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Why HBO's New Watchmen Series is a Big Deal

A newbie's guide to what could be HBO's next big thing.
  • Regina King plays masked vigilante cop Angela Abar in Damon Lindelof's continuation of Watchmen. (HBO)
    Regina King plays masked vigilante cop Angela Abar in Damon Lindelof's continuation of Watchmen. (HBO)

    If there's one thing HBO does better than anyone else in TV, it's owning Sunday night. Game of Thrones dominated Sundays for all eight of its seasons, and when that series finally breathed its last fiery dragon's breath, Succession stepped up as the network's new Sunday night show of choice. As far back as aThe Sopranos,  having a drama series on HBO's Sunday night lineup has been a short-cut must-watch status. Which brings us to the Sunday night premiere of Watchmen, the highly-anticipated adaptation (continuation, really, but we'll get to that) of the legendary 1986 comic book by Alan Moore and Dave Gibbons.

    Of course, "legendary comic book" could be where a lot of audience familiarity drops off. Watchmen is accepted as one of the high-water marks in the history of comics, but despite a poorly-received big screen adaptation in 2009, it's still a niche story within the greater culture. We tend to assume that audiences are as deeply familiar with the source material to these long-awaited screen adaptations as the more ardent fan communities are, when the truth of the matter is that far more people watched Game of Thrones than read the books.

    So if you're one of the many who have been skating by just nodding solemnly at all mentions of Watchmen,  here's a quick primer on why it's important that HBO get this adaptation right.

    The Comic

    Warning: Spoilers for the Watchmen comic book series ahead.

    A collaboration between writer Alan Moore and artist Dave Gibbons, Watchmen  was first published by DC comics in 1986. As will be familiar to anyone who's followed superhero films over the last decade and a half, Watchmen was an attempt to deal with the fanciful nature of superheroes — meaning both superpowered beings like Superman and resourceful masked vigilantes like Batman — and imagine how they might play out within the sociopolitical march of American history. Moore's story is set contemporarily in the 1980s, where the age of superheroes has led the United States down a very different historical path, where the same Cold War tensions that existed throughout most of the 20th century have pushed the world to the brink of mutually-assured nuclear destruction, as evidence by Gibbons' recurring theme of the Doomsday Clock ticking very close to midnight.

    In the story of Watchmen, the golden age of superheroes was a heady time for masked crimefighters. Groups like the Minutemen battled criminals in the 1930s and '40s and were hailed as heroes. Then, ushered in with the atomic age, came Dr. Manhattan, the result of a lab experiment gone terribly wrong, whose near-omnipotent powers — including total control over atomic and subatomic particles, the ability to teleport, indestructibility, and the ability to see through time — make him a crucial strategic advantage when pressed into service by the U.S. government. And through Dr. Manhattan's influence, America wins the war in Vietnam, and Richard Nixon ends up elected to two more terms in office. Dr. Manhattan also becomes a part of the Crimebusters team, along with the Nite Owl, Silk Spectre, the masked Rorschach, world's smartest man Adrian Veidt (who goes by "Ozymandias") and Daniel Blake, who goes by The Comedian, and whose death kicks off the events of Watchmen. In the present timeline, all masked vigilantes and superheroes have been outlawed by the Keene Act. Blake's death is the first in a series of former superheroes getting murdered, and the closer Rorschach gets to the truth, the more we learn about this America that exists on the brink of chaos.

    Without spoiling the many twists and turns of the story, the climax of the Watchmen books involves the island of Manhattan being destroyed by an extra-dimensional attack from a giant squid-monster. Which, honestly, doesn't seem beyond the realm of possibility, given the context of everything else that's going on (to provide some context, Dr. Manhattan is living on Mars by choice at this point in the story, while Ozymandias has retreated to his ice palace in Antarctica). The attack, blamed on an innocent Dr. Manhattan, is actually carried off by Veidt in an effort to force the global superpowers together to fight this common enemy. He's successful (although at what cost?). At the end of the story, Rorschach's journal — detailing the truth behind Veidt's treachery — is delivered to a muckraking tabloid.

    The Legacy

    What happens in Watchmen is only half the story, of course. What makes Watchmen such an eagerly-anticipated adaptation is the footprint that Moore and Gibbons' book made in the comics world. In an industry where popularity came cheap, but respectability was hard-won, Watchmen earned raves and respect from not just the comics world but the literary world as well. It's routinely held up as one of the greatest examples of the genre, and very often ends up on lists of the great novels of the 20th century. This level of respect for a story that deals with superpowered men and attacks from giant space squids sets Watchmen apart from not only other superhero comics but also from more prestigious "graphic novels," which can win acclaim, but usually do so by telling more grounded tales.

    So over the years as comic book fans eagerly followed the many attempts to turn Watchmen into a movie, know that they did so believing that this property existed as an ambassador that might introduce an entire medium to the greater entertainment world. Expectations were understandably high.

    Failed Attempts to Make a Movie

    Watchmen is one of those great Hollywood tales that spent the better part of a decade trying to get made by some of the most talented filmmakers in the business. Producer Joel Silver (Die Hard and The Matrix) tried to get a film version off the ground at 20th Century Fox in the late '80s, as did director Terry Gilliam (Brazil and 12 Monkeys) at Warner Brothers. In both cases, the challenges of condensing Moore's sprawling story into a two-hour movie proved to be exceedingly difficult. (Moore himself famously declared Watchmen "unfilmable.")

