Please note that this post contains spoilers for season one of HBO’s Watchmen. Further, please note that I will comment only minimally on the racial issues presented by the show. That is not because I don’t consider them important, only that I do not feel that I can meaningfully contribute to that conversation. Those issues are clearly present and deeply relevant to this discussion, but I prefer to stay in my own lane, as it were.
I’ve finally seen HBO’s Watchmen, thanks largely to having been made curious by one of Jessie Gender’s videos on the subject. On the whole, I found it a fascinating show that took on the legacy of Alan Moore’s famous comic series of the same name. Largely, I thought the series was brilliant in how it picked up the themes and narrative of the original comic. The first four episodes in particular set up a compelling story, one that poses an engaging murder mystery while simultaneously suggesting complex questions about the nature of power and oppression in society. However, I was struck by how unsatisfied I felt by the last few episodes of the season. Having reflected on it, I believe I now know why, and I credit Jessie Gender for helping me to see it. She asserts that a, if not the, central theme of the show’s first season is, “Masks make us cruel.” I think this is a very apt observation about the show, but it’s also where I feel the show missed an opportunity. Masks may or may not make us cruel, but the question at the center of the story is one about power, and comics themselves have already been teaching us an important lesson about power for many years: “With great power comes great responsibility.”
The claim that “masks make us cruel” is essentially stated by the character of Adrian Veidt (Ozymandias) in the show, and it does seem to fit with the show’s narrative: many of the antagonists wear masks, as do the police, and both sides are shown to engage in brutal acts. We’re asked to sympathize with police who wear masks, which is made easier since the central character, Angela Abar (Sister Night), is both a police detective and a woman of color and the principal villains we’re introduced to, the Seventh Kavalry, are white supremacist terrorists. The show still definitively (and appropriately) treats the Seventh Kavalry as the villains. Jessie Gender observes, “By taking off our masks can we only truly begin to heal” (00:10:26-00:10:31). This echoes a statement (also quoted by Jessie Gender) made by the character of Will Reeves in the final episode: “You can’t heal under a mask, Angela. Wounds need air.” Jessie Gender’s observation as to the theme of the show seems well supported by the text, but this seems like an evasion by the text of the more obvious theme of power and responsibility. While that theme has perhaps become somewhat cliché due to the facile way it is often treated in comics and superhero media, Watchmen was in a strong position to comment on that theme and, even, to elaborate on and refine it, but it seemed to place most of its apparent weight on the murkier theme of masks, rather than on the power that they can embody or conceal.
The central problem of all this centers largely but not entirely on the figure of Jon Osterman (Dr. Manhattan), the show’s only actually superhuman character, whose power is so great that he can shape reality around him and experiences time in a non-linear fashion, meaning that the future and the past are both also the present for him. Manhattan’s presence comes to the fore when, after the show’s first few episodes, it spends a pair of episodes largely focused on flashback. These flashbacks interestingly complicate some of the lore of the world while more meaningfully weaving it into real world history, such as exploring the identity of the show’s first costumed vigilante and how his history was shaped by the racism of real, material history–but they also insert Manhattan retroactively into the story much more deeply than the audience had known up until that point, thus foregrounding him as a major consideration in the narrative and its themes. The apathy of Manhattan, a nearly omnipotent character who creates life and reshapes planets as a hobby, is a major feature of the original comics, and the show does nothing to avoid it. Rather than do anything to help humanity with his vast power, Manhattan chooses to forget his power and live as a mortal man. In other words, he has great–even unthinkable–power, but he takes no responsibility for its use.
I’ll take a moment, here, to lament the weakness of the season’s climax, which was part of what didn’t work for me. The climax of the show centers on various parties, the Seven Kavalry among them, capturing Manhattan and trying to steal his power for themselves. This creates a few unfortunate weaknesses in the narrative, such as setting up Manhattan to shruggingly let himself be defeated by a single racist in a mask with a ray gun in the back of a pickup truck. Manhattan–a character who routinely warps space, can teleport interplanetary distances, and has been shown to be able to exist in multiple locations at once–is defeated by a random guy with a ray gun that he knows is coming, and he makes no attempt whatsoever to avoid it. This contrivance is inconsistent with his character motivations, which seem to be maintaining his life as a simple family man. Even so, it’s a plot contrivance to enable megalomaniacal trillionaire Lady Trieu to try to steal Manhattan’s powers for herself. She pays lip service to the idea that Manhattan failed to use his power for the greater good, but due to the character’s shallow development, she ends up reading as, essentially, the very “Republic Serial villain” that her father, Ozymandias, scoffed at being compared to in the original comic series. Alas, the exploration of responsibility of power as a theme seems to have ended there, lacking much development.
The show’s failure to embrace “with great power comes great responsibility” runs far deeper than the powers of Dr. Manhattan, however. The show is saturated with this theme from the beginning of its story, which opens with a depiction of the Tulsa Race Massacre of 1921. We see power being wielded to destroy the lives of people of color. We see power seized by white supremacists in the show’s present day. We see power wielded with impunity by police and federal agents. These very real-world issues cut much deeper than the indifference of Dr. Manhattan, but he–and the lesson about power and responsibility–could have served as an excellent focal point for these real-world issues. Instead, that theme is lost in the murky ending of super-genius vs. super-genius, while Dr. Manhattan continues to do nothing. Protagonist Abar reduced to fleeing powerlessly from the scene of the climax, stripped of agency and power without comment, save that she must, apparently, remove her mask in order to “heal.” The season’s final moments suggest that, perhaps, Manhattan may have bequeathed his powers to Abar. If so, then perhaps the themes of power and responsibility could be meaningfully explored in future seasons. However, what we’ve seen so far still essentially skirts the issue of the responsibility of power, which is particularly disappointing when it could have extended that concept to a perhaps even more vital and relevant theme: the responsibility and accountability of power.
“Watchmen & The Cruelty of Masks.” YouTube, uploaded by Jessie Gender, 24 Jan. 2020, https://youtu.be/hmNLc5K693M.