(Re) Watching the Watchmen: Dystopian Fiction and the Big Blue Superman

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Arguably one of the best TV series of 2019 and prime binge-watching real estate, Watchmen (2019) offers the perfect mix of dystopian and superhero fiction to fill the hours. It is a show that grows and expands out into the forefront of your idle mind long after its final credits roll. I left my first watch of Watchmen feeling as though I could not quite put pen to paper to describe what the show was about. I needed time to process and to unpick. It was something unusual, something not quite like anything I’d ever seen before. It was only now, following a second viewing, that it dawned on me: it’s a TV masterpiece.

(Please note: This review discusses the first season of HBO’s new Watchmen TV show so be warned of spoilers ahead for those who have not watched the show. If you are on the fence and undecided about whether it is for you, I cannot recommend trying it enough – you won’t be disappointed.)

HBO’s Watchmen follows on from the events of Alan Moore and Dave Gibbon’s critically acclaimed 1986-1987 graphic novel of the same name, delving into the people, places, and struggles left behind after the cataclysmic, world-changing ending of the comic. In this newly imagined sequel, the United States of America remains a playground for costumed vigilantes. It is a place where ultraviolence runs rampant and the threat of nuclear extinction, typified by the luminous blue figure of Dr. Manhattan, looms large on the horizon.

Visually, Watchmen is an eclectic mix of interesting and unusual cinematography. Each episode offers its own subtly unique style of visuals, the garish colours of its reimagined capitalist America blends seamlessly with the muted greys of its flashback sequences. Carefully crafted interactions between characters both new and old provide a sense of familiarity and yet the storyline does not seem too similar to other Watchmen stories.

One of my personal favourite details lies in its interesting presentation of the individual episode titles with each uniquely interwoven into the action of the show in a different way in every episode. I found myself looking forward to seeing how it would be done in each episode, waiting for the towering, bright-yellow words to appear with glee. Its musical score is as eerie as it is atmospheric. It ebbs and swells with each emotional register of its plot. Watchmen truly is a feast for the senses.

Watchmen‘s pacing moves seamlessly between slow, burning explorations of the events of the past, explosive action setpieces, and smouldering tension between its central cast of characters. One minute, it dazzles with its unique blend of the sci-fi and superhero genres, the next it is offering a devastating social critique of the contemporary western world. Perhaps one of the few criticisms that could be leveled at the show is its reliance on a previous awareness of the already-established depths of the Watchmen story of Moore’s graphic novel.

Fans who are unfamiliar with the original graphic novel may struggle initially to make sense of a story so grounded in the original source material: from the very first episode, it is apparent that this show is not intended for the casual fan (or even, some might argue, fans of the 2009 film of the same name due to subtle but world-changing differences). Enough information is possible to be gleaned from the conversations that unfold between characters but it is not necessarily always easy to discern the full extent of the events of previous decades.

Watchmen requires careful unpicking. At times it is a Gordian Knot made up of interwoven strands that come together and fall apart. There is a satisfaction to be had, however, when mild confusion gives way to understanding: whenever a penny is thrown early in an episode, it consistently hits the ground before the episode comes to an end.

As the dust settles on its momentous season finale, HBO’s Watchmen highlights a towering achievement of superhero fiction, truly deserving of the acclaim it received. It tackles a host of themes both political and social, delving into the justification of violence, utilitarian politics, the ethics of superpowers, and the potency of symbolism in shaping politics.

The superhero genre has experienced a meteoric rise over the past decade, with Marvel’s Avengers films breaking box office records and new superhero TV shows being released with a fast and carefully honed frequency. Watchmen is the latest addition to this trend, playing with many of the standard superhero tropes whilst also offering a faithful addition to the world first imagined by Alan Moore and Dave Gibbon’s graphic novel.

Watchmen manages what many shows cannot: it is both nostalgic and unavoidably alien in equal parts. It contains just enough similarity to the recent wave of superhero tv shows, such as Marvel’s Daredevil and The Punisher which presented a dark, violent, often-brooding re-imagining of the superhero genre whilst also presenting something fresh and original. It unpicks questions surrounding absolute power and whether, as the old saying goes, it does indeed corrupt absolutely. Whether such power should ever be wielded by those who live within this new America.

Watchmen wrestles, as does the graphic novel, with issues of morality, of power, of the relationships that structure oppressive and brutal regimes, and of the impact that legacies of violence have on the current generation in this expanded story. Just as Doctor Manhattan experiences time simultaneously, Watchmen jumps backwards and forwards in time, seamlessly exploring the histories of the characters alongside the unfolding of present-day events. It is complex in its presentation and far from easy watching, but the insight into another America (and by extension, another world) makes it a searching and engaging feat of superhero fiction. It has far earned its place in the superhero television hall of fame, a megaton blast of sight, sound, and storytelling. To this reviewer’s eyes, a masterpiece.

Dan Ewers

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