‘Watchmen’ is a fantastic riff on race and justice

Hank Stuever & Mark Kennedy

THE WASHINGTON POST/AP – HBO’s drop-dead fantastic new series Watchmen is many things at once – a righteously topical, thrillingly conceived riff on race and criminal justice set in an allegorical USA of vigilante cops, shady superheroes and subversive domestic terrorists. It’s fabulous and flammable and feels exactly right.

It’s also based on a beloved 1980s graphic novel that bombed as a movie (in 2009) and has now been adapted by a TV creator who has a checkered past when it comes preferring his vision over the needs of viewers. (That would be Damon Lindelof) But Watchmen, billed as a “remix” of the source material, is full of surprises – the first being that Lindelof, in collaboration with excellent co-writers, has broken his own spell and discovered that momentum and meaning can go hand in hand. Rather than hoard its biggest secrets in teasing reserve, Watchmen comes across like a smart, swift kick to the gut.

And as far all that comic-book/superhero/antihero business goes, just forget it. I promise that even the most genre-averse among us can absorb Watchmen without feeling like we forgot to study for the test. At the same time, fans of the original can relish Watchmen’s sublime handling of the mythology, spirit and complex tone of the material. It’s strewn with little gifts made special for them.

The show opens with a horrific flashback to the 1921 massacre in Tulsa, a racist attack on the thriving African American community of Greenwood that left hundreds dead and injured – the details of which were successfully scrubbed from history for decades.

Watchmen uses the real-life massacre as a catalyst for the alternate history that follows. In the show’s present-day Tulsa, police officers don yellow masks that mostly obscure their faces, for their protection, particularly against an uprising of white supremacists called the Seventh Kavalry.

A scene from ‘Watchmen’. PHOTOS: AP/ THE WASHINGTON POST
Regina King gives yet another standout performance in HBO’s ‘Watchmen’

Technological advancements abound in this version of 2019: flying squad cars, subservient clones, special phone booths for making calls to Mars, brief storms of interdimensional phenomena and a pharmaceutical drug called Nostalgia that mentally replays one’s life experiences. They have everything, with one notable exception: There appears to be no internet in Watchmen’s world.

Tulsa’s black community has seemingly thrived in a national effort to correct racial discrimination. This includes financial reparations, which are derisively referred to as ‘Redfordations’ by the local racists, most of whom live in a trailer park ghetto on the edge of town called Nixonville. A cultural heritage centre exists where Greenwood once stood; inside, a hologram version of United States (US) Treasury Secretary Henry Louis Gates Jr (also playing himself) stands by to test visitors’ DNA connections to the race riot’s victims.

Regina King stars as Angela Abar, a wife and mother of three who is about to open her own bakery. That’s her secret identity, anyhow. Angela’s real job is as a rogue detective, part of an elite squad overseen by Police Chief Judd Crawford (Don Johnson). In her hooded black cloak and mask, Angela does her most effective work as Sister Night, alongside such colleagues as Looking Glass (Tim Blake Nelson) and Red Scare (Andrew Howard).

They are regarded less as superheroes than as a controversial approach to law enforcement. The coolest thing about Watchmen is the way it upends one’s personal understanding of the line between heroism and vigilantism, well beyond a Batman-style paradigm. The idea and meaning behind wearing a mask is constantly in play, connoting both good and evil. As Angela moves through this fraught territory between identity and morality, King gives a performance that is both glorious and vulnerable. By now, we shouldn’t expect anything less from the Emmy and Oscar winner. It is settled science that she can do no wrong.

While the TV addicts in Watchmen’s America are glued to an event miniseries about complicated superheroes of the recent past, there’s the constant unease of the hooded history and malicious presence of the Ku Klux Klan.

An unspeakable crime occurs early on, requiring the arrival of FBI Special Agent Laurie Blake, played by Jean Smart, who savours every brilliant line she’s given. Even though Watchmen is rife with acts of gaslighting and conspiracy, Laurie’s character has a clarifying effect. Less clear, at first, is the purpose of a wheelchair-bound centenarian played by Louis Gossett Jr, a link between Tulsa’s bloody past and tenuous present.

By now, it sounds like I’m describing a fever dream instead of another prestige cable drama, but that’s what so delicious about it. All I can say is I haven’t been able to stop thinking about the show; the last time I felt so rapturously overpowered was with David Lynch’s masterful 2017 sequel to Twin Peaks for Showtime. It’s a rare and marvelous moment, to be so challenged – yet dazzled – by what one is seeing.

