HBO's 'Watchmen' Delivers a Killing Blow to the Superhero Genre
The superhero genre was in film's past, present, and future... until Watchmen blew it the fuck up.
Watchmen was a groundbreaking comic series that took on lighter superhero fair and made us think about the deep human flaws that would reside within the characters at its center.
Now, several decades later, the Watchmen television series is here to finish what the comic started.
This may sound like a bold claim, so we'll walk it back just a tiny bit. This isn't just about the ending of something... because, after all, "Nothing ever ends," but rather, the emergence of something very new in a space that has been fairly consistent since the very first cross-cut sequence on celluloid.
Watchmen connects a lot of dots. And for us to fully take in all that it both destroys and creates, we have to jump through time like Dr. Manhattan. In fact, we'll have to do it a few times.
By 1985, the world of comic books and their superheroes had flooded the culture for generations. The graphic novel Watchmen made a lot of sense in that context.
But consider that on celluloid and television the same comic book stories and heroes were barely even toddlers. Superman had come out in 1979. Batman was best known in those mediums for bright colors and Shark repellent.
So, while the graphic novel spoke to a reality within the comic medium, TV and cinema were just starting to unlock the superhero treasure chest.
The movie received mixed reactions, one reason potentially being that audiences were still soaking in all that superheroes could be on screen. The Dark Knight had only come out one year prior and seemed to promise a whole new potent take.
The movie also missed the superhero box office boom, only recouping its budget and not breaking out the way the studio had hoped.
It seemed Watchmen, once called unadaptable, was destined to stay on bookshelves.
10 years later in 2019, HBO and Damon Lindelof have now created a Watchmen series that serves as both a sequel and a remix. This time it seems the audiences are tired enough of the superhero format to connect to a story about exactly that reality.
But to understand the subtext and meaning behind this version of Watchmen, we have to go back to the beginning.
The beginnings of individual movies but also of cinema itself...
That opening credits sequence
Whatever people think of the 2009 film, we can all agree that its credit sequence was amazing, so much so that I feel like audiences should check it out before they watch the new HBO series to get them up to speed with the history of this universe. Filmmakers and storytellers can learn a lot about what makes an effective montage, and credit sequence by studying how this one covers so much narrative ground.
Let's just talk about the use of Bob Dylan's 'The Times They are a-Changin' to... change the times. The sequence rewrites history in a series of images that take us through the progression of the role of real-life superheroes in an alternate timeline.
The sequence connects the dots. It shows us how 'the legend became fact', to quote another cinema classic.
What does this have to do with the HBO Watchmen series?
To answer that we have to consider another opening credit sequence.
This will require another trip back in time...
In 1969 nobody was making comic book movies. People were making westerns. They had been making them pretty much nonstop since the dawn of cinema. We'll get to that later.
But we were reaching the point with the western where the times, well, they were a-changin.
More on that in a moment. First, these are the opening credits for Butch Cassidy and The Sundance Kid:
An old projection of a silent cowboy movie with the piano accompanying it introduces us to the 'old' idea of the cowboy in the west. The movie we are about to see will challenge many of these familiar notions. In fact, it will lay them to rest.
In fact... [Spoiler alert] it will lay to rest it's two handsome young male movie stars as well.
For reference, handsome young white male movie stars did not typically die at the end of westerns.
Butch and Sundance was a part of a movement happening in movies to westerns specifically that really mirrored what would happen to comic books with Alan Moore's release of Watchmen in 1985.
Ok, but before we get to the show... we have to go back in time even farther.
Yes, I know this is getting a little ridiculous. But like Dr. Manhattan, we are going to have to try and be all these places simultaneously.
In 1903 a movie was released called The Great Train Robbery. Have you ever seen it? Maybe in film class?
It's a movie that pioneered (heh) many of the foundational elements of filmmaking. Cross-cutting. Shooting on location (I bet they didn't get permits!) It's the first action film ever made, the first western ever made, and one of the earliest forms of narrative storytelling in filmic language.
Oh, and it's about Butch Cassidy robbing a train.
Why do these westerns matter to Watchmen?
Westerns used to be pulp, just like comic books. Dime store novels in fact.
The real-life exploits of men named Wyatt Earp, Jesse James, and Butch Cassidy were exaggerated and embellished in these quick casual reads. Movies came along pretty soon and movies that mimicked some of the 'content' of these dime-store westerns made sense.
