Sunday, December 29, 2019

Watchmen (Damon Lindelof, 2019)

Who's watching this Watchmen?

(Warning: plot twists discussed in detail

Getting the big question out of the way: Damon Lindelof's new HBO miniseries is fun. Fastpaced, engaging, funny and at times even witty, it ingeniously picks up the various threads of Alan Moore's intricate weave and extends them, introducing patterns and themes of its own to create a new narrative.

Helps to have a terrific cast: Regina King, athletic and affecting as Angela Abar (aka Sister Night); Jeremy Irons having the time of his life as frustrated megalomaniac Adrian Veidt (aka Ozymandias); Tim Blake Nelson as the agonized agonizing Wade Tilman (aka Looking Glass); Hong Chau as cooly mysterious Lady Trieu; James Wolk as smoothtalking senator Joe Keene; Jean Smart as wry cynical Laurie Blake (aka the former Silk Spectre, later the Comedienne, much later FBI Agent Blake).

Helps (I suppose) that Lindelof is a veteran of timetwisting intricately plotted TV (Lost anyone?)--one of the series' most distinct pleasures is in seeing how he extrapolates plotlines and historical details from the original comic, some suggested in the narrative, others explicitly discussed in the Peteypedia, a website curated by one of the series' minor characters (an FBI agent and masked vigilante fan named Petey). Some of the more interesting tidbits in this, Lindelof's answer to Moore's elaborate appendices in the original comics: many of Ozymandias' initiatives--self-improvement programs, technological innovations--have fallen by the wayside, partly because people have shied away from Manhattan tech, an unintended consequence of Veidt's secret campaign to suggest that the superhero's presence (and technology) can cause cancer. Veidt may be the smartest man in the world but he's only a man, can only do so much in guiding the development of that world--a limitation that will be addressed by the narrative at some later point. 

Even more interesting: Lindelof's pivot to cover a perceived neglect on Moore's part, the issue of racism. Sister Night's grandfather is Will Reeves aka Hooded Justice--the first ever masked vigilante. Maybe the most compelling argument in favor of Lindelof's conceit (that Justice is black) would be the rope round his neck, which has puzzled me for years---what does justice have to do with a hangman's noose? Not so much in the 20th century with use of the death sentence waning and alternative methods to hanging--electrocution, lethal injection--available. Lynchings however, particularly of African Americans--yes the connection makes sense. A symbol of injustice not justice, an injustice this masked vigilante is determined to correct, by any means necessary. 

That said, not entirely true that Moore fails to tackle racism--giant Manhattan towering over the Vietcong is a chilling image of Western technological might towering over its Asian adversaries; later an African-American housewife bristles at the suggestion that everyone black knows each other. 

Maybe Moore's most eloquent statement on racism is what he does not say. The comic is tightlipped about the fact that all the masked vigilantes are--and the one genuine superhero used to be--white, but in panel after panel of Dave Gibbon's artwork you see a sea of occidental (mostly male) faces, and can't help muttering to yourself: this is no accident. Moore again and again equates masked vigilantes with American  fascism (and at one point to a self-confessed kinkiness); one of the few decent men among them is Dan Drieberg (aka Night Owl), arguably the chubbiest least confident of the lot--and even he betrays himself when he learns of a friend's murder ("You know how much firepower I have floating out there? I oughtta take out this entire rat-hole neighborhood!"). Moore includes no people of color among the Watchmen's (or Minutemen's) ranks, and he may have had a specific reason for that. 

There may be a reason for every element Moore introduces in his comics, and Lindelof fiddles with them at his peril. Plenty of new characters in the cable series but none as repulsive as The Comedian, a would-be rapist and occasional mass-murderer who turns out to have a hidden human side; none as compelling as Rorschach, who emerges from his wretched childhood with a uniquely twisted point of view. Moore's masked fighters are neither heroes nor villains; rather their villainy and heroism are so intricately interwoven you don't think of them as one or the other--they're just people with an enhanced ability to either help or harm, and even then the end results are often ambiguous (When they help do they cause harm? When they harm could the act provide some form of help?). The comics initially hold them up as law enforcers on a quest to solve the mystery of a hero-killer. By story's end the strongest most brilliant among them is revealed to be a sociopath, and they realize that the best course of action to take--in the face of the sociopath's vast plan of world salvation--is inaction. Ironic, because aren't heroes supposed to act in defiance of evil or injustice? Are they crusaders or collaborators?

In Lindelof's series things are much simpler: bad guys remain bad guys (though they may be charming and initially appear to be on your side), good guys stay firmly good (Tim Blake Nelson's Looking Glass being a domesticated reflection of Rorschach). One of the most ambivalent characters is Lady Trieu, but only because she keeps her cards close to her chest for so long--when she lays them down turns out she's been bluffing. Then there's Jeremy Iron's mysterious prisoner who turns out to be Ozymandias--still a sociopath (amusingly so) but by series' end he's brought to undignified justice like any other Republic serial villain. 

Which is a particular shame in the case of Angela. The fact that a black woman plays what in Moore's mind is a fascist figure without questioning her role in the larger scheme of things is a waste of potential. Law enforcement has had a historically knotty relationship with the African American community, law enforcement officers who are also African-American being especially conflicted (to have some sense just how conflicted, check out Charles Burnett's underrated The Glass Shield).

Then there's Jon Osterman aka Dr. Manhattan. Lindelof deftly captures Manhattan's omniscient sense of time--no easy feat--but doesn't quite capture the scale of his point of view. Where in the comics you get a sense of his immense alienation, the distance he feels from everyone else ("this world's smartest man means no more to me than does its smartest termite") in the HBO series he's truly passive--mainly an untapped resource waiting to be exploited, a big blue pinata of a MacGuffin whose abilities everyone wants. Moore questions the very notion of superpowers--explicitly in an appended essay ("we have made a man to end worlds"), implicitly in the withering way Osterman loses his humanity one trait after another till he has little left save an appreciation for the planet Mars (of the Valles Marineris: "stretches more than three thousand miles so one end knows day while the other endures night"). There's grandeur to his language but also a strange sterile serenity--Osterman observes that all his life he's been told what to do; superpowers only served to expand his helplessness into a metaphysical state of mind. 

Which is perhaps the biggest difference between this adaptation and Moore's source work: 1) that his protean imagination only serves as props and background for recognizably human beings, beings who demand not just our admiration but skepticism, condemnation, ultimately our pity (we root for Sister Night we don't for a moment condemn her); 2) that Moore is incurably mistrustful of power structures, including the kind capable of producing a sequel (HBO) to a work he has given up for lost (to DC Comics) a long time ago. Lindelof captures some of that creativity, considerably less of the independence; the series as a whole should really be considered a miniature--a sketch really--of the teemingly febrile original.

First published in Businessworld 12.20.19


Anonymous said...

Haven't seen this yet. Have you seen The Boys? I think it's also worth checking out simply for being more adult than the Marvel/Disney kid-friendly movies (i.e., there's sex, violence, spice girls, religion, corporate greed, MIC, etc.).

Noel Vera said...

Nope, but sounds interesting.