2019, with some very subtle references to the original comic for eagle eyed viewers to find. The comic’s clock motif returns here, and there is the sense that it is gradually counting down to a cataclysmic event of its own.

Adding to the tension is a soundtrack expertly arranged by Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross. Those familiar with the former’s style will have some idea of what to expect here, but the soundtrack continues to surprise with its ability to add an additional layer of meaning. The pilot’s closing song stands out as one unforgettable use of a song to close out an episode.

As much of the above no doubt indicates, Watchmen is a violent series that explores dark themes. While the show is well executed and there are much-needed moments of levity, it is not for anyone who finds these themes difficult.

Watchmen justifies its existence by taking so much of what made the comic great and presenting it on TV. It stands as one of the best shows to come out of 2019, and it is likely to make people think as much as it is to entertain.

Watchmen is streaming now on Foxtel

Jonathan Foye is Insights’ Editor

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