HOPES TO MATCH THE ORIGINAL

Damon Lindelof didn’t take lightly the challenge of adapting the most acclaimed graphic novel of all time. The Lost and The Leftovers co-creator was a fan of the revered Watchmen book ever since his father handed him the first few issues when he was 13 in the mid-1980s. So agreeing to spearhead HBO’s new adaptation didn’t come without a bout or two of nerves.

“There was immense trepidation and it was never overcome,” he told The Associated Press. “Trepidation is actually our greatest asset.”

Lindelof will see how he’s done when the first of his nine-episode Watchmen follow-up debuts on Sunday and the fanboys and fangirls weigh in. They will find many things created in their honour.

The creators have managed to lure an eclectic list of actors, including Regina King, Jeremy Irons, Louis Gossett Jr, Jean Smart, Tim Blake Nelson and Don Johnson.

It proved a formidable task to build on writer Alan Moore’s and illustrator Dave Gibbons’ dark superhero tale, which follows a group of masked vigilantes who uncover a vast conspiracy after one of their own is killed in an alternate-history America. Superheroes are banned and have gone underground.

Before they wrote a line of script for the new series, Lindelof and his team of 12 writers carefully plotted over 10 weeks what happened to that alternate world in the decades until 2019.

In the original series, America won the Vietnam War and turned that country into a state. President John F Kennedy is still assassinated on November 22, 1963, but Richard Nixon remained president until 1988 after successfully abolishing term limits.

Actor Robert Redford was running for president against Nixon. Lindelof and his writers took all that and expanded it to a new universe. The series begins with Redford as president, and adds Henry Louis Gates Jr as Treasury Secretary and John Grisham serving on the Supreme Court.

The main plot is set in Tulsa, Oklahoma, where it’s hard to tell the bad guys from the good guys because police also wear masks. Some of the original characters have made the leap 30 years and some are brand-new. The Internet isn’t a thing in this version of 2019 — newspapers and radio are the main means of mass communication. “We treated the original 12 issues as canon, as an Old Testament, as it were,” Lindelof said.

The original Watchmen was built around the dread of the Cold War and so the creators of the HBO series also looked for a unifying theme. While they worked, the culture was wracked by images of white nationalists rallying in Charlottesville, Virginia, and black men being shot by police.

“When we started talking about moving the story into 2019, we wanted to say, ‘What is the cultural anxiety that we are now facing?’ Obviously, there is danger out there in the world, but all around us was this idea of a reckoning with race in America,” Lindelof said.

As a result, the new series paints a bleak portrait of race relations in America, with well-intentioned good guys fighting an endless wave of white supremacy. Its carefully crafted scripts explore vigilantism, torture and even eugenics.

“It had to be bold and it had to take risks and it had to be surprising and it had to be a little bit unsafe,” Lindelof said. “And so if we were feeling unsafe writing it, that was sort of an essential emotional component of the storytelling.”

The look of the show matches the mood, with a sense of dread punctuated by action sequences. Nicole Kassell, who directed the pilot and episodes two and eight, was led by Gibbons’ original vertical comic panes.

“It was absolutely inspiring to look at the framing of the comic and knowing that if I could pay homage to that as often as possible, it would really delight the fans,” she said.

There are so-called Easter eggs throughout. In one scene, King’s character is in a kitchen and the script calls for her to crack several eggs in a bowl and, for a millisecond, make a smile from the yolks.

That’s a nod to an iconic image from the comic — the yellow smiley face. But Kassell took it further, choosing clear bowls so she could film above and below, adding a whisk between two bowls to create an owl face (also a key motif of the books) and then adding a dash of red — recreating the blood-splattered smiley face image that graced the cover of the first issue.

The original comics also were bursting with social and historical references, with plenty of varied musical allusions.

It’s a challenging work and complex to watch. No wonder adapting Watchmen well has long eluded Hollywood. But Lindelof and his team have avoided one pitfall of director Zack Snyder’s Watchmen movie of a decade ago — being too reverential to the source material. This new series isn’t scared by its legacy.

“There is something almost freeing about saying, ‘This is supposed to be impossible. If we attempt this dive and we end up breaking our neck or, halfway down, we realise there’s no water in the pool, that’s sort of what everybody expected from us anyway’,” he said. “That became liberating.”