Faster Than A Speeding Bullet: Watchmen

Created by Lost’s Damon Lindelof, HBO’s astonishing new Watchmen marks the second attempt at putting the landmark 1986 comic book by writer Alan Moore and artist Dave Gibbons onscreen, although it’s by no means a straight adaptation. That was tried in 2009, with a movie that, in straining to stay faithful to Moore and Gibbons’s work – a holy text in the heavyweight division of comics – lost much of its soul.

The nine-part series applies a lighter, yet harder, sharper and increasingly fevered touch, and takes a different route. Offering a new story based within the world the comic presented, and concentrating on new characters (to begin with), it’s simultaneously a meditation on Watchmen, a canny, loving sequel, and its own thing. And yet, by shooting way out in its own direction, it comes closer than the film to catching the original’s spirit. I’m halfway through, so things could change – I’m still wary of Lindelof after the Lost years – but so far it has been thrilling, bold, whip-smart, violent, funny, sad, strange and, often, utterly demented. A stunning thing.

In Watchmen, a masterpiece of the comics form that also offered a commentary on that form, Moore proposed a world in which Batman-style superheroes were real: masked vigilantes patrolling American streets fighting crime – until their violent methods saw them grow unpopular and outlawed by the government. His story saw a weary, ageing band of ex-heroes reluctantly come out of retirement and try to squeeze back into their old latex costumes to battle a hideous conspiracy, thrumming with the fears of the late Cold War era.

Lindelof’s show picks up thirty years later – but first, and crucially, it dips back in time, to 1921. Watchmen’s alternative reality shares much of our real history, and the TV series begins with the infamous Greenwood massacre, when a white mob launched a murderous attack on the Tulsa town’s black citizens. Forcefully recovered from its half-buried, half-repressed place in history, this brutal incident will reverberate curiously, steadily beneath the story as a primal moment, and signals that the fractures around American racism will be a prime theme here, just as nuclear anxiety was for the 1980s comic book.

Indeed, in the Tulsa of 2019, a white supremacist terrorist organisation called The Seventh Kavalry (whose members style themselves after Watchmen’s iconic anti-hero Rorschach) is on the rise, threatening some great violent reckoning. The Kavalry previously launched a devastating attack on the city’s police which wiped out half the force overnight and literally altered the face of law-keeping: to protect themselves, Tulsa’s cops now wear masks to hide their identities.

The early episodes’ central figure is ex-detective Angela Abar (Regina King), who officially quit the force after the Kavalry’s killing spree, but still secretly operates as Sister Night, one of a handful of costumed vigilantes secretly employed by police chief Judd Crawford (Don Johnson). As the Kavalry’s threat grows, she investigates, but finds her search derailed, leading somewhere entirely unexpected.

Around this, echoes from the original Watchmen hang in the air, gradually forming a denser atmosphere as pieces and faces from back then come into play, not least FBI agent Laurie Blake (Jean Smart), once known as the superhero Silk Spectre. Meanwhile, somewhere out there, we glimpse an aristocratic, fairly eccentric older gentleman, who at first goes nameless, although Watchmen fans may quickly work out who he is.

It’s around this figure, majestically played by Jeremy Irons, that Watchmen gets really cosmically crazy. At its wildest, the show digs the same William Burroughs-ish acid-sci-noir vibe that thrummed beneath the comic, and catches both its wicked humour and sensory-overload background detailing. Simultaneously, it holds up a cracked Pop Art funhouse mirror to the face of contemporary America , capturing a picture of the splintering society around it more troublingly accurate than most more ostensibly “realistic” contemporary dramas.

The cast all rise to the occasion – King is literally kick-ass and Johnson is exceptional, but the performances to savour most are Smart, brilliant playing a character very much in keeping with the smart, grouchy, conflicted, flippant and haunted woman Moore created, and Irons, elegantly looping the loop in the most Jeremy Irons performance of his career. This is great.

Published in The Sunday Herald, October 20, 2019