There’s Nothing Romantic About Being a Masked Hero in HBO’s ‘Watchmen’ 

Midway through the first season of HBO’s “Watchmen,” a character wonders if anything is true anymore. It’s the kind of question even a masked hero asks in this show, set in a world where superheroes are not admired and costumes cover deep psychological scars. This is not some new adaptation of the classic Alan Moore DC graphic novel, but a semi-sequel and reinvention. Until now the most famous film version of this story has of course been the 2009 Zack Snyder movie, but on TV under the eye of creator Damon Lindelof, it becomes something more expansive, rambling even, yet still urgent.

It’s been 35 years since the events of the original “Watchmen” comic. Those who experienced the “Psychic Blast” from 1985 live in a world now devoid of traditional superheroes because they’ve been outlawed. Yet masked operatives still abound, particularly in police forces where officers don masks to protect their identities. But heroes still take on jobs in such departments. The two main characters are Angela Bar (Regina King), who goes by the costumed name of Sister Night and a silvery-masked partner called Looking Glass (Tim Blake Nelson). They are based in Tulsa, Oklahoma. Authorities everywhere are obsessed with an emerging fringe group calling itself the 7th Cavalry. They wear masks based off the late hero Rorschach and preach an anarchic form of rebellion in their communiques. The feds publicly slam them as white supremacists. When the chief of police is found murdered, hanging from a noose, Sister Night and Looking Glass are thrown into an uncertain reality where they don’t know who to trust. The government sends in an enforcer, Jane Crawford (Frances Fisher), to keep tabs and help bring in the 7th Cavalry. But as the situation intensifies, Sister Night discovers her own links to a bloody chapter of Tulsa’s past and Looking Glass realizes most of what the government peddles as the official history of the last three decades is false.

Like the original comic and even the Snyder film, “Watchmen” is more of an experience than a traditional narrative. What is successfully conjured here is an alternate world that still speaks to our uncertain age. What this series understands so well is that comic books are a form of pop mythology, so it therefore takes on an iconoclastic tone. There are no grandiose, romantic moments, few of the costumed characters, if any, look like the idealized image of a Superman or Batman. Instead this is an America draped in shadow, the cops are vicious, and someone like Looking Glass is attached to his mask because he remains scarred by what happened in 1985. It’s almost as if the material is saying that even if there were superheroes, real life wouldn’t take it easy on them or us. In the first six episodes the only truly comic bookish character is Adrian Veidt (Jeremy Irons), a wealthy former costumed personality living out in a vast estate, conducting strange experiments with the help and having himself catapulted (literally) into space. Fans of the comic will recognize him and know what he might be up to. Irons is having malevolent fun with this role, playing it like the aristocrat hiding a monster beneath the charm.

Lindelof previously helmed another brilliant HBO adaptation, “The Leftovers,” based on the Tom Perrotta novel about a world where millions are suddenly raptured without explanation. As with that show, “Watchmen” in a different context also successfully imagines apocalyptic scenarios with a startling realism. The everyday is combined with the extraordinary. In one episode we learn about Looking Glass being a young Bible-devoted youth lured into a carnival funhouse by a girl who steals his clothing, only to then be hit by the “Psychic Blast” that wiped out a chunk of civilization. Richard Nixon in the comic and movie remained president well into the 80s, in this show he has been sanctified by followers into a cult. A ghetto called “Nixonville” has RV denizens worshipping a giant statue of Tricky Dick. History is also combined in provocative forms. The Tulsa race riot of 1921 becomes a running theme when Sister Night discovers she is related to one of the survivors. “Watchmen” uses its pop roots to explore deeper social issues, with another episode opening during World War I as German troops drop leaflets aimed at African American soldiers, wondering why they would die for a country that grants them no rights. 

It is the powerful allusions to our contemporary predicaments that make “Watchmen” work best even when the storylines get muddled. What matters is what these masked archetypes represent. Looking Glass lives alone, attends therapy sessions and looks darkly at everything. Sister Night has a husband and children, and males in positions of authority love dismissing her costume, acting as if it doesn’t matter. The 7th Cavalry are the equivalent of every vigilante movement or hyped threat we see on the evening news, be it the Alt-Right or Black Bloc. It’s brave for the show to discuss such characters with buzz words like “white supremacist.” If we feel these days like there are no heroes left, “Watchmen” understands this, which is why Looking Glass and Sister Night spend more time trying to figure out themselves than cracking cases. Even Crawford, alone in her hotel room, thinks about her lost love, Dr. Manhattan, the famous big blue radioactive character who now lives on Mars. The big question is what is Veidt up to and how it will then force everyone into a new, united battle. 

What will linger with viewers from “Watchmen” is its potent sense of mood and place. It is a series where even the shows about the lives of superheroes people watch in its world come with a family warning of graphic content. The music is by Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross, that duo who continue to deliver scores full of electric ambiance and melancholy. Like America post-9/11, the people in “Watchmen” live haunted by the events of 1985, and like our country today, they find themselves in a fast-changing landscape where divisions become more deep and hope gets obscured by the noise of fighting.

Watchmen” season one premieres Oct. 20 and airs Sundays at 9 p.m. ET on HBO.