When discussing “Watchmen,” the visionary superhero graphic novel from the 1980s, it is obligatory to note that Alan Moore, the story’s mercurial author, considers the work unadaptable.
Until now, history has proved him accurate. Several directors and screenwriters tried and failed to turn it into a movie or series before Zack Snyder in 2009 managed to shepherd a big-budget “Watchmen” to theaters, where it was received indifferently by critics, ticket-buyers and diehard fans of the original work. The film hasn’t aged terribly, but it remains a less-than-ideal pairing of director and source material that rarely offered more than an homage to the original comic.
That was understandable, given the devotion “Watchmen” has inspired since Moore and artist Dave Gibbons first serialized it in 1986. Still widely considered the best graphic novel ever created and one of the 20th century’s most enduring pieces of popular art, “Watchmen” is the foundation for the revisionist strain of superhero storytelling now common in mainstream entertainment (“Deadpool,” “Dark Knight,” “Joker,” etc.).
So it’s reasonable to wonder what Damon Lindelof, the TV auteur behind “Lost” and “The Leftovers,” thinks he’s doing with this famously difficult piece of intellectual property. But based on the pilot episode of his new “Watchmen” series on HBO, which aired Sunday, it promises to be a thrilling ride.
Lindelof has described the series as a “remix” of the graphic novel. The show’s action largely is set in an alternate version of the present day, roughly three decades after the events of the original story. To recap very quickly: Masked, crime-fighting vigilantes were common in America until being outlawed and sent underground. Years later, ex-“heroes” start turning up dead at the hands of a super-genius who wants to lure the rest of them out of hiding for some shadowy purpose.
So, basically, it’s the plot of “The Incredibles,” except Richard Nixon remained president through the ‘80s after the only hero with real powers, Dr. Manhattan, helped him win the Vietnam War. The narrator, Rorshach, was a misanthropic conspiracy theorist with white-nationalist sympathies, and the Cold War ended after a faked alien squid-monster attack that killed half of New York City but united world powers against a common threat. Y’know, normal comic-book stuff.
The headline on Lindelof’s “Watchmen” is that he has repurposed this framework for a bold and frequently uncomfortable reckoning on America’s legacy of racism. The pilot begins with the 1921 massacre in Tulsa, Okla.’s Black Wall Street. It then jumps ahead nearly a century, past the events of the original “Watchmen” story, to a version of 2019 in which Nixon’s successor, Robert Redford, has enacted reparations and gun control policies that have re-inflamed racial tensions.
There are loose connections to the graphic novel — Dr. Manhattan is still on Mars, Vietnam is a U.S. state, pieces of squid sometimes fall from the sky, the unmistakable Owlship makes a crucial appearance, and Ozymandias (Jeremy Irons) lives a deranged, plush existence in some unspecified solitary locale.
But this “Watchmen” feels new and vibrant, a canonical story reconfigured for a world more chaotic than its original creators could have imagined.
In Lindelof’s remix, cops in 2019 hide behind their own vigilante disguises and heroic alter-egos. The action centers in Oklahoma, where the costumed fighter Sister Night (a magnificent Regina King) investigates the murder of a police officer that reignites a war with white supremacists who wage domestic terror in Rorshach masks.
There’s a lot to untangle here, and Lindelof (who is white, but is working with a diverse creative team) surely knows he’s playing with fire and gasoline, particularly given the mirror-image racial violence that bookends the pilot. His “Watchmen” likely will baffle and anger a lot of viewers, but so far the series is a masterful exercise in world-building.
Like in the graphic novel, rich details unfold in the periphery that lazier writers would have wasted dialogue explaining. This clears the foreground for a story of layered moral complexity, eternally timely doomsday paranoia, America’s sins and our evolving idea of justice, adding up, just maybe, to an interpretation of “Watchmen” good enough to prove its creator wrong.