*The following article features massive spoilers for the Watchmen TV series*
I’ve been thinking a lot about 2019’s Watchmen series. Not just because it was my favorite piece of media I saw last year, but I think its core themes and ideas are so evidently relevant to right now. I’m waiting for an army of men wearing Rorschach masks to crash a protest or for Dr. Manhattan’s giant blue member to trend on Twitter. In a time where people are protesting in the streets and facing the aggressive force of police daily, where American cities have curfews, along with military helicopters and Humvee’s driving through the streets. Talking about TV right now makes me feel like a jackass. We’re in a time where taking space away from important voices is negligent. But as a writer, I want to use my voice to talk about relevant media that deserves your attention when you need a break. So, if you’re looking to focus on something less dire right now, let’s talk about how Watchmen 2019 made the most gripping and poignant superhero origin story in recent memory, and what we can learn from it today.
For those not in the know (if you really don’t know about Watchmen then ask your nerdy cousin to borrow their copy), Watchmen was a 1985 12 issue limited comic series written by Alan Moore with art by Dave Gibbons. It took the concept of superheroes and satirized their role in a grounded, alt-history New York circa 1985, where superheroes are declared illegal by the government. These superheroes were sadistic, repressed, conceited, and cold. It was a revolutionary take and has been praised by many as the greatest superhero story ever written. Many tried and failed to adapt the series, with Zack Snyder making a feature film to middling success. But a television series was green-lit at HBO with Damon Lindelof as show runner. It would be written as a modern-day sequel to the original series. While the original was considered timely and relevant for its story about nuclear war, Watchmen 2019 focused on race.
In 2019, superheroes are no longer illegal: they’re cops. A new law has been placed in Tulsa, Oklahoma that states police officers can wear masks on duty to protect their identities after a massacre against police called the White Night. Most cops wear a bright yellow face covering along with their uniform, but as it goes, others choose a more theatrical root. It’s their way of upholding the law while protecting themselves. This of course also leads to the abuse of power that is far from surprising from police. Angela Abar (Regina King), our series lead, is fierce as hell as Sister Night. But that doesn’t mean she isn’t breaking into trailers and beating the crap out of whoever she wants without any due process. Now she’s not a crazy vigilante with no jurisdiction, she’s an officer of the law. Watchmen 1985 was not shy at comparing the way superheroes operated directly to fascism. Just because they were “the good guys” didn’t mean they were actually good guys. Watchmen 2019 continues this tradition.
Angela has a fulfilling life in her line of work. But everything goes sideways when Angela meets Will Reeves (Louis Gossett Jr.), her long-lost grandfather. He’s a 105-year-old man who claims he lynched the chief of police, a man who was hiding a Klan robe in his closet, a man who Angela, a black woman, considered a close friend and ally. She meticulously and slowly tries to figure out how and why a wheelchair bound man did this; keeping this information from her colleagues, who are blaming the 7th Calvary, the newest form of the Ku Klux Klan and perpetrators of the White Night. Angela’s only clue is a capsule of pills belonging to her grandfather. The pills are called Nostalgia and they can help people access old memories. After her colleagues are aware she’s withholding evidence, she takes all the pills at once and thus begins the episode “This Extraordinary Being.”
Directed by Steven Williams and written by Cord Jefferson and Damon Lindelof, the 6th episode of Watchmen 2019 is a remarkable accomplishment in filmmaking and art through the lens of superheroes. The episode lifts the series from its modern aesthetic and switches to black and white, the camera floating around the room with long takes giving off a lucid feeling. Here, we meet a young Will Reeves (Jovan Adepo), one of the very few black officers in the New York Police Department in 1938. He had grown up watching Bass Reeve’s films at the local movie theater his Mom played the piano at, instilling him with a sense of justice. This decision concerns his wife June, for a number of reasons, because Will didn’t grow up in a just world.
When Will was a young child, he lived in Tulsa on the day of The Tulsa Race Massacre of 1921, a very real tragedy where the Ku Klux Klan burned down the Greenwood district of the city, nicknamed “Black Wall Street.” The Klan destroyed over 35 blocks of the city, dropping bombs from private planes, and raining terror on the most thriving black community in the United States at that time. Watchmen reenacted that day with bloody, horrifying accuracy, the only narrative to ever depict the tragedy on screen (it was so seldom talked about that Lindelof had only just learned about it). We see a young Will held by his parents, as they put him in a car leaving town to try and escape the bloodshed. He barely makes it out alive, carrying a baby (his future wife June) with him as the city burns behind him. Will tells June that he doesn’t think about that day anyone, He doesn’t want to live in the past, but Will is still carrying a lot of unprocessed trauma, one of the biggest themes in the show.
Early on, Will learns of KKK ties in the police ranks in the form of an organization called “Cyclops,” who plan on using hypnosis to cause racial violence in Harlem. Before he has the chance to intervene, he is kidnapped by his fellow officers, who put a hood over his head and a noose around his neck. Will is lynched in the middle of New York City. Right before the last breath leaves his body, he’s cut down and told not to stick his nose in their business again. As he limps home, disoriented and terrified, he notices a mugging taking place, and his fear immediately becomes fury. Will puts his hood back on and beats the muggers senseless, while saving the victims in the process. In that moment, Will unintentionally gives birth to the world’s first superhero, Hooded Justice.
