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Watchmen (HBO, Episode 1) - Review

Watchmen

Review by Rob Carnevale

IndieLondon Rating: 4 out of 5

IT’S ironic that in a week that so much has been written about auteur filmmakers lambasting superhero films for having little to say (or being “theme parks”) that Damon Lindelof’s Watchmen should make its global TV debut to such provocative effect.

Not that Watchmen belongs to the Marvel universe that seems to be the target for much of the criticism, or that it even shares much in common with the likes of DC’s Batman (despite being from the same brand).

Rather, it takes its cues from the acclaimed 1986 comic book creations from Alan Moore and Dave Gibbons, which served as a commentary on the Cold War and its aftermath, while unfolding in an alternative America where the US had won the Vietnam War (thereby installing it as its 51st State), Nixon was never impeached and Robert Redford was now President.

But given the sweeping nature of the comments from filmmakers such as Martin Scorsese, Francis Ford Coppola and Ken Loach, one would assume they are using a one rule hits all form of criticism. Which makes Watchmen‘s impact all the more salient.

Judged on its opening episode, therefore, Watchmen would appear to offer up a damning commentary on American racial tensions at a time when Trump America seems to be exposing them more acutely than ever before in recent history.

It also confronts the global rise of Fascism and the challenges of policing such volatile attitudes.

Admittedly, for those without a cursory knowledge of the original Watchmen comics (as opposed to Zack Snyder’s film, which is ignored), a lot of what references the comics may fly over their heads. But taken as an allegory on modern issues, Watchmen seems highly relevant and very potent.

For starters, the episode opens in 1921 in Tulsa, during the attack on ‘Black Wall Street’ by the Ku Klux Klan – a real life event that left 800 injured and more than 100 dead.

The scene focuses on a young black boy, who is orphaned, and a baby girl, before cutting to 2019 and a US in which police are forced to wear masks to protect their identities, and a threat is re-emerging from a white supremacist group known as the Seventh Cavalry, whose own masks are designed in homage to original Watchmen protagonist Rorschach.

In these opening exchanges, a black police officer is shot by a white Supremacist, prompting police chief Judd Crawford (Don Johnson) to instigate a bloody retribution designed to send a message that such attitudes towards the police will not be tolerated.

Supporting him is friend and former colleague Angela Abar (Regina King), a bakery owner by day, who also goes by the alter-ego of hooded avenger Sister Night. Both are survivors of an attack on the police that killed many other friends.

By the episode’s end, however, Judd has also been murdered and left hanging from a tree, an act that will presumably provide the catalyst for the war between the police and the supremacists that will follow.

As an aside, however, there is the wider universe to consider, most notably former Watchman Veidt, who is seen in a newspaper article mid-episode as having been officially declared dead, only to then later be revealed living in England in a castle, alive and well (as portrayed by Jeremy Irons).

And then there’s the references to Ozymandias and the giant squid-like creature he summoned at the end of the comics, which are referenced by the rainstorm of tiny squid that occurs mid-episode.

Hence, while original Watchman heroes Ozymandias, Nite Owl, The Comedian, Dr Manhattan, Silk Spectre and Rorschach are not likely to feature prominently in the series as flesh and blood characters, the after-effects of their intervention remains alive and well.

Lindelof’s screenplay – which was formed from a writers’ room involving 12 other collaborators – therefore provides plenty of clues and links to Watchmen folklore, while also creating its own story that newcomers can enjoy.

And in this first episode, the escalating tensions between the police and the white supremacists provide a strong, provocative focal point, unfolding like a thriller in which the stakes are already really high and the clock is ticking to prevent all-out carnage. Neither side, it would appear, is interested in taking prisoners. And no one is safe.

It creates a tense backdrop that works outside of the comic book backdrop, lending it real-world immediacy.

And it’s driven by great performances, not least from Johnson and King as they seek to navigate the difficult politics of managing such a volatile [and deeply personal] situation.

For those who are watching from a fanboy perspective, however, there is also a lot to admire. Johnson’s story arc, for instance, mirrors that of The Comedian from the comics, right down to his fate providing the catalyst for the story, and the central mystery of who killed him that will surely now underpin it.

But Irons distant presence as Veidt is also intriguing (if only to see how it will eventually factor in), as is the television appearance of Dr Manhattan on Mars (seemingly destroying a sand version of the castle that Veidt now resides in).

The subversive use of the Rorschach masks is also interesting, given what Rorschach represented in the original comics, as is King’s positioning as either the new Nite Owl or Silk Spectre (or both).

In one brilliantly staged episode, Lindelof has created something terrifically entertaining but mightily thought-provoking… a melting pot of social commentary, thriller and fantasy that serves to show just how effective a medium for offering both enjoyment and debate the comic book genre can – and regularly does – provide.

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