By Ben Thomson, Staff Writer
There’s nothing more powerful than a superhero, both literally and metaphorically. Take away the super strength and laser vision and what do you have? A storyline that will enrapture billions around the world.
Costumed goons have become the dominant vehicles of storytelling. The gods of Olympus now wear tights and masks.
However, few writers attempt to use these goons to understand the world around them or explore complex issues. Perhaps the allure of escapism is too strong — but there are exceptions to every rule. Enter HBO’s Watchmen, the sequel series to Alan Moore’s 1986 graphic novel.
The series begins with the 1921 Tulsa race massacre. A desperate father hides his son in a wagon, hoping to God the boy can survive long enough to escape the carnage brought by the Klu Klux Klan to the peaceful city. Immediately, our protagonist is a young boy sent into a world that does not want him — a modern Superman story.
Watchmen contextualizes its story around Black history in a very unique way. Showrunner Damon Lindeloff cited the work of Ta-Nehisi Coates as a massive inspiration for Watchmen, and it shows.
Oppression flows like a poison through the veins of the narrative, traveling through decades of history hidden to both the characters and, in some cases, the audience.
Characters are driven by their trauma, both personal and generational. The ugly truth of Black history is found not in what was done, but in how much was hidden and never held accountable. I am ashamed to admit that I — a White viewer — didn’t know about the Tulsa race massacre until I saw this TV show.
The past and the present occur simultaneously, both literally (through the use of brilliant editing that replicates the original novel) and metaphorically. The beautifully-shot Episode 6 features the protagonist Angela (played by Regina King) being forced to relive her grandfather’s trauma — a powerful, trippy metaphor for generational pain.
The most defining feature of the ‘86 novel is its distrust of superheroes as a concept. The idea that we must put our faith in a masked person is ludicrous. Why else would somebody wear a mask, if not to hide their true selves from the world? In fact, vigilantes are outlawed for that reason.
Then, after a coordinated attack on members of the Tulsa Police Department, police officers are now forced to conceal their identity behind masks.
The public must once again put their trust in a faceless guardian. But many of these guardians have something to hide: a Klan robe in their closet and a secret allegiance with a fictional mega-conglomerate. The villains of Watchmen operate within the system, protected by a yellow mask and a badge of honor. Because there’s no way a police officer could possibly be the bad guy. Right?
I wish there were more superhero shows like Watchmen. Between DC’s garbage CW shows and Marvel’s painfully-bland Disney+ projects, shows like Watchmen probably won’t become the norm anytime soon. It’s nice to watch a show that takes actual risks and has a purpose other than to tease the audience with fan-service (*cough* WandaVision.) It’s hands-down the best superhero TV show I’ve ever seen, and I look forward to my third rewatch.