The Great Train Robbery came out while Butch Cassidy was still alive.
Cinema, radio and TV took westerns to a new height and didn't stop. Track the popularity of them on this infographic about genres in film.
Flash forward from that first western in 1903 to 1969 and yeah... the western had been done to death. So a new breed of western came along, that contextualized it all and started to debunk some of the legends. Started to throw some dirt on those literally shining white knights...
Flash forward again to 2019.
You might say we're at a point where the comic book movie has been done to death, with both creatives and audiences ready for the 'end of the era' in that genre.
Look no further than the massive success of Joker. A movie that looks only at the supervillain, examining his pain and misery. It's not fun, it's not for kids, and it's got no happy ending.
See ultimately, the comic book movie and the western inhabit the same piece of the American cultural consciousness.
You can see how the comic book hero was an urban offshoot of the western. Instead of men creating law in the lawless frontier, it's men creating law in the lawless modern urban metropolis.
There is even an obvious crossover, the Lone Ranger is a western superhero who wore a mask.
Now there are some who believe Bass Reeves to be the basis for the character of the Lone Ranger.
The opening of Watchmen 2019 is a silent film. Sepia-toned. It's not Butch Cassidy robbing a train in 1903, or 1969.
It's the first African American Deputy U.S. Marshal Bass Reeves catching a corrupt sheriff.
Reeves catches the corrupt sheriff (who is white) and the white townspeople cheer him. This is pure fantasy. Watchmen is about to blow fantasy up, literally.
The young boy watching the movie is in Tulsa, and a race war massacre is about to take place.
The point of the history lesson
Watchmen takes the stance that superheroes are inherently silly. Even in a fictional world that allows them to be 'real'.
But instead of just saying the end of the superhero era is upon us, this incarnation of Watchmen points to a very specific kind of superhero that must be set aside. His day is done.
Maybe there is a kind of superhero who makes sense.
The origin story we get out of the Tulsa Massacre mirrors Superman's. But this time it's young Will Reeves, (he took the name from movie hero Bass when his family dies). Will becomes a cop, faces intolerance, puts on a mask... and in hiding his race and his sexual identity... becomes a hero.
Ideas of dual lives infect all superhero stories. Superman and Clark Kent, etc.
These dualities are... larger. The truths they hide more explosive.
Well in the modern 2019 part of the Watchmen story, some white men do have to hide something with a mask. Specifically their racism.
"It's a hard time to be a white man in America."
These chilling words were spoken by one of the show's characters, an echo of a sentiment we hear in our world a lot today as progressive ideals push for the ideas of balance and equality. In worlds both real and fictional this has been a hard pill for many white males to swallow.
Look at the images of the early watchmen, or minutemen, or even real-life superheroes or cowboys from dime-store novels.
All white faces, 90% male.
Does this mean people of color weren't also heroes? No.
Bass Reeves existed. But he didn't get the same stage Butch Cassidy did.
And this is where Watchmen goes right at the center of the idea of what the superhero is supposed to be.
The original Watchmen was about the death of the superhero. A time that had grown past his usefulness. All the Comedian was going to do was stunt the population from moving on. So he had to die.
Heroes had to die if society was going to find peace.
The new Watchmen is still about that ending. About how heroes must hang, must perish for society to heal. But it is also about the birth of something new. A superhero who is a female person of color, who no longer needs to wear a mask.
A person who is not afraid to go out in her own world, worried about who people laud and idolize.
The racist past finally ready to be healed by staring at it head-on.
This is the hurdle of our time, of 2019.
Ozymandias, who is a sort of super hero-villain hybrid embodies the problem to date. He is a symbol of super-wealthy white male privilege, the billionaire-class patriarchy incarnate. He wants credit for saving the world and protecting it, though his means require inflicting pain and damage to do so. He's constantly willing to 'break a few eggs.'
But he's a villain of the past.
His run has come to an end, as has the run of his fellow heroes of yore.
This show doesn't just ask who watches the Watchmen. It asks who takes over for them.
It asks how villains change and how the good guys can continue to win.
By confronting the sordid details of all of history and working together to heal them.
So unless the superhero genre is ready to talk about what;'s real. To deal with the most pervasive and challenging topics confronting human morality..
Then it is truly dead.
Studios may try to revive it or sell it again and again, but the die has been cast, the bar set.
The eggs have been cracked.
Whatever comes next either has to add to the omelet or acknowledge that it doesn't belong in the same category as Watchmen.