It’s Summer and We’re Running Out of Ice

If Alan Moore’s original graphic novel was the deconstruction of the superhero genre, then Damon Lindelof’s Watchmen series takes a hard look at white supremacists, police brutality and racism in 2019’s America.

The underlying aim of the show is never more prevalent than in a harrowing depiction of the real-world Tulsa race massacre of 1921, as the audience briefly follows a family desperate to escape the horrors of extreme racist violence. It’s obvious that the show’s creator and executive producer, Damon Lindelof, is building a terrifying and brutal world that isn’t so far from our own. Once Watchmen jumps ahead to a fictional 2019, that only becomes even clearer. But that quickly becomes one of the most fascinating aspects of the show – the alternate history that’s become warped by pop culture figures (like Robert Redford as the President of the United States) while a terrorist group called the Seventh Cavalry have adopted the iconic Rorschach mask as their own.

After a police officer is attacked by one of the Seventh Cavalry, the state-sponsored vigilantes assemble to root out the white supremacists with an iron fist. When that fight escalates, boy, does it get bloody. The Seventh Cavalry have warped Rorschach’s already dangerous ideology into a White supremacist manifesto, spitting words like ‘liberal tears’ at the audience making it feel all too real at times. Yet this only makes the exquisitely choreographed fight scenes all the more satisfying.

But Watchmen manages to balance the real with the sheer entertainment value of this stylised world. It maintains a weirdly fantastic camp nature that comes through creative onscreen text, bizarrely brilliant costumes and a truly over-the-top fight scene. Although fear not, while there are elements in the world that fans of the original graphic novel will recognise (like raining squids) Watchmen is more than accessible for new audiences.

That’s largely down to its reliance on a brand-new horde of vigilantes that are visually and thematically fascinating. Regina King’s unwavering Sister Night is a charismatic badass, but determined to root out the poisonous alt-right ideologies that are infecting their society. While she’s polite and tolerant in public, once that mask comes on – she’s a viciously effective crime fighter. While Tim Blake Nelson’s Rorschach-esque detective is intimidating and thoroughly gripping whenever he’s onscreen. Perhaps it’s the lack of facial features in his mask, but it’s interesting how different the air around his character becomes when wearing it. If it wasn’t already clear – the masks let the policemen and women unleash their real personalities, much in the way that DC’s Clark Kent is the mask and Superman is the real identity.

Don Johnson in Watchmen (2019) – © 2019 HBO

While Yahya Abdul-Mateen II’s role in the premiere wasn’t particularly prominent, he and Regina King have undeniable chemistry – which will undoubtedly be tested and twisted as the show moves on. But a particular scene-stealer is Don Johnson, his Police Chief Judd Crawford seems reluctant to engage in outright battle at first, but becomes surprisingly trigger happy as time moves on. Regardless, this cast clearly had the time of their lives making Watchmen.

But while the show easily gets the audience invested in these heroes – the comparison between the police and the cavalry is masterful. A scene early on shows the police discovering that the terrorists have resurfaced after a prolonged absence, and the separate organisations are two sides of the same coin. They both fiercely pledge allegiance to a cause, while their masked methods deal in blood and death, insistent that they’re on the right side of history. But with the ‘vast and insidious conspiracy’ just beginning to unravel, could the two be more interlinked than they first appear? Quite possibly.

Surprisingly, Watchmen easily critiques 2019 America through its superhero lens in a world without social media, since the internet is outlawed. But a brief animated call-back to the original heroes of the graphic novel (the Minutemen of the 1940s) felt so self-referential it almost bordered on parody, but in the best way. Damon Lindelof knows this is a show about superheroes, but he’s not giving audiences the usual defenders of truth, justice and the American way. Examining social upheaval, outlaws and the dangers of white supremacy? That’s more like it. With a few twists, turns and teases of things to come, all falling under the impending doom of a ticking clock, Watchmen’s premiere episode is downright captivating.

But one of the things that immediately stays with the audience after the episode ended is Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross’ spectacular score. At times it feels beautifully sombre while other moments are pulse-pounding and pacey. The haunting synth elements feel incredibly reminiscent of their work for The Social Network and The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo.

All of these ingredients, from intelligent social commentary, gritty storytelling, a stellar cast and an incredible score makes Watchmen the must-see show for the next few months. But we’re only one episode in and already – we’re left with answers. What is Jeremy Irons’ Ozymandias doing with two idiosyncratic manservants in an isolated mansion? What is Doctor Manhattan up to? Who’s watching the Watchmen?

Tick tock.

Created by: Damon Lindelof
Director: Nicole Kassell
Written by: Damon Lindelof
Cast: Regina King, Tim Blake Nelson, Don Johnson, Yahya Abdul-Mateen II