Watchmen: do you need to read the comic or watch the movie to enjoy the new TV series?

Damon Lindelof’s new take on Alan Moore and Dave Gibbons’ graphic novel creates a new story – but do you need to know the original?

Watchmen

Over 30 years after the critically-acclaimed comic-book was released and 10 years since it was adapted for the silver screen by Zack Snyder, superhero dissection Watchmen is getting a follow-up TV series, revisiting the alternate world of masked vigilantes, what-if politics and thorny moral dilemmas in a present-day time period.

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Jumping into the action with a largely new collection of characters and a new setting (Tulsa, Oklahoma rather than the original’s New York), to begin with the series doesn’t seem to have too many connections to the comic book storyline – but could a complete newbie enjoy the series? Or if not, is watching the 2009 movie good enough to understand what’s going on?

Well, the answer is complicated. Undoubtedly, this is a series designed for fans of the original story, referring back to the crucial events of the comic with regularity and even including some of its characters (most notably ex-Silk Spectre Laurie Blake, played by Jean Smart, and Jeremy Irons’ Ozymandias/Adrian Veidt).

However, the main character of this series is an original creation, Regina King’s Angela Abar/Sister Night, and certainly for the first few episodes you could probably get along with only vaguely knowing what happened in the comic book. The central mystery Angela is investigating seems (at least at first) to have little directly to do with the events of the comic, and while the main villains are inspired by one of the graphic novel’s characters (brutal vigilante Rorschach) that’s almost incidental.

In other words, Watchmen the TV series is its own story, with its own mysteries, and it is possible to enjoy it on its own terms. One newcomer I spoke to has watched the first four episodes with no knowledge of either the comic or the movie, and has found it compelling enough to continue as a standalone drama, even if some of the references to outside characters (and in particular the godlike Dr Manhattan) were a little confusing.

But is it better to read the comic? Well yes, obviously. Knowing who the troubled ex-heroes Ozymandias, Silk Spectre II, Nite Owl, Rorschach and Dr Manhattan are makes the series make much more sense, even if they’re not central to the story, and it’s likely that as the series continues, the action will cleave closer to the comic than before (at time of writing, I’ve seen five episodes).

Artwork from the Watchmen graphic novel (Sky)
Artwork from the Watchmen graphic novel (Sky)

Plus, having read the graphic novel (ideally quite recently) makes it a more rewarding experience, as Watchmen is definitely made for hardcore fans as much as casual viewers.

Throwaway references to books like Under the Hood and Fogdancing might not mean much to newcomers, but to comic book readers they brilliantly connect the worlds together, along with stylistic choices (a spatter of blood on a badge) and regular check-ins to a TV drama adaptation of original 1940s heroes The Minutemen.

But look, maybe you don’t want to invest all the time to read the graphic novel. It’s not too long at all, but it would be quicker to watch the 2009 movie, which would give you a basic grounding in all the characters and the events ahead of watching the series.

There’s one key problem, though. While Snyder’s Watchmen is a pretty faithful adaptation (especially visually) the one key plot point it does change is a major part of the comic explored by the TV series. And this could technically count as a spoiler, so look away if you are hoping to catch up with the graphic novel.

Watchmen
Paramount Pictures, Sky pics, TL
Warner Bros International Television

Still here? OK.

The comic ends with Ozymandias hoaxing the world with an extradimensional alien attack, specifically by dropping a giant genetically engineered squid on New York that kills millions in a psychic blast and traumatises still more. His plan, to prevent nuclear annihilation by making the countries of the world stand together against an alien threat, largely works, though by the time of the TV series many are still damaged mentally by what happened.

In the film, Ozymandias also hoaxes an attack – but in that case the squid was eschewed in favour of a scheme where he framed the superpowered Dr Manhattan for various attacks on Earth, instead uniting the world against him instead of unknown aliens.

Obviously, if that’s the version of the story you’re familiar with, seeing everyone talk so much about the alien squid would be a little confusing, which is why it’s worth knowing the difference (also, Dr Manhattan still seems to have a positive reputation in the series despite living in exile on Mars).

In conclusion, then, you don’t have to know Watchmen’s original story to enjoy the TV series – but considering how confusing and mysterious the series already is, getting to know the source material can make for a more rewarding experience, even if you are just looking out for Easter Eggs.

And if you do decide to prepare yourself, we’d recommend reading the comic over watching the movie. Put the time in, and you’ll really appreciate some key parts of the story more. Call it a squid pro quo.

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Watchmen airs on Mondays on Sky Atlantic at 9.00pm. You can also watch the series with a NOW TV Entertainment Pass