“You know what I wish? I wish all the scum of the Earth had one throat and I had my hands about it.” Alan Moore
If one were to think of politics in a superhero universe and a mélange at strategic junctures of world history mingled into it, it might seem a daunting task. Is it possible, that your superhero characters echo and denounce the hypocrisies which exist in realpolitik? Can a Godly being fight for American soldiers in the Vietnam and kill enemy by his superpowers? Will a controversial President like Richard Nixon ask for the services of Dr Manhattan (an atomic energy infused superhero) to help him win the war! Can African American law enforcer lead the resistance against terrorists in today’s America? Will the Police mask themselves in everyday life to hide from the outlaws? Can the US and USSR be unified to build a better world? These situations can be ingrained in an alternate world created by thoughtful writers and that was the seminal graphic novel “The Watchmen” by Alan Moore and Dave Gibbons. It is considered one of the very few novels which create superhero led narratives that border a lot on realism.
The aim of this essay is to explain “The Watchmen” universe by giving a full perspective to the reader by first delving into the movie which released in 2009 and then connect it to the current TV Show by the same name. I will also look at the philosophy behind this content.
The Watchmen (TV Show) has been written and produced by Damien Lindelof (Lost, The Leftovers, Prometheus). It is currently streaming on Hotstar in India.
WHAT IS THE WATCHMEN (MOVIE) ABOUT?
The Watchmen is a story set in an alternate world which is very close to the 1980’s United States. The only difference is that superheroes are a societally accepted phenomenon. In fact there have been generations of superhero ensemble (The Minutemen, Cyclops , The Watchmen, Cyclops) who have been taking on the system and changing several political outcomes such as the Presidency of Richard Nixon and the Vietnam War. The central characters are Dr Manhattan ( a superhuman), Rorschach( a masked vigilante), Silk Spectre ( a female law enforcer), The Comedian (A US Government employed costumed superhero), Ozymandias( a crazed billionaire who models himself on Alexander The Great) and a host of other characters.
The story revolves around the fact The Comedian has been killed and his murder is being investigated by Rorschach where he uncovers a plot that all the superheroes are being assassinated. After various turn of events, it is revealed that Ozymandias was responsible behind this conspiracy and he wanted to unify USA and USSR in the 1980’s to build a better world. But nothing really moves in this direction with Dr Manhattan departing permanently to Mars and the rest of them go back into crime fighting. This is the end of 1980’s.
THE TV SERIES
The TV series shifts the entire universe of Watchmen to the city of Tulsa in Oklahoma in 2019. In this environment, the police in the city hide their identities as they are under threat of “The 7th Cavalry”, a white supremacist group founded under the principles and teachings of Rorschach. On Christmas Eve 2016, the Cavalry attacks the homes of over 40 police personnel. Following this only a handful stay with the Police Force. Detective Angela Abar (Regina King) is amongst them who herself masquerades as a masked vigilante to stop crime on the streets. As the story progresses, she uncovers a plot to destroy humanity by something called “The Doomsday Clock” developed and owned by Lady Trieu ( the daughter Of Ozymandias). As she continues her fight and her relentless pursuit of the Cavalry and Trieu, she is stopped and frequently interrupted by Laurie Blake (Older Silk Spectre) who is now in retirement and working with the Anti Vigilante Task Force to hunt down vigilantes.
Meanwhile, we are introduced to Ozymandias/Adrian Veidt (Jeremy Irons) in his current avatar. He lives on a planet called Europa were he lives in an English estate with a set of organically grown humans who serve him, counsel him, critique him and keep him occupied in exile.
As all these storylines move forward, Dr Manhattan comes back after his long hiatus and ends the conflict with Detective Angela going back to her family.
THE POLITICS OF THE WATCHMEN
Something which clearly is unique about the Watchmen is that it’s the only superhero comic which includes real life politics in its central narrative. Some of the references are as follows:
The 7th Cavalry is a white supremacist group echoing the Trump presidency which has been vocal on the support for Caucasian descent citizenry.
Lady Trieu has been positioned as the world’s first “Trillionaire” . Her ethnicity of being a Chinese clearly shows that the writers were inspired by the Chinese dominance in the world economy. This was not possible earlier. It can be debated that Trieu’s resurgence is the payback for the Vietnam war but given the current geo-politics, China is a bigger threat to US domination.
The clear reference to Tulsa being the center of the story is of racial violence which erupted in 1921 and was a seminal event in the African American’s long history in the US. The very fact that Regina King was chosen to be the face of the TV Show is a testament to writer Damien Lindelof’s focus on the ‘race’ at the center of the conflict.
The world of Adrien Veidt (Older Ozymandias) where he creates , destroys life as per his whims and fancies portrays the inner workings of a theocratic state which is now a reality in many countries across the globe.
A policeman in Tulsa wears a Red Hood and speaks Russian accented English. I think that’s a clear reference to the current state of communism in America.
Robert Redford continues to be the longest serving American President in the show clearly depicting that US is getting devoid of democracy and becoming a state heavily dependent on ‘co-operation’ of superheroes.
THE ROMANCE OF DISSENT
There are a series of mentions and incidents in the show which talk of various groups taking on the mantle of “costumed vigilantes”. Its shown that in 1930’s “The Minutemen” and “Cyclops” were various groups of regular individuals who decided to fight injustice. Angela’s grand father Will Reeves was himself a vigilante. In the present , “The 7th Cavalry” and “Watchmen” themselves were groups of crime fighters who have no faith in the state’s capacity to fight injustice. In fact, The Watchmen as a content piece institutionalizes dissent in all its various timelines. It will be fair to point out that “The Watchmen” is an anti-system creative piece.
Regina King as Detective Angela Abar gives a performance of a lifetime. She is the soul of the show. Yahya-Abdul Mateen as her husband and Dr Manhattan’s current form also gives an inspired portrayal. The treat of the show has to be Jeremy Irons as the ageing Ozymandias/ Adrian Veidt. His frustration and ruthless pursuit for domination of the world makes him look engaging. Honorable mentions needs to be given to Jean Smart as Laurie Blake too. The supporting cast which includes Tim Blake Nelson as Looking Glass (inspired by Rorschach) is also very effectively used.
I would give THE WATCHMEN a 8 out of 10 for each individual episode. Writers Damien Lindelof and his team of writers/directors manage to create their own world by creating some stunning visuals and sequences which echo the political realities of our world!