In the timeline of Watchmen 1985, the 30s gave birth to a movement of men and women who dressed up in garish outfits to mingle amongst one another and occasionally stop other equally garish supervillains. They formed a team called the Minuteman and they are the campy beginnings that birthed the superhero movement as it is known in Watchmen. Their ranks include the first incarnations of Silk Specter and Nite Owl, The Comedian, Captain Metropolis, Silhouette, and Hooded Justice. Hooded Justice was canonically the first superhero to appear in that period of time, when he stops a grocery store robbery. It’s a footnote in the supplementary reading material at the end of each issue of the series.
This is the biggest creative liberty the show takes with the original source material, as it answers a question never directly answered from the original. It takes Watchmen’s flippant take on the birth of superheroes and imbues it with meaning. June asks Will why he put the hood back on before he beat up the muggers; because of the way the world works — both Watchmen’s and our own — it’s for his safety. A violent black man jumping out of the dark is unpredictable and frightening to the public, but a masked vigilante doing the exact same thing is a hero. For Will to actually get the justice he’s been looking for, he must wear his hood and take on the mantle of Hooded Justice; thanks to some makeup over half of his face, he’s assumed to be white.
Will’s super-heroics actually get the attention of the Minutemen, who are still the organization of weirdos who play dress up from the Watchmen 1985. Their leader, Captain Metropolis, begs Reeves to join the team to give them legitimacy. Will agrees to the offer, thinking working with others like him will benefit his cause. He also ends up in an affair with Captain Metropolis, another part of himself Will is keeping bottled up. But when Will joins the team, he learns that his team was never going to help him, as the other minutemen get licensing deals and free publicity for their superhero personas thanks to him. When Will tries to tell Metropolis about Cyclops, Metropolis scoffs and says “That’s not the Minutemen’s cup of tea.” Even under a hood with his race hidden, Will is an other.
Superhero stories so often follow a kind of Übermensch quality, of one man put above everyone else and being seen as a savior of the world. But the irony of Will Reeves being Hooded Justice is that he is literally Black Superman, and I mean literally. Will Reeves started his career wearing a mask in 1938, the same year Action Comic’s #1 arrived on newsstands. Like Superman, Will watched his birthplace burst into flames, and was sent away as his parents stayed behind and perished. Even Superman would take on the Klan in The Adventures of Superman radio show, backed by the Anti-Defamation League as a form to belittle and shine a negative light on the Klan. The radio series got a lot of credit for the decline in Klan membership at the time. Despite all of that, Superman has one thing that makes him more credible in the public eye than Hooded Justice ever could be, and it has nothing to do with super powers.
Will doesn’t have that luxury of powers or white skin. So, he works in the shadows, he single-handedly goes after Cyclops and stops their plans. But he doesn’t get headlines, he gets no congratulations. All he gets is the security of knowing that their plan to target black civilians is over, and his wife leaves him out of disgust. Being a masked hero didn’t quell Will’s rage, it just let it grow until it engulfed his life and frightened his young son. Will retires shortly after.
Making the first superhero in the Watchmen universe a black man recontextualizes the entire narrative while strengthening the original text. A black man fighting the Klan is used as a springboard for white people to dress up for kicks, being used as military propaganda, becoming agents for the government. In Watchmen 1985, The Comedian and Doctor Manhattan are brought into Vietnam by Richard Nixon. Manhattan grows 100 feet tall and settles the conflict shortly after he arrives, this victory keeps Nixon in office for well over a decade. During a police strike in 1977 over masked vigilantes, all of the Watchmen are used to suppress riots and many attack innocent civilians. The Comedian even shoots tear gas into the crowd. These heroes are a far cry away from Will Reeves fighting the Klan all those years ago, completely bastardizing the justice he’s been looking for all his life. It’s another entity white people appropriated from a black source.
Angela learns a lot about her grandfather through these memories — finally, she understands the anger she can’t seem to let go. As a child living in Vietnam (now the 51st state), she also lost her parents in a bombing. She felt the confusion and hurt he felt. She tried to channel that hurt into a masked persona to bring about justice. Like Will, she doesn’t get the catharsis she needs with her freed aggression, and the institution she joined to bring about justice was as racist and a sham as it was back in 1938. Even in a fictional universe where Robert Redford is president and gave out reparations, white supremacy is still invading the United States police force.
“This Extraordinary Being” is the most memorable episode of a truly excellent series. One that succeeds in the impossible task of being a worthy sequel to Watchmen. Lindelof is the mastermind behind the series but the shows deep woven themes wouldn’t have been nearly as poignant without a diverse writing staff that he said taught him some hard truths about the subject matter they were tackling. As of February, The Tulsa Race Massacre has become mandatory curriculum in Oklahoma schools, for the first time in almost 100 years. It’s more than a coincidence that this happened after this show displayed the riots in such a visceral fashion. Much of the show’s Peabody-nominated substance will be written about and discussed for many years to come. But if there’s anything we can learn from Watchmen, it’s that we can’t rely on one person in a flashy suit to save us from the hate and fear in the world. Not in fiction, and certainly not in real life.
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