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Who Watched The Watchmen?

  Alan Moore and Dave Gibbons' comic book Watchmen (1986-7) was, along with Frank Miller's The Dark Knight Returns, the major work of the eighties in that medium, certainly out of American comics, though they were both Brits - the industry across the Atlantic was signing up British talents like crazy in that era. It was an immediate sensation, a work that could be taken seriously in the format, but was also very much part of it: no matter which way you sliced it, the book was still about superheroes, and a legion of fans could claim that their favourite entertainment could now be legitimately considered art.

Decades later, the biggest influence they seemed to have on the culture was in the movies and television produced as mass entertainment, while the numbers of those actually reading them off the page had dwindled, and many a property was being used as a jumping off point for franchises that were raking in billions at the box office, and attracting millions of TV viewers globally. But Watchmen remained an enigma, not least because Moore was so wedded to comics that he made no secret of despising any attempt at translating his work to the screen, it just would not artistically succeed, quoth he, for they were inherently different.

Therefore no Moore adaptation - he would have no say in what was adapted as he did not own the rights to much of his output - would ever bear his name, and that included the 2009 film version of Watchmen which had Zack Snyder at the helm. Not coincidentally, he had directed 300, a Miller adaptation, and would provide a variation on The Dark Knight Returns in Batman vs Superman after this, the superhero genre offering a validation of his worldview that might was right. Yet Moore was a lot more complex than that and put a lot less store by the self-appointed guardians of nations or cities, to the extent he would happily deconstruct them.

Snyder, then, in his Watchmen was so enamoured of the titular vigilantes that he failed to notice the source was, at the very least, a satire on the whole genre while doubling as a detective story about solving the murder of covert ops hero The Comedian (Jeffrey Dean Morgan in the film) who we quickly learn is not really heroic at all. Yet Snyder retained his belief even in this violent lowlife, simply because he sported a costume and a power fantasy philosophy that suited his own, and so it was with the rest of the now-banned (in the story) team, from messed up avenger Rorschach (Jackie Earle Haley) to actual superman Dr Manhattan (Billy Crudup).

The twists and turns of Moore and Gibbons' comic were retained as far as the plot and look went, but not morally. The action sequences were full-blooded and exaggerated, intended to excite in an immature manner not in keeping with the original, with punches landing to loud thumps and crashes, like an unintended self-parody. Snyder changed the ending too, not because Moore's resembled an episode of the sixties anthology The Outer Limits, but because he had no faith in it, a pity since as Snyder's played, it was a disappointing way to wrap things up. Existing in three cuts, the film was a letdown at the box office, but gathered a cult following.

Writer and producer Damon Lindelof was a fan of the original comic book, and wanted to do something similar, but not on film, in the longer form medium of television, much as Terry Gilliam had planned to adapt the original in the nineties, reasoning a film would not do such an intricate story justice. Perhaps Snyder had proven Gillam correct, as there was little of the anti-establishment spirit of Moore's writing in his results, yet in 2019 Lindelof, believing he may as well create a sequel to the comic (not the film) as there would be too many similarities between Moore's script and his ideas, produced Watchmen for the small screen, and a cult series was born.

It picked up in an alternate universe 2019, where Adrian Veidt (Jeremy Irons) had succeeded in his peacemaking scheme but the world was really no better, for no matter how much better society was supposed to be under a new liberal regime from President Robert Redford, the conservative factions harboured bitter resentment, basically because they did not like being told what to do by someone who was not exactly like them. It was a provocative premise, and not one that curried favour with the right-wing followers of Snyder who complained about the politics, yet Watchmen was always a political work and Lindelof captured more of the sense of Moore's worldview.

Everyone in both the comic and the TV sequel had an idea of how to make a better world, and the fact they couldn't all agree essentially meant that nobody got a better world. The idea, embodied by god among men Dr Manhattan, now missing, was that we all try to create our own Paradise, be that with a perfect relationship or a perfect community - even a perfect nation or planet – and we are each doomed to failure since there are too many factors that will sabotage your dreams. People fall out, or die, others prefer to pit themselves against you, even the environment can spoil things for your ideal world, and that was something the characters in the sequel faced.

Regina King was a new character, police detective Sister Night - the law enforcers now dress as masked vigilantes, as the actual vigilantes are illegal, and Redford took away everyone's guns (!). She was brought up in Vietnam, another state of the USA after the war was won by Dr Manhattan, and another character from there will highlight the potential of the American Dream, where you can theoretically travel there as an immigrant and rise to be the most powerful person on the planet. Yet this is a falsity, that promise of the perfect world again that cannot transpire when reality is too complex to sustain it. King was also, significantly, African American.

The series started with a restaging of the racist massacre in the Tulsa of the nineteen-twenties, a horrifying act of murderous prejudice that has been downplayed in the history of America, and that bigotry endemic in the country, on the globe, is one major reason why perfection is impossible in this society that mirrors our own: we are broken because we cannot get over ourselves. One satisfying aspect of the series was its references to the comic that were used so much smarter than Snyder was able to grasp, and Moore fans would appreciate how the plot was advanced, from the squid showers to Hooded Justice's closely guarded identity (here we find out why) to Veidt's bullet catching trick. Indeed, if Moore broke his rule and watched Watchmen he might find himself impressed. As for Lindelof, he said a second series was out of the question, and if the ending of this was a tad pat in its echoes of the comic, as a whole it was quite an achievement.
Author: Graeme Clark.

 

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