Alan Moore’s celebrated 1986 series Watchmen revolved around a conspiracy to kill off masked vigilantes, and in effect that’s what it did in real life. Compared with the complex, mature, literary nature of Watchmen, most other comic-book titles looked juvenile and two-dimensional. This was at a time when “comic-book movies” meant Christopher Reeve’s wholesome Superman series, and when the only inhabitant of the Marvel movie universe was Howard the Duck. The entire industry had to up its game, and a new era of mature “graphic novels” was born.
Now we appear to have come full circle – which is fitting for a story so heavy with clock symbolism. With uncanny timing, HBO’s lavish new Watchmen series arrives at a moment when comic-book movies are again in what you might call a decadent phase of the cycle. They have decisively conquered our screens and our box offices, with ever grander and more improbable forms of spectacle, to the extent that we’re now beginning to question how much more of them we need. Could Watchmen kill off the superheroes once again?
The backlash has been building with surprising speed. Earlier this month, Martin Scorsese struck a nerve by confessing he’d tried to watch Marvel’s movies but did not consider them to be “cinema”. At least, not in the sense of “human beings trying to convey emotional, psychological experiences to another human being”. Pow! His old buddy Francis Ford Coppola backed Scorsese up: “He’s right because we expect to learn something from cinema, we expect to gain something, some enlightenment, some knowledge, some inspiration … I don’t know that anyone gets anything out of seeing the same movie over and over again.” Bam! When asked, a fair number of film-makers think the same, it turns out. Earlier this week Ken Loach dismissed Marvel movies as “commodities, like hamburgers” designed to “make a profit for a big corporation”. Thwack!
Alan Moore, who has distanced himself from all film and TV adaptations of his work, said pretty much the same thing in an interview a few years ago: “What are these movies doing other than entertaining us with stories and characters that were meant to entertain the 12-year-old boys of 50 years ago?” he asked, adding, “I tend to see a lot of these current figures as the focus of a kind of unhealthy escapism.”
Many have rushed to the defence of comic-book content, and argued that it doesn’t have to be an either/or debate, but there’s a sense that these fantasies can only reach so far into the real world before they’re confronted with their own absurdity. Post-Watchmen, the genre has been on a steady journey towards greater realism, at least on screen. You can mark it in the difference between Tim Burton’s 1989 Batman, set in a cartoonish Gotham City, and Christopher Nolan’s grittier Batman trilogy, set in what could be 21st-century reality. The contradictions opened up as the genre arrived at city-trashing epics like Batman v Superman (Who’s going to clean up all that destruction? How many civilian casualties were there?). Or Captain America: Civil War, where one politician describes Marvel’s superhero team as “US-based, enhanced individuals who routinely ignore sovereign borders, who inflict their will wherever they choose, and who frankly seem unconcerned about what they leave behind.” The record-breaking Avengers: Infinity War and Endgame subsequently steered away from such complexities, and set up a fantasy good-v-evil showdown taking place far from populated areas. That could be read as a retreat back into “comic book” realms.
Moore despaired of Watchmen’s effect on the comics industry, which he described as “like being in a hall of mirrors in a funfair, where you can only see ugly, distorted reflections of yourself”. He wrote Watchmen to bury the superhero genre, not to reinvigorate it. At the heart of the 12-part story was the suggestion that in reality (or a parallel version of it), those who felt compelled to dress up in costumes and inflict extrajudicial violence upon strangers might not be the most stable members of society. In Watchmen’s alternate reality, costumed vigilantes first appear in the 1940s (mirroring the rise of comic books themselves), and largely turn out to be psychopaths, rapists, sexual “deviants”, violent fascists and self-interested schemers. They become such a problem, they are outlawed in the 1970s. By the mid-1980s when the main story is set, these caped crusaders have either quietly retired, defied the ban and kept going, become shady government operatives, or leveraged their celebrity into business. There is only one genuinely superpowered being in the story: Doctor Manhattan, a physicist who gains godlike powers as the result of a nuclear accident. He helps the US win the Vietnam war, but ultimately tires of human affairs and emigrates to Mars. There are no good or evil characters and no evident “heroes” to the tale.
