Superhero TV For The Elite
Angela Abar, the lead character of HBO’s strange, compelling, and thoroughly pretentious show Watchmen, fights crime as a masked police detective named Sister Night. She derived the name from a 1970s blaxploitation hero, a nun who kicked ass. But she derived her trauma from multiple sources. Watchmen sort-of mocks but mostly embraces the idea that superheroes wear masks to “hide their pain.” Angela’s pain traces back to: World War I, the white-supremacist bombing of Tulsa, Oklahoma’s “Black Wall Street” in 1921, American Nazism, Vietnam, terrorism, and, I’m sure, multiple other sources. It wouldn’t be surprising if Watchmen revealed, via flashback or scene-within-a-scene, that somehow Angela is the reincarnation of Joan of Arc, or Mary Magdalene, or a half-dozen other great female historical martyrs.
Most criticism of Watchmen says that the show is excessively woke and tries to ram a liberal agenda down the audience’s throat. This is invalid. If you argue that white supremacy is good, you’re wrong and you’re also probably not watching much HBO. Plus, Watchmen satirizes liberalism as much as it depicts hooded boogeymen.
It spins off the alternate history that Alan Moore created in his 1986 Watchmen comic. In this delightful world, Vietnam is the 51st state and President Robert Redford has presided over a liberal dystopia for more than 30 years. Redford was able to seize power because a supervillain staged a bizarre squid attack on New York City, which makes sense if you’re a Watchmen fan, killing three million people as well as effectively ending the Cold War and the Richard Nixon dictatorship. Now, 35 years on, police must wear masks to protect themselves and must seek special permission to use their guns. Perhaps most distressingly, Treasury Secretary Henry Louis Gates, Jr. controls the reparation pursestrings for America’s vast catalog of racial crimes. This pisses off the white-supremacists, a Ku Klux Klan knockoff called the Seventh Cavalry, and therein begins the bonkers plot.
The World’s Smartest Audience
Watchmen introduces a lot of new characters to the mythology but also doesn’t forget the old favorites. Jeremy Irons chews it up as Adrian Veidt, otherwise known as Ozymandias, “the world’s smartest man,” now imprisoned on what appears to be a Martian moon. Jean Smart cracks wise as Laurie Blake, formerly known as the kinky superhero Silk Spectre. And Dr. Manhattan, the blue nuclear God-man, lurks all about the fringes of the narrative. Regina King broils the screen as Angela, and Tim Blake Nelson is fantastic as a cop named Looking Glass, a semi-psychic who wears a creepy mirrored mask and moonlights by using his powers to help corporations conduct focus groups.
There’s a lot going on in Watchmen. Actually, there’s too much, a surplus of narrative, too many three-minute set pieces that don’t advance the story, and way, way too many flashbacks. We learn that Angela’s grandfather was the “first masked vigilante,” Hooded Justice, a cop in 1930s New York who had to hide his race so he could fight crime. Very interesting.
But showrunner Damon Lindelof can’t just tell that story. He has to do it in black-and-white. And he does it through Angela’s perspective because she swallows a bottle of pills containing her grandfather’s memories. So what should be a fairly conventional superhero plot about a white-fascist group called Cyclops that develops a mind-control device that causes black people to attack one another instead becomes a pompous puzzlebox full of freeze frames and ambiguous identity. The following episode contains more flashbacks within flashbacks, and then a surprise reveal that portends even further flashbacks.
Watchmen doesn’t have a politics problem. It has an aesthetics problem. By adopting a too-clever-by-half narrative strategy and refusing to tell its story straight, it just ends up admiring itself. If you don’t understand what’s going on, then you’re not watching smartly enough. It’s an intellectually elite show for intellectually elite people.
Meanwhile, on Amazon Prime
Contrast Watchmen with the superhero satire The Boys, whose first season dropped on Amazon earlier this year. No one in their right mind would say that The Boys is a better show than Watchmen. The casts alone reflect a huge imbalance. Watchmen, as its first line, boasts King, Smart, Nelson, Irons, and Don Johnson. The Boys counters with Karl Urban and Elizabeth Shue. But The Boys is a lot more fun to watch.
Watchmen takes the tack that superheroes, with the exception of ultimate deus ex machina Dr. Manhattan, don’t actually have super powers. The Boys, on the other hand, imagines a world populated by the Justice League, except that they’re genetically-enhanced murderous monsters controlled by an evil corporation. Well, that sounds stupid, you think. Sure, but so is a plot revolving around Nazis mind-controlling black people. But The Boys does it with a wink and a smirk, whereas Watchmen approaches its material as though it were a cover story in The New York Review Of Books.
A whole episode of The Boys revolves around our hero killing one of the evil super-people by shoving a stick of dynamite up his ass. A super-woman sits on her landlord’s face en lieu of paying her rent and ends up crushing his skull. The show’s Superman-manque has a breast-feeding fetish. High art, this is not. And it’s also not remotely woke. There’s a sexual-harassment subplot, but the show’s nerdy protagonist still has sex with the hottest hero, and he makes her eyes light up when she orgasms. Geek cosplay fantasies aside, The Boys is damned entertaining. And though it does contain plot reveals, it tells its story straight up, with few flashbacks. It aims to amuse, not to mess with the audience’s head.
Money Fixes Everything
The Boys doesn’t have race on its mind. Its black characters are thinly-written, even a bit stereotypical. But it does contain a strong anti-corporate message. Its sympathy lies with little guys on whom corporations and superheroes stomp, constantly and literally. You don’t have to possess a great brain to understand that message.
Watchmen, on the other hand, is all about race, but has a monstrous blind spot when it comes to class. Only wealthy geniuses, in its cosmology, can truly save humanity. True, they’re crazy, but at least they have resources. Ozymandias brought about the liberal utopia, and the trillionaire Lady Trieu is poised to stop the Seventh Cavalry and Cyclops from enacting its evil plan, its Final Solution. But the show is most concerned with intellectual, not financial capital. Money may not be the solution to all the world’s problems, but intelligence is, which flatters the target viewer. Watchmen’s audience is smart, it knows its audience its smart, and so it spoon-feeds that audience smart content about smart people being super-smart. If you watch Watchmen, you’re in the know.
Watchmen deserves infinite credit for bringing the Tulsa riots to mainstream attention, now and forever. That will no longer be a forgotten corner of American history. The show has created some cool visuals, memorable characters, and unforgettable set pieces, and hilariously tries to paint Tulsa as the vital, pounding center of American life. But its biggest accomplishment is congratulating itself on its own awesomeness. The greatest trick HBO ever pulled was persuading the intelligentsia that it was doing something other than watching TV. Watchmen is the apotheosis of that trick. Ozymandias himself couldn’t have perpetrated a better hoax.