(This portion of the review speaks vaguely about the Watchmen Season Finale, but does include spoilers for the rest of the season. There will be a note before spoilers for the finale start).
One of the first things we see in Damon Lindelof’s bold, brilliant continuation of Alan Moore’s Watchmen is of a young, black moviegoer watching a silent movie in a theater, repeating the black protagonist as he tells other characters to, “trust in the law!” It’s a striking image for many reasons – that opening sequence is a terrific piece of filmmaking, for one. And that moment is happening as that young boy’s life literally crumbles around him in a disturbing recreation of the Tulsa race riots, a real, shameful chapter of our country’s history.
But when I think of that scene – which we’re reminded of in one of the season’s final moments – I can’t help but think of how we watch comic book movies. There are more superhero movies than ever before, and they’re absolutely dominating the box office and the cultural conversation at large. More often than not, the heroes in them are seen as arbiters of truth and justice, meant to serve as inspirations for viewers who may not possess super powers but can still, in their own way, fight back against evildoers. But, in recent years, I’ve become cold to the genre. I used to think it was because there were just too many of them. But Watchmen got me thinking … maybe I’ve just lost my ability to relate to them?
In its own way, Watchmen is about becoming disillusioned with superheroes too. The series follows that little boy as he becomes a cop and then a superhero in an attempt to represent his version of justice, only for him to realize that he exists in a system built on white supremacy, in which he will never actually be able to hold power. He’s betrayed by the very law he believed in so thoroughly as a young child. But, you already know about all this because you watched the season’s sixth episode, “The Extraordinary Being,” which stands out as one of the best hours of television in 2019.
“See How They Fly,” the ninth (and possibly last) episode of this series, is similarly about the idea of who truly has power in modern America. In some ways, this episode has parallels to your more conventional comic book movie finale: it has an epic confrontation between good and evil, brave sacrifices, and even a giant beam of light shooting down from the sky, a trope in more Marvel movies than I could count on both hands. But Lindelof has always used this series to present a stylized version of everyday horrors, turning white supremacists into a terrifying army of masked antagonists with a diabolical plan to make one of their own the most powerful being on Earth (their original plan was to put one in the White House, of course, but then they decided to think bigger). But in this episode, Lindelof takes these superhero movie tropes and uses them to provide an interesting theory as to how we can fix the world.
It should be noted before we get into spoiler territory that, as with the eight episodes that came before, the amount of imagination on display is unbelievable. This is exactly how a superhero adaptation should be done. It’s faithful to Moore’s themes and vision, but decidedly unique to Lindelof’s style. Furthermore, it takes the themes about questioning systems of power found in Moore’s graphic novel and makes them ironclad, preventing them from being misappropriated or misunderstood. There’s a certain thrill to watching Lindelof’s story unfold, in that he always feels in control despite how many wild things are thrown at the viewer. It’s just excellent, meaningful storytelling that deals with heavy themes and even has disturbing moments, but it never feels dark or brooding.
But let’s talk about that ending … (spoilers to follow).
Watchmen is, and always has been, a story about how we can achieve world peace. The graphic novel proposes a theory that only great disaster will bring the world together, but the television series largely reveals the holes in that plan. And some characters in the show believe that the only way to save the world is to remove the dangerous elements from it – but, can you really trust the people you appoint to remove weapons from the world?
These theories all make for compelling fiction, but Lindelof shows that they’re arguments built in an unrealistic world. We live in a racist society that prevents everyone from having the same level of power in society, so much so that even white superheroes systematically work together to oppress their black teammate. The only way to truly achieve anything resembling world peace is to completely rebuild the world and turn the power system on its head.
Over the course of the last eight weeks, Watchmen felt like a breath of fresh air in a genre that was growing stale, precisely because it understood what was wrong with that genre. Superhero stories just aren’t built for the real world, and not because they’re about characters who can fly. They just don’t understand what law and justice are really about. Escapism is all fine and good, but we’re living in a scary world where we see horrible injustices carried out against marginalized communities on a daily basis, sometimes by our own government. Fixing these problems can’t just be solved by fighting a bad guy; it requires completely dismantling corruption and reframing the entire country, if not the world.
So that brings us back to Watchmen‘s brilliant ending, which reveals the all-seeing Dr. Manhattan’s plan to save humanity. Our hero, Angela Abar (the terrific Regina King), is given her late husband’s abilities – making her the most powerful being in the universe. After losing the man she loves, becoming disillusioned with her role as a police officer/costumed hero, and experiencing a chapter of America’s deeply racist history through her grandfather’s memories, she’s been given the chance to quite literally live as a god amongst men. The balance of power have been redefined.
“Angela Abar is now empowered by the legacy of Will and the legacy of Doctor Manhattan, she is ready to take on white supremacy in a way that Doctor Manhattan was never interested in taking on. That’s going to be a battle that goes on until the end of time, unfortunately. … I don’t think that I ever would have even put it in the show if I felt like we were going to try to convince the audience that it could be defeated. But we could convince the audience that it was worthy of pushing back and fighting against, which is more than most superhero stories do.”
And I think that quote just about sums up the beauty of Watchmen in 2019. It understands that we’re not really afraid of diabolical supervillains in silly outfits with convoluted schemes: it’s much deeper than that. We’re disillusioned, upset, and even a little broken. We’re mad. But there might be a way to change things … we just need to think a little bit more about who we want to put our trust in, and who our heroes should be.
Superhero stories are here to stay. In a world where studios can clear a billion dollars worldwide multiple times a year thanks to their caped crusaders, there’s no chance of them letting those characters go. But I think, personally, I’ve gotten all I could ever want out of a superhero story. Not only was this story original, surprising, and a showcase for one of our best character actresses working today. But it also shows, behind the spandex and the sci-fi silliness, what real villainy looks like in America. More importantly, it shows what real heroism looks like, too. Everything else will just feel fake.