By Dushyant Shekhawat Oct. 20, 2019
Today, a superhero story can be many things, from an R-rated comedy romp (Deadpool), to a grim character study (Joker). There is more depth in the genre now than ever before, and it can be traced back to one important question: “Who watches The Watchmen?”
Unless you’ve been living under a rock, you’ll be aware that superhero movies have become a pop cultural monolith – Joker has already collected more than $ 600 million at the box office, and earlier this year, Avengers: Endgame smashed records, proving that we truly are living in the age of the superhero franchise. Against this backdrop, HBO has brought to screen a graphic novel that set the template for today’s “adult” superhero adaptations: Watchmen, streaming on Hotstar Premium.
It was Watchmen, by Alan Moore and Dave Gibbons, which was one of the earliest graphic novels to deviate from the colourful, child-friendly format followed by most comic books. The characters – the violent Rorschach, the jaded Comedian, the megalomaniacal Ozymandias, and the glowing, radioactive, superpowered Dr Manhattan – were subversions of the trope of the noble superhero. Where mainstream heroes like Superman were considered role models, the characters in Watchmen were flawed and more true-to-life.In 1986 and 1987, over the course of twelve issues, Moore and Gibbons introduced us to a morally ambiguous world – a place where not all heroes wear capes, and not everyone wearing a cape is a hero either. The name of the graphic novel itself is drawn from the loose translation of Roman poet Juvenal’s quote “Quis Custodiet Ipsos Custodes” – Latin for “Who watches the watchmen?” In Watchmen, Moore and Gibbons tackle implications of what it would really mean if society were to valorise vigilantes, and how the world would cope with the appearance of a being with honest-to-god superpowers. Watchmen is a deconstruction of ambition, greed, and power, all undercut by humanity’s intrinsic fallibility.
It’s not just Watchmen’s themes that are weighty; the plotlines are equally ponderous, dealing with serious topics like political corruption, extramarital affairs, and strained international relations, all set against the period-appropriate backdrop of the Cold War. Unlike the idealised world presented in comic books, Watchmen provided an unsettling mirror to our reality while retaining the fantastical notion of costumed crimefighters. It was these qualities that led to commentators frequently saying that of all the comic book and graphic novel properties, Watchmen was the most “unfilmable” of them all.
HBO’s series marks the second time Watchmen has been adapted from its source material. But don’t take that to mean that the series is a retread – the TV show is an original screenplay. The show is set 35 years after the events of the comic book, taking Moore’s and Gibbons’ groundbreaking vision and transposing it into the present day. This adaptation of Watchmen – starring the able talents of Jeremy Irons and Regina King – arrives in a world that has finally learned to accept superhero stories with nuance and depth. The first adaptation, Zack Snyder’s 2009 feature film, can be credited with sparking that change, much like the graphic novel did for the print medium.
While 2009’s Watchmen flew under the radar for the most part, two superhero films from the previous year had set irreversible changes into motion. Both The Dark Knight and Iron Man hit theatres in 2008. The former would go on to redefine what a superhero film could be, by introducing hitherto unseen layers of realism and adding a truckload of grit. The latter spawned what we know now as the Marvel Cinematic Universe, that disembodied, Disney-owned deity to whom we sacrifice our wallets at regular intervals throughout the year.
In Heath Ledger’s unforgettable performance as The Joker in The Dark Knight, he torments his victims with the question, “Why so serious?” I find it ironic, because it was right around this time in cinematic history that superhero films went from being sideshow distractions for the kids, to being considered Serious Movies. An Oscar will do that for credibility. And after the field had been opened up to cater to more audiences than children, there was no looking back for the genre.
The new Watchmen also looks to be in capable hands, with Damon Lindelof, the former showrunner of Lost and The Leftovers, taking the reins for this adaptation.
Today, a superhero story can be many things: An R-rated comedy romp (Deadpool), a road movie about growing old and letting go (Logan), a generation-defining epic (Avengers: Endgame), or a grim character study (Joker). There have also been dark satires of the popular tropes that are even more directly inspired by Watchmen, like The Boys and Brightburn. The genre has never been more diverse, and its mainstream representation finally mirrors the variety of options that have been available ever since Moore and Gibbons, alongside others like Frank Miller, broke the mould decades ago. There is more depth in the genre now than ever before, and it can be traced back to one important question: “Who watches The Watchmen?”
The new HBO series looks to proudly carry forward this tradition of redefining what the superhero genre is capable of, with a return to the title that helped comic books come of age over three decades ago. The new Watchmen also looks to be in capable hands, with Damon Lindelof, the former showrunner of Lost and The Leftovers, taking the reins for this adaptation. So to answer the all-important question, “Who watches the Watchmen?”, you should.