Before beginning to consider the whole Watchmen experience, there’s a necessary premise to be accounted for. Alan Moore’s DC Comics series of 1986 has been one of the most influential cultural objects of the last thirty years.
Together with Miller’s The Dark Knight Returns, it has subverted and deconstructed the superhero archetype for good – thanks to its dark, satirical and controversial elements. Universal had already produced a movie adaptation directed by Zack Snyder (300, Justice League) in 2009, accused by some critics of merely translating the comic’s panels into moving images. Logline: in an alternative Cold War America where masked vigilantes are forced to live a clandestine life, one of them – Rorschach – investigates the murder of an old companion. He discovers a secret that could literally change the world.
New timing, a different framework
Almost ten years after the movie – with this premise in mind and without Moore’s approval – HBO decided two things: the time had come for a new miniseries adaptation, and Damon Lindelof (Lost, The Leftovers) was the right man for the job.
This updated and long-expected version is still a uchronia, but it takes place thirty-four years after the original. It has the merit of reconsidering the superhero mythology in a different framework: that of racial discrimination. And yet, another focus turns out to be even more important. The analogy between the superhero and the KKK’s need of wearing a mask (which inspires the effective origin story of Hooded Justice). Moore himself made this statement in an interview: “I think that a good argument can be made for D.W. Griffith’s Birth of a Nation (1915) as the first American superhero movie, and the point of origin for all those capes and masks.”
It might not be an easy viewing or fully satisfying renovation, but most choices in Watchmen are clever (like a black female protagonist, Regina King’s Sister Night). The layered narrative is attractive to an array of audiences, and the boldness of betraying the old work to create a new one – although thorny – is praiseworthy.