The new Watchmen series, written by Damon Lindelof (creator of Lost and The Leftovers), takes the story in a different direction but retains the spirit of the original, not least in its jaded view of vigilantism. Just as the first Watchmen reflected the Doomsday-clock nuclear paranoia of the cold war, so this story, set 35 years later, chimes with America’s current racial tensions. The first episode begins with a re-creation of the 1921 Tulsa Massacre, in which a white mob waged war on an affluent African American neighbourhood, killing residents, burning buildings to the ground, even conducting aerial bombing raids. This is the first many viewers will have heard of this horrific real-life event. Our central character is a black, female vigilante, played by Regina King, and Watchmen goes on to incorporate lynchings, riots, institutional racism, the KKK (who were also masked vigilantes when you think about it), and a new white-supremacist terrorist group. For their own protection, the police also wear masks now. “You know how you can tell the difference between a masked cop and a vigilante?” asks Jean Thomas’s jaded FBI investigator early on. “Me neither.”
Lindelof has acknowledged his status as a white man disqualifies him from speaking authoritatively about the black American experience, but clearly he is trying to push the boundaries of the genre. “The questions we wanted to explore were, why aren’t there any conversations about race happening in the superhero genre outside of Black Panther?” Lindelof recently told Variety. “In an entire century of superhero storytelling, what happened to the black superheroes? Did any of them make a go of it and because of racism they were pushed to the side? Because that is what would have happened in real life.”
Some have suggested Lindelof has been reading too much Ta-Nehisi Coates, and that Watchmen strays too far into the realm of real-world politics – that it is not comic book enough. Currently on Rotten Tomatoes, the critics give Watchmen a 95% approval rating; the audience score is 49%. (Sample audience comment: “If you cover a terrible show in performative ‘woke’ crap it’s still a terrible show – Damon Lindelof is a communist.”)
Watchmen is not the first sign of a superhero backlash. The recent Joker movie, for example, made a concerted effort to craft an edgier, more mature kind of comic-book story – by excising any references to superheroes and, ironically, taking its cue from the works of Martin Scorsese and Alan Moore (in particular his post-Watchmen story The Killing Joke). Explaining his rationale earlier this year, Joker director Todd Phillips said: “You can’t beat Marvel – it’s a giant behemoth. Let’s do something they can’t do.”
In July we also had Amazon’s The Boys, based on Garth Ennis’s 2006 comic book, imagining a world where, behind their squeaky clean public personae, superheroes are corrupt, money-minded, corporate-controlled celebrities who abuse their powers with impunity. When naive newcomer Starlight is recruited into the elite team, she is immediately coerced into oral sex with a team member, then forced to wear a more revealing costume to up the ratings. The invisible Translucent is a pervert who hangs out in women’s toilets; the lightning-fast A-Train relies on performance-enhancing drugs. There is murder, blackmail, corruption, and worse, all served with a strong shot of black comedy. They’re basically the Injustice League.
In 2002, Alan Moore wrote a nuanced little story for a comic book tribute called 9-11: Artists Respond. In it, he feared the polarising effects of the attacks on the World Trade Center, the “us v them”, “crusaders v jihadists” narrative. “Dangerous, now, to simplify, to trade reality’s moral grey for comic books’ black and white,” he went on. “Writing comic book morality is embarrassingly easy,” he wrote. “Super-villains don’t need motives for doing anything – killing, maiming, whatever – they’re just evil.” He could have been talking about Osama Bin Laden or Thanos. Predictably, in his story, Moore chooses not to pick a side; he comes down on the side of complexity.
Perhaps it is coincidence that the current comic-book renaissance has mirrored the War on Terror and the rise of Islamic State, or perhaps such narratives thrive in times when there is a need for moral certainty. “People who wear masks are driven by trauma,” says Smart’s FBI agent in the new Watchmen. “They’re obsessed with justice because of some injustice they’ve suffered.” Maybe that’s been happening on a global level. Maybe still we need more of it. There are always arguments for and against processing reality through genre escapism and there are always “healthy” and “unhealthy” examples of it. It’s not black and white.