If you’re looking for the differences between Damon Lindelof’s new TV version of Watchmen and Zack Snyder’s big-screen adaptation back in 2009, how they both treat the origin of Doctor Manhattan is a pretty good place to start.
In Snyder’s reverent retelling the time-jumping account of Jon Ostermann’s rebirth, superhero career and growing disaffection with humanity pretty closely follows its depiction in Alan Moore and Dave Gibbons’ iconic graphic novel, all set to the operatic strains of The Philip Glass Ensemble’s Pruit Igoe and Prophecies.
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It’s a fan-favourite part of a pretty divisive movie – but it’s not how the TV Watchmen treats the material. No, it goes for something very different.
You see, in HBO and Sky Atlantic’s version we see Dr Manhattan’s rebirth through the medium of a pretty shlocky play performed on a whim complete with wobbly sets, histrionic acting and terrible special effects and costumes.
The reverence is gone, replaced with a kind of disaffected eccentricity, and that’s this series all over. While nodding to what’s come before, this is a series that is less worried about the plot of the comic and more concerned with telling a new, modern fable about men and women in masks. And the show even tells us this.
“Come on, where’s the originality in that?” one character asks when presented with an element of the original graphic novel storyline. “No. We’re gonna do something new.”
And new it is. Set decades after the events of the Watchmen comic and including its wilder moments as canon (unlike the movie, the endgame of a giant alien squid killing millions is kept intact and is a crucial plot point), the word that kept springing to my mind when trying to sum up this series was “interesting”.
When making a TV show in the world of Watchmen, it’s interesting to make a present-day sequel rather than just adapt the material. It’s interesting to shift the focus from superheroes to a story about generational trauma, justice and ingrained cultural racism . And it’s definitely interesting to sideline the original series’ main characters in favour of new masked vigilantes, primarily Regina King’s Detective Angela Abar/ Sister Night.
Regina King in Watchmen
Because this is, for the most part, an all-new setting. Taking place in Tulsa, Oklahoma in an alternate 2019, Watchmen catches up with Abar as she and her fellow masked police (faces hidden for their protection) take on a far-right group called the Seventh Kavalry, who have riffed on the inkblot mask and extreme ethos of original comic character Rorschach to inspire their schemes.
In the course of her investigation Abar runs into a wheelchair-bound old man called Will with a secret, a reclusive trillionaire with a cutesy voice and big plans, an FBI agent who was once a masked hero herself – Jean Smart’s Laurie Blake, aka Silk Spectre II, one of the only main characters from the comic to return in a big way – and plenty of other masked figures both on and off her team.
And somewhere else entirely, we also catch up with Jeremy Irons’ Adrian Veidt/Ozymandias, the hero-turned-wannabe messiah of the comic’s storyline who now lives on some sort of twisted country estate populated by willing servants and Victorian-era technology.
So yes – interesting. But the more episodes I watched of this series the more and more sense it all started to make, and apparently disparate threads came together so neatly by the end of the sixth episode that it completely changed how I viewed every episode before it (for that matter, it changed how I saw parts of the graphic novel as well).
In other words, even if Watchmen seems a little odd at first, it’s well worth sticking with, and overall it’s a much more interesting take on the material than just a direct sequel, or a remake, or even a prequel starring the 1940s-era Minutemen (though we do get snippets of their story through an in-universe TV show called American Hero Story).
Is it accessible for newcomers? Well, sort of – essentially it’s possible to follow the modern story without reading the comic, but it’s a far richer experience if you do know the background (not Snyder’s movie version, which has a different ending) and not just for the seriously deep-cut Easter Eggs scattered throughout the background of every scene.
Overall, as a cultural artefact and an adaptation, Watchmen is an odd sort of beast, combining the offbeat storytelling of Lindelof’s The Leftovers with the re-grounding of the modern Star Wars trilogy (the original characters as supporting cast to a new generation) and the comic-book stylings of Moore and Gibbons’ original work.
It’s complex, stylish and occasionally confusing, but frankly it’s a significant achievement for Lindelof and his team to have made something so original out of a decades-old IP. This time, it’s well worth watching the Watchmen.