Alan Moore and Dave Gibbons might not have invented the idea of deconstructing heroic figures when they published Watchmen in 1986, but they did set the gold standard for that kind of story in superhero media. Watchmen and The Dark Knight Returns, published the same year, ushered in a new era of superhero storytelling on the comics page, an era that's still going for a great many creators, and spawned countless imitators — some of which did the whole antiheroes in capes thing better than others.
Now, in 2019, we're more than a decade into the most fertile era for superheroes on the big and small screen we've ever seen, which means we've also entered into a deconstructive phase of the post-Iron Man cinematic world. Superheroes are a mainstream, blockbuster commodity like never before, which means that some creators have decided to subvert the heroic themes we see in films like Avengers: Endgame and Aquaman. Now we've got plenty of superhero deconstructions to choose from on the screen as well as on the page thanks to the success of films like Deadpool and TV series like The Boys.
Watchmen, of course, already made it to the big screen courtesy of director Zack Snyder in 2009, and Moore and Gibbons' creation was expanded on by the Before Watchmen line of prequel comics in 2012, so with all of that in mind, what does a new take on its deconstructive world have to offer us now? In a new interview with Entertainment Weekly, Watchmen series creator Damon Lindelof explained why his world isn't just working within the same deconstructive super-themes already in play in so many other movies and shows.
"Fully aware of [the idea that deconstructing superheroes isn't new], I started to think that for Watchmen maybe the more interesting point is to think about masking and authority and policing as an adjunct to superheroes. In Watchmen, nobody has superpowers — the only super-powered individual is Dr. Manhattan and he’s not currently on the planet. In The Boys, you have superpowered individuals in capes that can shoot lasers out of their eyes and fly around and have feats of strength and turn invisible. Nobody on Watchmen can do that," Lindelof explained. "So I felt like we wouldn’t be deconstructing the superhero myth because all the characters in Watchmen are just humans who play dress up. It would be more interesting to ask psychological questions about why do people dress up, why is hiding their identity a good idea, and there are interesting themes to explore here when your mask both hides you and shows you at the same time — because your mask is actually a reflection in yourself. What’s the trauma an individual has that goes into the mask they wear? All that felt Watchmen-y to me. Again, these are not original ideas, but ones I thought were timely when we all have these different identities in code now."
Lindelof and company have certainly given themselves plenty of room to work within the realms of humans playing dress up. Set 30 years after the events of the original comic — Lindelof acknowledges that while he first referred to the series as a "remix," it is also very much a sequel — the series' main action kicks off in Tulsa, Oklahoma, in the wake of the resurgence of a terrorist group known as the Seventh Kalvary. The group takes their cues from Rorschach, a costume vigilante from the original comic who died rather than compromise his principles, and thus became a martyr figure for certain extremists.
As a result, the members of the Kalvary all wear their own versions of the ink blot mask that characterized Rorschach's look. The police also wear masks after persistent past attacks on law enforcement led to a new law that protects the identity of cops from those who would target them. So, the uniformed officers wear matching yellow masks, while detectives take on their own costumed personas, including the series lead, Detective Angela Abar (Regina King), who uses the costumed pseudonym of Sister Night. Speaking to EW, Lindelof also broke down this fictionalized America's legislative past and how it led to such a mask-filled world.
"We’re living in a world where fossil fuels have been eliminated as a power source. All the cars are zero emissions and run on electricity or fuel cells — largely thanks to the innovations of Dr. Mahattan decades earlier," Lindelof said. "There’s also this legislation that’s passed, Victims Against Racial Violence, which is a form of reparations that are colloquially known as 'Redford-ations' [in the world of the show, Robert Redford has been president for 28 years]. It’s a lifetime tax exemption for victims of, and the direct descendants of, designated areas of racial injustice throughout America’s history, the most important of which, as it relates to our show, is the Tulsa massacre of 1921. That legislation had a ripple effect into another piece of legalization, DoPA, the Defense of Police Act, which allows police to hide their face behind masks because they were being targeted by terrorist organizations for protecting the victims of the initial act."
Lindelof and company are obviously playing with some big ideas just in the set-up for Watchmen's plot, which we know very little about yet. Like Moore and Gibbons' original comic, the show uses its action-heavy concept to touch on any number of social issues, while not necessarily reaching conclusions about them in a way that preaches to its audience. With that in mind, even Lindelof is still a little uneasy about how certain ideas will be received.
"I’ve had a lot of reservations about a lot of the creative choices made in the show," he said. "I don’t think any of the choices were made without reservations and conversations and ultimately a decision. I’m not entirely sure I’ll be able to defend every decision I made, but I’ll be able to explain why I made it."
Watchmen premieres Oct. 20 on HBO.