If HBO’s Watchmen has kept anything the same as its predecessor, it’s kept the crazy. And from graphically apocalyptic dreams, to a nuclear blue superhuman, to giant intergalactic squid, Alan Moore’s graphic novel had a lot of crazy to keep up with. But HBO’s Watchmen might even have the book outpaced, adapting and remixing it to show not just the world 30 years later in its fictional universe, but to mirror our own world today.
The original graphic novel defies an easy summary. At once a hardboiled detective novel, speculative science fiction and postmodern dystopia, the graphic novel is written with a nonlinear narrative that jumps through time and geography. But in the simplest possible terms, in a world where costumed vigilantes are part of everyday life, the novel starts out as a quest to solve a former hero’s murder which quickly landslides into the discovery of a far-reaching conspiracy.
In the original graphic novel, the world stayed relatively unchanged by the existence of vigilantes. There are electric cars and the cold war is coming to a quicker boil, but the fundamentals of society have stayed the same. The government is still the government, the police are still the police, crime is still crime, all in ways we’d recognize. Vigilantes were a small group, varying from a paranoid psychotic bent on cleansing crime, to a lonely romantic looking for adventure, to a daughter forced into the dreams of her stage mother. But, by and large, it’s still an 80’s we’d recognize.
HBO’s Watchmen diverges from a familiar world which has less rippled and more tsunami-ed into the Digital Age. Vigilantism has spilled over into daily life. From the police to terrorist groups, everyone goes masked. Anonymity has become a tool of the state and for enemies of it in equal measure — its hit the mainstream. More than just anonymity gaining popularity, police monitoring and restrictions on police using lethal force are in full effect, reparations for past hate crimes are being paid, there are tent cities of white supremicists, conspiracy theories run abound and celebrities are president.
Even the sense of exhausted resignation in the face of things that might have been beyond the pale thirty years ago is recognizable. A space squid might have been crazy in the 80s but now it’s just another Tuesday. In this case, literally, just another Tuesday. In HBO’s Watchmen they get an occasional rainfalls of calamari which police protagonist Angela Abar squeegees off her windshield with no more acknowledgment than an annoyed sigh.
However, with a 92% critic approval rating, a 42% audience review, and a rash of right-wing troll reviews that have pulled down numbers across the board, this has been a divisive adaptation. Fans have even called it too political.
But, modern problems, politics and premises are all thrown together in a cocktail shaker and the outcome is a complete surreality that feels familiar.