The Brave New World of HBO’s Watchmen

Damon Lindelof’s new show advances the clock on Alan Moore’s original series but retains the comic’s skepticism of heroes in masks.

Mark Hill / HBO

This story contains spoilers for the first episode of HBO’s Watchmen.

The first issue of Watchmen, written by Alan Moore and penciled by Dave Gibbons, was released in September 1986 by DC Comics. It came out in the final years of the Cold War and told an alternative history of nuclear fears curdling into fascism; the story was set in a world where caped vigilantes once walked the streets freely but now could exist only in the employment of the U.S. government. In Watchmen, Richard Nixon won the Vietnam War decisively and extended his presidency permanently because of the superheroes under his command. But Moore was also contending with the end of the “Silver Age” of comic books, which had begun in the ’50s. His series pondered America’s love for supermen who fought crime, defeated bad guys, and always lived on the right side of justice.

HBO’s Watchmen, created by Damon Lindelof, accepts Moore’s original story as canon and advances the clock. The new show, which premiered Sunday, is set not in an alternative 1986, but in an alternative 2019 where all the events of the comic transpired. Moore’s book occasionally included scenes of President Nixon (serving his fifth term) mulling nuclear war with the Soviet Union. In the show, Nixon has been succeeded as commander in chief by the actor Robert Redford, the threat of the Cold War has dissipated, and Lindelof has shifted his focus to another underlying evil in modern society.

“What’s the equivalent now of impending nuclear war? What’s creating the big cultural anxiety? For me, it’s the anxiety of a reckoning,” Lindelof said in an interview with The New York Times. “The identification of white supremacy as a bad guy in a superhero comic book that could not be defeated—the Klan wears masks, but why are its members never the villains in a superhero story? Those ideas felt like natural fits for Watchmen.” Moore’s opus was about the extent to which people place their trust in costumed avengers and asked the age-old question of who watches the watchmen. Lindelof’s Watchmen takes the comic’s most potent symbol—the mask—and shows how it can protect not only superheroes, but also the flawed institutions Americans rely on.

The show begins with a depiction of the Tulsa, Oklahoma, massacre of 1921, in which a white mob ransacked and destroyed the vibrant “Black Wall Street” neighborhood of Greenwood, dropping firebombs from planes and murdering hundreds. Ta-Nehisi Coates wrote about Tulsa in his Atlantic piece “The Case for Reparations,” which Lindelof said served as an inspiration for the show. As the horror of Tulsa rages on-screen, men in Klan outfits parade around shooting at people—a chilling, if detached, vision of supervillainy.

In delving into America’s real history of racist violence, HBO’s Watchmen initially seems a far cry from Moore’s original work. The latter is steeped in its alternative reality, which unfolds through the personal recollections of its core cast of superheroes—Rorschach, Doctor Manhattan, Nite Owl, Silk Spectre, Ozymandias, and the Comedian. But the first scenes of Watchmen do slyly mix historical fact with comic-book lore, as ScreenCrush’s Matt Singer identified. In the Tulsa sequence, viewers see two black parents trying to save their child from danger, arranging to have him smuggled out of the city as it explodes around him. The scene is reminiscent of Superman’s famous origin story—except the boy in Watchmen isn’t eventually rescued by a kindly couple and must instead make it on his own.

Much like that sequence, Lindelof’s show is a marriage of pulpy mythmaking and grim reality, telling a weighty story under the guise of mass-market entertainment. That’s long been Moore’s specialty: His Watchmen chronicled the seedy truths and vicious nihilism that often underlie superheroism, upending the cheerful idealism of old-fashioned comic books. The first issue features the creation of the Minutemen, a 1940s assemblage of costumed do-gooders formed as part of a publicity stunt. But their squeaky-clean, patriotic image is just a facade: After the group poses for press pictures, one of the members, the sardonic Comedian, attempts to rape another, the Silk Spectre—a crime for which he goes unpunished.

Another attempt to create a team of heroes fails before it even begins: Years later, in 1966, the aged leader of the Minutemen, the polished Captain Metropolis, tries to start a new group called the Crimebusters. Metropolis, a throwback hero who wants to fight hippie-era social ills such as “promiscuity, drugs, [and] campus subversion,” makes a rah-rah pitch but is thwarted by the Comedian, who sets his presentation on fire. “What’s going down in this world, you got no idea,” the Comedian scoffs. “It doesn’t matter squat because inside 30 years the nukes are gonna be flying like maybugs.” The crowd disperses, with a horrified Captain Metropolis shouting after them: “Somebody has to do it, don’t you see? Somebody has to save the world.”

In Moore’s series, that “somebody” first ends up being the U.S. government, which enlists the brutal Comedian and the superpowered Doctor Manhattan in the fight against the Soviets. Then Ozymandias, a hyperintelligent hero who refused to join the Crimebusters, goes a step further: He engineers a global calamity that leads to the deaths of millions and rallies the world against a fictional alien threat, finally ending the Cold War. The story is Moore’s most disturbing example of power going unchecked when it’s presented as the benevolent action of a masked hero.

In Watchmen the TV series, the Cold War is a distant memory. The aftermath of Ozymandias’s attack has cast a long shadow over global affairs, but masks remain a tool used on both sides of the law. The fictional Keene Act, which banned costumed vigilantes in the 1970s, remains in effect, so the only way to legally have an alter ego is to work for the government. In 2019 Tulsa, cops wear yellow cowls that hide their identities, teaming up with gimmicky police-sponsored heroes such as Sister Night (Regina King), Looking Glass (Tim Blake Nelson), and Red Scare (Andrew Howard). Together, they work to combat a paramilitary white-supremacist organization called the Seventh Kavalry, which has adopted the black-and-white Rorschach mask as its icon, although the cops’ methods include torture, “enhanced interrogation,” and kidnapping.

As my colleague Sophie Gilbert noted in her review of the show, the Redford government of 2019’s Watchmen has the sheen of a liberal utopia—gun control has been enacted, Tulsa has a reparations program, and the cops seem to be marshaling their powers to stamp out racist violence. But like Moore, Lindelof is nudging the audience to look past the colorful heroics, to pick at the freedoms being silently traded away in a benign-seeming police state. In one scene, the ostensibly noble Police Chief Judd Crawford (Don Johnson) addresses his assembled, masked cops, who are lined up in fascistic formation and reciting slogans—behaving not unlike the Seventh Kavalry they’re preparing to battle. Lindelof has given audiences a new group of heroes, but he’s asking the same question as Moore: Given America’s history, why would anyone put their faith in a person in uniform?