    In late 2001, the project was revived at Universal, with X-Men and X2 screenwriter David Hayter taking a crack at the script. Universal wanted Hayter to direct as well, and while that project also fell through, Hayter's version of the script would survive to be the basis of several other directors' attempts to make the film. This included Darren Aronofsky, who was supposed to make the picture for Paramount after he finished The Fountain. Rumored cast members over the years included Ralph Fiennes, John Cusack, Keanu Reeves, and Tom Cruise.

    After Aronofsky left the project, Paramount replaced him with director Paul Greengrass, who at the time was coming off of the success of The Bourne Supremacy. Greengrass was given a summer 2006 release date, with Paramount looking at the likes of Jude Law (for Ozymandias), Joaquin Phoenix (as Dan, a.k.a. Nite Owl), Hilary Swank (as Laurie, a.k.a. Silk Spectre), and Paddy Considine (as Rorschach). Executive turnover at Paramount and budget concerns ultimately spelled doom for Greengrass' project as well. (Greengrass would go on to get a Best Director nomination for the 2006 film he did make, United 93.)

    Successful (?) Attempt to Make the Movie

    At long last, Warner Brothers and director Zack Snyder (300) were able to make a film adaptation happen with a cast that wasn't quite as starry as fans had hoped. Patrick Wilson was cast as Dan, Malin Akerman as Laurie, Jackie Earle Haley as Rorschach, Matthew Goode as Ozymandias, Jeffrey Dean Morgan as The Comedian, and Billy Crudup (plus a whole lotta big blue CGI) as Dr. Manhattan.

    The Watchmen that hit theaters in March of 2009 ended up polarizing critics, viewers, and fans alike. Snyder's slavish devotion to the original comic (he used the book itself as a storyboard guide) made the film feel airless, while at the same time maintaining an ultra-serious tone. The relatively meager star power of the cast contributed to an underwhelming feeling, while the altered ending, which swapped out the book's out there giant squid attack in favor of a more familiar nuclear attack, left many underwhelmed. Meanwhile, elements like Dr. Manhattan's giant, blue CGI penis and Dan and Laurie's Leonard Cohen-scored sex scene were instantly the stuff of jokes.

    Damon Lindelof and the HBO Series

    If Damon Lindelof were coming off Lost, his Watchmen involvement might have some fans scrambling for a Xanax, but after triumphing so beautifully with HBO's The Leftovers, he's earned a bit of runway with notoriously impatient fans. All that said, it still feels incredibly gutsy for Lindelof to be spending all his newly accrued capital on an adaptation about which Alan Moore may have been right: it may just be unfilmable.

    Lindelof's version of Watchmen isn't a remake of the Snyder film, nor is it an adaptation of the Moore/Gibbons comic book. Instead, it's a continuation of the Watchmen story, picking up some 30 years after the events of the book, all of which appear to have happened the way we were told. Lindelof has described the original Watchmen as the Old Testament, with his show as the New Testament.

    America in Watchmen's 2019 is still an increased global superpower (we definitely still triumphed in Vietnam), and the world still sits on the brink of doomsday, although in Lindelof's version, it's not a Cold War conflict with Russia that's upsetting the balance, but violent white supremacy and rampant guns that have advanced the Doomsday Clock to almost midnight. Police officers — including our lead character, Angela Abar, played by Emmy and Oscar-winner Regina King — wear masks and lie about their jobs to keep themselves and their families safe from domestic terror groups spouting white supremacy slogans and quoting Rorschach's journal. They're also wearing replicas of Rorschach's mask.

    One truth about Watchmen as time has gone on is that the political messaging of its characters has been pored over, interpreted, and just as often misinterpreted. Rorschach has increasingly been adopted by right-wing types for his absolutist take on crime and morality, despite the fact that Moore intended his work to be a critique of the superhero concept, with Rorschach as a particularly egregious and brutal example. In Lindelof's vision of the world, the brutality and pitilessness of Rorschach appealed to a growing white-supremacist terror group who have adopted him as their style icon and patron saint. His iconic line about how all the whores and criminals and wretches of the world will look to him and cry "Save us!" and he'll whisper "No" is repurposed in the premiere episode, tricked out with some truly vile racial epithets and a crack about liberal tears besides.

    To Recap

    Superheros were real. They helped America become a Nixonian imperialist cesspool.Then they were outlawed. Some still fight crime in secret. Rorschach gets the old gang together to investigate the death of one of their own. A giant squid attacks Manhattan. The comic book series that told the aforementioned story became the most lauded and acclaimed comic book of all time. The attempts to make a movie out of this very successful property proved to be initially frustrating and ultimately disappointing. Now Damon Lindelof is determined to pick up where Alan Moore left off, and it all begins Sunday!

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    Joe Reid is the senior writer at Primetimer and co-host of the This Had Oscar Buzz podcast. His work has appeared in Decider, NPR, HuffPost, The Atlantic, Slate, Polygon, Vanity Fair, Vulture, The A.V. Club and more.

    TOPICS: Watchmen, HBO, Alan Moore, Damon Lindelof, Dave Gibbons, Regina King, Terry Gilliam