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Who’s watching this Watchmen?

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Critic After Dark

Watchmen
By Damon Lindelof
HBO

(Warning: plot twists discussed in detail)

GETTING THE big question out of the way: Damon Lindelof’s new HBO miniseries, Watchmen, is fun. Fast-paced, engaging, funny, and at times even witty, it ingeniously picks up the various threads of Alan Moore’s intricate weave and extends them, introducing patterns and themes of its own to create a new narrative.

Helps to have a terrific cast: Regina King, athletic and affecting as Angela Abar (a.k.a. Sister Night); Jeremy Irons having the time of his life as frustrated megalomaniac Adrian Veidt (a.k.a. Ozymandias); Tim Blake Nelson as the agonized agonizing Wade Tilman (a.k.a. Looking Glass); Hong Chau as cooly ambiguous Lady Trieu; James Wolk as smoothtalking senator Joe Keene; Jean Smart as wry and cynical Laurie Blake (a.k.a. the former Silk Spectre, later the Comedienne, much later FBI Agent Blake).

Helps (I suppose) that Lindelof is a veteran of timetwisting, intricately plotted TV (Lost anyone?) — one of the series’ most distinct pleasures is in seeing how he extrapolates plotlines and historical details from the original comic, some suggested in the narrative, others explicitly discussed in the Peteypedia, a website curated by one of the series’ minor characters (an FBI agent and masked vigilante fan named Petey). Some of the more interesting tidbits in this, Lindelof’s answer to Moore’s elaborate appendices: many of Ozymandias’ initiatives — self-improvement programs, technological innovations — have fallen by the wayside, partly because people have shied away from Dr. Manhattan tech, an unintended consequence of Veidt’s secret campaign to suggest that the superhero’s presence (and technology) can cause cancer. Veidt may be the smartest man in the world but he’s only a man, can only do so much in guiding the development of that world — a limitation that will be addressed by the narrative at some point.

Even more interesting: Lindelof’s pivot to cover a perceived neglect on Moore’s part, of the issue of racism. Sister Night’s grandfather is Will Reeves a.k.a. Hooded Justice — the first ever masked vigilante. Maybe the most compelling argument in favor of Lindelof’s conceit (that Justice is black) would be the noose round his neck, which has puzzled me for years — what does justice have to do with a hangman’s noose? Not so much in the 20th century with use of the death sentence waning and alternative methods — electrocution, lethal injection — available. Lynchings however, particularly of African Americans — yes, the connection makes sense.

That said, it is not entirely true that Moore fails to depict racism — giant Manhattan towering over the Vietcong is a vivid image of Western power dominating its Asian adversary, and, later, an African-American housewife bristles at the suggestion that everyone black knows each other. The comic is tightlipped about the fact that all the masked vigilantes are — and the one genuine superhero used to be — white, but in panel after panel of Dave Gibbon’s art you see a sea of occidental (mostly male) faces, and can’t help muttering to yourself: this is no accident. Moore again and again equates masked vigilantes with American fascism (and at one point to a self-confessed kinkiness); the only decent man among them is Dan Drieberg (a.k.a. Night Owl), arguably the chubbiest, least confident of the lot — and even he betrays himself when he learns of a friend’s murder (“You know how much firepower I have floating out there? I oughtta take out this entire rat-hole neighborhood!”). Moore includes no people of color among the Watchmen’s ranks, and he may have a good reason for that.

There may be a reason for a lot of the elements Moore introduces in his comics, and Lindelof fiddles with them at his peril. There are plenty of new characters in the series but none as repulsive as The Comedian, a would-be rapist and sometime mass murderer who turns out to have a hidden human side; none as compelling as Rorschach, who survives a wretched childhood with a uniquely twisted point of view. In Lindelof’s series, bad guys remain bad guys (though they may be charming and appear on your side at first), good guys stay firmly on the side of good (Tim Blake Nelson’s Looking Glass is a defanged reflection of Rorschach); perhaps the most ambivalent character is Lady Trieu, but only because she keeps her cards so close to her chest for so long; when she lays them down she turns out to be bluffing.

Which is a particular shame in the case of Angela — the fact that a black woman plays what in Moore’s mind is a fascist figure without questioning or being questioned as to her real role in the larger scheme of things wastes her potential, especially as law enforcement has had a historically knotted relationship with the African American community.

Then there’s Jon Osterman a.k.a. Dr. Manhattan. Lindelof deftly captures Manhattan’s omniscient sense of time — no easy feat — but doesn’t quite capture the scale of his point of view. Where in the comics you get some sense of the immense alienation, the distance he feels from everyone else (“this world’s smartest man means no more to me than does its smartest termite”), in the series he’s truly passive — mainly an untapped resource waiting to be exploited, a big blue piñata of a MacGuffin that everyone wants. Moore, on the other hand, questions the very need for superpowers — explicitly in an appended essay (“we have made a man to end worlds”), implicitly in the withering way Osterman loses his humanity, one trait after another, till he has little left other than a sterile appreciation for the planet Mars (of the Valles Marineris: “stretches more than 3,000 miles so one end knows day while the other endures night”). There’s grandeur to his language but also a strange passivity — Osterman observes that all his life he’s been told what to do; superpowers only served to expand his helplessness into a metaphysical state of mind.

Which is perhaps the biggest difference between this adaptation and Moore’s source work: that his protean imagination only serves as background for recognizably human beings, beings who, despite their serious flaws, remain worthy of our sympathy, and that he’s incurably skeptical of power structures of all kinds — including the kind (HBO) able to produce sequels to a work he has given up for lost (to DC Comics) a long long time ago. Lindelof captures some of that creativity, but the series as a whole should really be considered a sketch — a miniature really — of the teeming febrile original.

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