It’s a tough gig, adapting an Alan Moore book — the man shuns publicity and will probably trash your project for good measure (ask the makers of V For Vendetta ). Besides, Moore’s early career was built upon creating what he called “unfilmable” comics, books that employed narrative techniques — both textual and visual — which only comics could pull off. Watchmen (1987), drawn by Dave Gibbons, was the culmination of this process — spreads consisting of mirrored images, William Blake allusions and other visual gags.
The story was an elaborate anti-superhero narrative, presenting an alternative version of America where President Richard Nixon uses the near-omnipotent Doctor Manhattan to establish American supremacy globally, and rule with an iron fist at home. Last month, HBO (Hotstar Premium in India) premiered Damon Lindelof’s TV series adaptation of Watchmen . The book’s opening monologue, a racist, misogynist rant by a right-wing vigilante called Rorschach, is delivered here by the Seventh Kavalry, a white supremacist group whose members wear masks with Rorschach stains (the inkblots once used for psychiatric tests) and target cops and their families: “Cop carcass on the highway last night. Soon, the accumulated black filth will be hosed away and the streets of Tulsa will turn into extended gutters overflowing with liberal tears. Soon all the whores and the race traitors will shout, ‘Save us!’ and we will whisper, ‘No’.”
This is the first of the show’s many master strokes. Race war serves the same purpose in Lindelof’s narrative as impending annihilation-by-aliens did in Moore’s. Watchmen, the show, as Lindelof says, is both a sequel to and a “remix” of the book, and presents a delicious narrative opportunity to lampoon both conservative and liberal blind spots. To sum up: In Moore’s text, the genius billionaire vigilante Adrian Veidt/Ozymandias concocts a fictitious alien invasion threat. The creature his scientists develop kills thousands but saves billions of lives indirectly when warring superpowers come together to fight it. Peace comes at a terrible cost, thanks to a cold-blooded gambit by a classically liberal hero — Ozymandias, after all, is openly scornful of the likes of Rorschach (who, in turn, hates immigrants, women and queer people). Following these events, Doctor Manhattan leaves for Mars, and a new world order emerges — a softer America than the one where Nixon abolished term limits and ruled for well over a decade.
Lindelof’s world is one where liberals have fought back admirably. Robert Redford (the actor) becomes President and awards significant reparations (known as “Redfordations” by its critics) to victims of racial violence, going way back to the sacking of the black-dominated Greenwood District, Tulsa (Oklahoma), in 1921. Enter the Seventh Kavalry, a kind of latter-day Ku Klux Klan who are convinced that the liberals “went too far”, that “they got a sorry, now they want handouts, too?”. On what is termed as the White Night by the press, they carry out coordinated attacks against dozens of cops inside their houses, following which cops start to wear masks while on duty, thus flattening the visual difference between vigilantes and law enforcement. But it’s not that simple, of course. The Redford era brings in big gun control legislations. Cops in the field have their weapons ‘locked’ until they place a request for unlocking, which is then granted or not depending upon the threat levels posed by the suspect. In a brilliantly written scene, we see a black cop getting this clearance too late — the white suspect, revealed to be a Seventh Kavalry member, whips out an automatic weapon from inside his car and guns the cop down.
This is the heightened sandbox in which the characters of Watchmen play — Angela Abar (Regina King), retired cop who dons a kind of punk rock nun’s outfit as Sister Night; Silk Spectre (Laurie Blake), retired vigilante and present-day FBI agent; Judd Crawford (Don Johnson), the embattled Tulsa Chief of Police with a dark secret in his past; and so on. At a time when there are widespread debates on whether superhero stories are “real cinema” (thanks to Martin Scorsese’s recent comment that comic book inspired films are not cinema), Watchmen is a fascinating case study. Its engagement with deeply uncomfortable political histories is admirable. Similarly impressive is its range of real-world political and literary influences — Henry Louis Gates Jr, for instance, appears as himself in a crucial scene. Gates, a pioneering scholar of African-American literature, is responsible for discovering some of the earliest works written by African-American people and publishing a famous critique of the Western canon.
Watchmen , as well as other contemporary superhero shows such as Black Lightning and Luke Cage , have some brilliant, sharply observed scenes involving race relations in particular and American politics in general. One would think that this contradicts Scorsese’s observation. It does, but that’s beside the point. What Scorsese is saying is simple: Marvel films have been so successful that every producer will now assess potential projects on the Marvel criteria. Does the idea have franchise potential? If the answer’s no, then thanks but no thanks. Not long ago, Todd Phillips ( Joker ) was known for his crowd-pleasing, lad humour comedies such as The Hangover . Ryan Fleck and Anna Boden ( Captain Marvel ) were makers of indie dramas such as Half Nelson . Ryan Coogler was best known for winning at Cannes and Sundance for Fruitvale Station , a film made on less than a million dollars.
And now Damon Lindelof (hitherto known for shows such as Lost and The Leftovers ) has joined the band of creators turning towards superhero stories. This is what Scorsese was warning us about — if capitalism is the burly boxer no one wants to fight, the superhero genre has become his steroid of choice, knocking down challengers with a single punch. Would it be too much to hope that Watchmen ’s remaining episodes will figure out a way to criticise the superhero movie cash-grab as well?