Getting Ready for HBO’s ‘Watchmen’: What You Need to Know

Can HBO finally make an adaptation that will make Alan Moore proud?
October 17, 2019
8 mins read

Alan Moore and Dave Gibbons changed the literary landscape with the 1986 release of the first issue of “Watchmen.” The 12-issue series, which delves into the dangerous reality of superheroes, is consistently regarded as one of the best literary works of all-time.

The graphic novel takes place in an alternate history version of 1985, in which masked vigilantes became popular after World War II. However, at the time that the story begins, vigilantes are outlawed, World War III looms on the horizon and the murder of a retired superhero — The Comedian — incites Rorschach, a rogue vigilante, to solve the crime. All of these factors contribute to a catastrophic event that is changes the world forever.

Complex themes and an abundance of symbolism transforms the work into a timeless piece. The corrupting nature of power is prevalent in nearly every major character, from a demigod who wields reality-bending superpowers to a sociopath hidden behind a mask and trench coat. Overcoming trauma, the relevancy of heroism and creating a utopia all count themselves among the questions that the graphic novel asks its readers to think about.

(Warning: The following contains major spoilers for the “Watchmen” graphic novel and potential spoilers for the 2019 HBO series.)

Meet The Main Characters

In order to better understand plot points of the graphic novel and upcoming show, it’s probably best if you become acquainted with a few of the lead characters.

Jon Osterman, who later goes by Dr. Manhattan, is the only person to develop superpowers. After an accident in a laboratory, Osterman is evaporated but reconstructs himself. After coming back, he’s a bald, blue-skinned superhuman with seemingly limitless powers. As a result of media manipulation and emotional warfare, Dr. Manhattan is forced to leave Earth and decides to create his own organic life on Mars.

Adrian Veidt, formerly known as Ozymandias, was the mind behind the vigilante murders and orchestrated a plan to prevent World War III and help the world find peace. He created a grotesque monster that teleported into the middle of New York City. Although the creature immediately died, it killed millions. In the aftermath of the event, the world interprets Ozymandias’ actions as an invasion by an otherworldly force, which allows them to put aside their differences and unite as one.

Arguably, one of the more iconic protagonists in the comic book is Rorschach, a still-active, paranoid vigilante who becomes consumed by the Veidt’s conspiracy. By the end of the graphic novel, Rorschach outlines the entire conspiracy mapped in his notebook, which he then mails to a newspaper before his death.

Adaptations And the New Series

In 2009, “Watchmen” was adapted into a relatively accurate page-to-screen movie adaptation, which unfortunately failed to fully showcase the numerous layers to the story. Moreover, in 2012, DC Comics released “Before Watchmen,” a limited series of comics that examined each individual main character before the events of the original source material. Both the 2009 film adaptation and the 2012 graphic novel series were looked down upon by Moore himself, although the author famously hates all adaptations of his work.

The initial 1986-1987 miniseries concluded with an incredible crescendo, but definitely left readers curious as to what would happen next. Now, in 2019, HBO’s new TV series, simply titled “Watchmen,” takes place 34 years after the end of the comic. Notably, it does not serve as a direct sequel but rather occurs in the same universe. Not much is known about the plot of the new series. The majority of details are derived from a panel hosted in July 2019 with showrunner Damon Lindelof where he revealed some more info.

“Watchmen” will be focused on racial tension and politics. The main character, played by Regina King, is a police officer forced to deal with The Seventh Calvary, a white supremacist group located in Tulsa, Oklahoma, that uses Rorschach’s writings to justify their actions; the extremists even use an altered version of the vigilante’s mask to hide their identities. At the start of the series, The Seventh Cavalry has attacked the home of police officers, forcing the police to wear masks as well.

A major theme of the original graphic novel is the threat of nuclear destruction. As mentioned, World War III is imminent at the story’s opening, and every chapter of “Watchmen” includes an image of a doomsday clock, with each issue marking the hand ticking closer to midnight. Although the threat of nuclear war is not as prevalent in 2019 as it was in 1986, the first teaser for the TV series opens up with a speech from The Seventh Cavalry as a ticking clock sounds off between statements. The rest of the teaser has the sound of a clock running in the background, the sound of a group of people chanting “Tic-toc, tic-toc” and eventually an alarm sounding over the chanting.

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The clock imagery encompasses several meanings. It is a reminder, both in the comic and the show, that something significant is approaching; however, in the comic it was also a warning that if the trajectory of the world did not change, it would be destroyed. Conversely, in the series, the clock feels different, more vicious. At the end of the teaser, we see Chief Judd Crawford (Don Johnson) speaking with another character off-screen. When asked what he is discussing, Crawford answers, “Nothing. Just the end of the world.” Then, he starts quietly chanting “Tic-toc, tic-toc.”

Mutually assured destruction is usually associated with nuclear weapons, but, in 2019, alternative social topics also carry this threat. It seems like HBO’s “Watchmen” is using racial politics as the messenger for this danger. Exploring race in the world of “Watchmen” functions as a poignant idea for the TV show to address, especially considering that it’s barely discussed by Moore in the original series. To illustrate, there are barely any nonwhite characters in the graphic novel whatsoever. The most prominent is arguably Dr. Malcom Long, a psychologist assigned to question Rorschach after the vigilante is arrested. Admirably, Dr. Long is one of the few characters that show compassion for other people.

Alan Moore’s writing has always created deep conversations about morality. Unfortunately, all of his adaptations typically strive to entertain an audience expecting an action movie and forsake their deeper meaning in the process. Conversely, HBO’s “Watchmen,” while not a direct adaptation, seems to be fighting against the archetype of mainstream entertainment and is instead aiming to create a serious conversation about race in the modern-day United States.

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Nevertheless, plenty about HBO’s “Watchmen” is still completely unknown. In the full-length trailer, a character introduces herself as “Laurie Blake” (also known as the “Silk Spectre” in the original graphic novel), who is a character from the comic that some consider to be underdeveloped. We also see Dr. Manhattan walking through an abandoned street, even though he claimed to have abandoned humanity. Regardless, the upcoming series, just like the comic, is bound to start big conversations by presenting a complex and multi-layered story that re-explores themes from the comic in the modern world.

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