Watchmen review – the perfect superhero story for our tattered times

Set in an alternative America where white supremacists are on the rampage, this HBO adaptation of Alan Moore’s classic graphic novel is both thrilling and uncomfortably resonant

If we get the heroes we deserve, I hope we get Rachel, the woman whose 45-second vox pop articulated one side of the Brexit debate with the eloquence so conspicuous by its absence among our semi-elected political leaders. Until then, we must settle for our broadcasting platforms delivering us superheroes that at least reflect our frayed and ragged times.

At one end of the quality scale there is Amazon’s trashy, schlocky The Boys – the tale of a band of superpowered humans who are effectively owned by a soulless corporation and who, when the cameras turn away after recording their latest heroic deeds, are as corrupt and venal as any mere mortal. The best you can hope for, and better than nothing, seems to be their and the programme’s creed. Pessimists like me find it quite bracing. Optimists – well, I don’t know how you manage even at the best of times, and if there is anything I can do to help you now please do let me know.

At the other end there is HBO’s new series Watchmen (Sky Atlantic), a nine-part remix of Alan Moore and Dave Gibbons’ 1986 comic-book creations. It accepts what happened in those dozen issues – but not the 2009 film adaptation – as canonical, but sets its own story 30 years after those events. So we are in a recognisable but alternative United States, in which the intervention of the Watchmen – Ozymandias, Nite Owl, The Comedian, Dr Manhattan, Silk Spectre and Rorschach – have changed history as we know it (Vietnam is still the 51st state of America after losing the war, for example), but the Watchmen themselves barely appear, though they are the subject of a popular TV show called American Hero Story, which is advertised everywhere. This is one of many confident flourishes with which showrunner Damon Lindelof demonstrates his joy in and mastery of his own material and its origins.

Watchmen opens in 1921 in Tulsa, during the attack on “Black Wall Street” by the Ku Klux Klan, which apparently orphans a young black boy and a baby girl. We then cut to 2019 – the present, if not our present – and find ourselves in a US in which police wear masks, tell no one what they do for a living and face a growing threat from a group of white supremacists known as the Seventh Cavalry, whose own masks ape that of original Watchmen protagonist Rorschach.

Whether their popularity and power is increasing despite or because of the progressive president – Robert Redford, in power since 1992 and instigator of “Redfordations” to compensate victims of the Tulsa massacre and their descendants – is one of many issues the show juggles as it replaces the original’s central concern about the cold war with the biggest contemporary questions: the resurgence of fascism, the refusal of racism to die and the endless erosion of trust between those who are supposed to protect and to serve and those who should be able to rely on them. “After three years of peace,” one officer notes as evidence of Seventh Cavalry activity piles up around them, “we convinced ourselves they were gone.” It is a line that cannot help but resonate at a time when international complacency is falling away in slabs and we are all looking at each other and wondering how much each face can be said to be a mask.

The main story revolves round Angela Abar (Regina King), bakery owner by day, hooded avenger Sister Night by … well, you get the idea. Don Johnson plays her friend and colleague Judd Crawford. They are both survivors of an attack on the police that killed many other friends and forced her to invent her alter ego for protection. His murder is the catalyst for war between the police and the nationalists, opening up a plot expansive enough to remind you that Lindelof was the prime mover behind Lost, but controlled enough – praise be – to assure you that his adaptation of Tom Perrotta’s The Leftovers was the result of learning from experience, not a fluke.

It is a bravura series that interrogates power, storytelling and the former embedded in the latter. It has a (still unusually) diverse cast, writing team and cohort of directors in terms of both sex and class, and, even as it strays from Moore and Gibbons’ original content, it honours their underlying ambition: to deconstruct our legends and our myths, ask where they come from, what purpose they serve; and to make us think and think again about who tells us what, why – and why they are the ones who get to do so.


Lucy Mangan

The GuardianTramp

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