‘Watchmen’ Episode 1 review: a promising new chapter for the ‘unfilmable’ comic

Less 'Lost', more 'The Leftovers' from creator Damon Lindelof

If you can’t beat them, join them. It was hard not to read the news that DC’s latest series had found a home at HBO this way – the network having traditionally been a sanctuary from the kind of superhero fare that now dominates our screens. But at least it capitulated with Watchmen, an atypical superhero story that tackles the flaws and the paradoxes of the genre head-on.

Last adapted by Zack Snyder in a 2009 film of the same name, the famously dense comic was previously declared “unfilmable” by Terry Gilliam, a director who has spent his career playing Tetris with intricate narratives until they fit together on the big screen. When it comes to this latest attempt to make Watchmen work, the good news is that it’s in the hands of Damon Lindelof, the creator of The Leftovers. The bad news is that it’s in the hands of Damon Lindelof, the creator of Lost.

It remains to be seen which way Watchmen pans out – like the incredibly satisfying Leftovers or the notoriously infuriating Lost. But the first episode, which airs on HBO and Sky Atlantic tonight (October 21), is a promising start. Snyder’s film was criticised for pledging fealty to Alan Moore‘s source material, showing such wide-eyed reverence for the comics that it forgot about being an effective movie. The same certainly can’t be said for HBO’s Watchmen, which is very much forging its own narrative.

Described by Lindelof as a “remix” and later “fan fiction”, HBO’s Watchmen is a sequel of sorts to the comics, set in an alternate 2019 where Robert Redford is President of the United States of America (seriously), vigilante ‘superheroes’ assist police (who also wear masks) and small squid occasionally rain from the skies. The action takes place in Tulsa, Oklahoma, where a white-supremacist group called The Seventh Cavalry target people of colour and routinely clash with authority.

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Hate-watching: The Seventh Cavalry target people of colour and clash with police. Credit: HBO

This racial tension element is the biggest departure for this Watchmen iteration and is front-and-centre in its story. The pilot opens with a flashback to the real-world Tulsa race riots of 1921, before centring on a fateful traffic stop in which a suspected member of the Cavalry murders a black police officer. The white supremacists all wear masks covered with Rorschach blots, presumably a reference to the (now deceased?) classic Watchmen character Rorschach.

Now is probably a good time for me to address the “what the hell are you talking about?” cries from those of you reading this review who aren’t familiar with the Watchmen backstory. At least in the pilot, HBO’s Watchmen doesn’t require you to have prior knowledge of its universe. In fact, it’s surprising how easy to follow the series is for someone who has no idea what a “Dr. Manhattan” is. But, at the same time, this first episode does leave so much unexplained (which will all make perfect sense to comic readers) that newbies might not have as enjoyable an experience. The significance of the squid, for instance, will be utterly lost on some, while the scene introducing the Tim Burton-esque version of former Watchman Adrian Veidt (Jeremy Irons) will seem like a total non-sequitur.

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Masked men: Tim Blake Nelson (silver mask) and Regina King (hood) in ‘Watchmen.’ Credit: HBO

I don’t know what to make of this. Is it “screw you, viewer, for not doing your homework?” Or should enjoyment of a television show not require homework? This is the logical conclusion of a TV landscape that increasingly assumes you’re also on Reddit reading backstories and theories. It’s a gamble for HBO, who may be alienating mainstream audiences in order to please a relatively niche fandom.

But, as I say, the first episode is actually quite linear and there are no philosophical debates on Mars or mollusc decoys in sight. Instead, we get the familiar story of a beleaguered local police force trying to fight a shadowy organisation of malignant rednecks. Fine. Got it. The alternative reality feels thoughtfully built and is full of nice little touches. Police firearms are available based on threat level, while hints of “Redfordations” – some sort of reparations dished out by the Redford administration – are everywhere. Watchmen‘s world evokes images of Children of Men (Alfonso Cuarón’s 2006 dystopian action-thriller film) and you feel intrigued to learn more about it.

Tonally, Watchmen is wacky, surreal, pulpy and slightly camp. One officer in the precinct wears a panda suit. Why not? A shoot-out at a cow ranch leads to chunks of flesh flying everywhere. Sure! A white supremacist biplane is chased down by a police hover-space-ship thing. Cool!

While most will have a perfectly fine time watching this first hour of Watchmen, it faces considerable challenges ahead. A big one is the decision to focus on race, and in particular the interplay between people of colour, neo-Nazis and the police. Watchmen has already been damned in think pieces before it’s even launched, and it’s practically impossible by this point to depict these sorts of issues on screen without getting pilloried for it (just ask the Game of Thrones creators).

Watchmen has a lot of work to do in proving to us that it’s worth our time. Buying into such a complex universe and taking on board a truckload of plot information each week shouldn’t end up as a slog. But this opening episode establishes a playing field sufficiently intriguing to earn your return next week.

‘Watchmen’ premieres on Sky Atlantic in the UK at 2am and is repeated at 9pm on Monday 21 October