The first instalment of Watchmen is a punchy superhero thrill-ride and a gritty police procedural, one that should entertain both fans of the classic comic and nervous newcomers.
In Tulsa, Oklahoma, in an alternate present day, 34 years after the events of the original Watchmen comic, the likes of “superheroes” Rorschach, Ozymandias and co are now looked upon much more favourably than when we last saw them: an in-universe mini-series called “American Hero Story: Minutemen” romanticises the brutal serial killer Hooded Justice, while Adrian “Ozymandias” Veidt (Jeremy Irons) lives in a lavish manor house surrounded by sycophants and enablers who refer to him as “Master”. Meanwhile, a far-right militia calling itself the Seventh Cavalry has sprung up around the late anti-hero Rorschach, determined to wreak guerrilla warfare.
This new American right have also mobilised against the gentle President Robert Redford – who has been in power continuously since previous President Nixon rescinded all term limits, and has since granted reparations to people of colour, protected the rights of animals, and even brought regulations to law enforcement. These days, it’s not only the caped crusaders jumping around in masks, but the cops as well, leading to an anonymised Tulsa police force, dotted with colourful characters in masks.
All this sharply juxtaposes the comic’s original landscape, which saw dictator perpetuo Nixon sending out uncaring monsters like Doctor Manhattan and The Comedian to raze Vietnam, before bringing the planet to the brink of nuclear war while moderates looked on in horror. Thirty years later, it seems like the tables have turned, and the militant conservatives are not happy about it.
If all this seems more like a list of facts than a review, then it’s because that’s really all the first episode is. Alternate history stories are always hard to write: you have to navigate a lot of exposition, dancing between making things too subtle to pick up on and too clunky to sound realistic. That’s why the first episode of Watchmen is all about taking the time to introduce us to this new world, with its new characters, and its new rules. This, perhaps, is where the episode suffers, albeit slightly. The script definitely succeeds in easing you into this new universe with a deft hand and some subtle world-building, while also keeping the story fast-paced and engaging. This does, however, come at the expense of the little people on the ground. If you can name more than two of the main characters or their relationships to each other by the halfway point, I’ll buy you a new house.
The episode also runs into a few problems with conflicting tones along the way. Its approach to violence is much more mature than the 2009 film adaptation: the beatdowns and blood-splatters are far from Zack Snyder’s slick, stylised gore-fest. The episode opens with a KKK massacre, in which we watch two black townsfolk getting dragged by the neck behind a horse and cart through the eyes of a terrified little boy. Half an hour later we’re seeing Archie (Nite Owl’s take on the Batplane) shooting down an escaping airplane with a jet of fire. Lynchings and dogfights in the same half-hour – is this a case of the new Watchmen trying to have its cake and eat it too? Perhaps it’s too soon to tell.
If you’re already a fan of Watchmen, you’ll enjoy returning to the world of the comic, updated for modern times and ready to explore. Easter eggs abound, but not distractingly so. If you’ve never picked up the comic in your life, panic not. The series so far still stands on its own two feet, boasting great production design and a powerful score from Nine Inch Nails’ Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross, whose previous collaborations include their Academy Award winning work for The Social Network. Reznor and Ross deftly navigate the episode’s conflicting tones, managing to be jarring and brutal one moment, then gentle and mournful the next.
Most importantly, however, this new adaptation creates an engaging storyline for newcomers and diehards alike, one that should get you both intrigued and excited for what’s to come.
The new season of Watchmen begins Monday 21st October, 9pm, on Sky Atlantic.