Review of the HBO Series Watchmen

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Words || Jodie Ramodien

Before 2020 the word WATCHMEN as it pertained to the 1986 graphic novel by Alan Moore and Dave Gibbons had been on the periphery of my popular culture radar. I’d mainly heard of it in passing comments, about how it was so much better than the 2009 Snyder movie disaster that failed to adapt it well and consistently received lukewarm reviews. 

I knew of the lone symbol of a yellow smiley face marred with a single splat of blood but knew nothing of the context, character, or meaning, behind the symbol. A neophyte in the truest sense of the word to one of the most popular comic series ever written, I downloaded a free trial of Binge to watch the adapted HBO series; entering this universe of retired vigilantes and mutant space squids for the first time. 

Episode 1: ‘It’s Summer and We’re Running Out of Ice,’ sets the tone for a show that addresses the roots of racism that exist in the foundation of modern America. The season opens with the Tulsa race massacre which took place on May 31, 1921 and lasted two days. In his book The Burning, Tim Madigan summarises the incident: “A uniquely prosperous community of African Americans, called Greenwood—thirty-five square blocks and literally thousands of homes, businesses, churches, and schools—had been obliterated by a white mob in Tulsa that numbered in the thousands.” What was one of the worst racial atrocities committed in US history was scarcely mentioned or taught in the decades that followed until the Tulsa Race Riot Commission was formed in 1997 to have the incident formally documented and investigated. Encyclopedia Britannica notes that: “The event never received widespread attention and was long noticeably absent from the history books used to teach Oklahoma schoolchildren.”

In 2019 many viewers of Watchmen experienced a shock at learning of this hidden piece of black history. Having missed the initial Watchmen hype, I began watching the show in 2020 and instead first heard about the incident on the news when Trump decided to hold a rally at the site of the massacre, Tulsa, on June 19th or Juneteenth, the day that commemorates the final freeing of all slaves in America. The show chooses to address this history in the opening scene, and gives us an honest depiction of the black experience in America. 

Watchmen uses the superhero genre to reflect on the concept of heroism as it relates to race, exploring how the same act can be framed as white valour and black violence but not black valour and white violence. This is largely done through the character of Hooded Justice who in the comics has no known identity, but is given one in episode 6: ‘This Extraordinary Being.’ With no discernible identity there’s a bias of white assumption, that he will be a caucasian cisgender heterosexual male, because aren’t all superheroes—bar tokenistic attempts of the one female in a superhero team with her tits out and recent moves towards diversity like in this phenomenally good series.

We navigate this world of Watchmen through a black female protagonist, Angela Abar otherwise known as Sister Night, played by Regina King. This show skyrocketed to being one of my favourite series of all-time because of how women are represented in it. Angela Abar, Laurie Blake, and Lady Trieu, are all nuanced and extremely compelling characters that never fall prey to being the tired stereotypes of a male-dominated genre. They are all extremely intelligent, stoic, and badass, not there to be romantic interests, trophies, or sacrifices that ultimately provide emotional arcs for their male counterparts. Nor are they young and dressed in thigh high boots and skin-tight leather for the male gaze, each of the three actresses in their forties or older. 

At the core of Watchmen is the question: Quis custodiet ipsos custodes? Who Watches the Watchmen? This line is scribbled in graffiti across corners, shops, and streets, in the comic book. Phrased another way, the adaptation seems to be asking, who watches the police? An institution that is rife with white supremacy and prone to an abuse of power. Rallying calls to “defund the police,” aren’t at all new. Disdain for the police has appeared in popular music, namely hip-hop, since the birth of the genre in the Bronx of New York city in the 70s. Songs like N.W.A.’s ‘Fuck tha Police’ were recorded in 1988 alongside outcrys to “abolish the police.” This same song was used by Black Lives Matter protestors who this year hacked into the Chicago police radio and played the song. Another song ‘The Message’ by Grandmaster Flash and the Furious Five, released in 1982, similarly highlighted the relationship between black people and the police. In the song’s music video the police see the singing group walking on the sidewalk and arrest them under the assumption that the group is a gang. In an interview with The Guardian Flash synthesises hip-hop’s message and the message in his song: “We matter. We stand for something.”

The first scene of Watchmen that takes place in the present day of 2019 begins with a member of the Cavalry—the Watchmen equivalent of the Klu Klux Klan—driving and listening to hip-hop/rap music. This perhaps points to the popular consumption and love of black art with the irony that what the art is actually saying or representing may go unheard by its wider audience. The song being played in this scene is ‘Crushed Up’ by Future. In it the artist boasts to “narcs” of his wealth and success, “I got some’ to say to the pigs, yeah / I just got an M for a gig, yeah / I just blowed an M on my kids, yeah.” An ‘M’ is slang meaning a millionaire dollars. 

The first two scenes of the show tackle and reveal so much about the current state of America and the following episodes maintain this same level of critique, observation, and excellence. Sister Night is a superhero unlike any other I have seen on-screen. You can check out Watchmen on the streaming service Binge.