Is it weird to say I would have enjoyed Watchmen (2019) more if I hadn’t been so aware I wasn’t enjoying Watchmen more? That circular sentence kind of sums up my gut reaction nonetheless. Does that mean it isn’t great? No, because as an unconventional superhero narrative, Watchmen is a marvel on many levels; an inventive re-interpretation of the property with a restless structure and timely subject matter. It deserves its acclaim. But still, something about this series kept me one step removed from it.
Watchmen is not an adaptation of the famous Alan Moore/Dave Gibbons comic series, nor is it a reboot of the polarizing Zac Snyder film of a decade ago. It’s an elaborate sequel, set three-plus decades in the future of the original story, so that the lore of the series — Rorschach, The Comedian, Nite Owl, and Silk Spectre, among others — permeates its atmosphere. In Tulsa, Oklahoma, Angela Abar (Regina King) serves as a police officer in this strange alternate universe. Here, the police — after being targeted in an appalling terrorist attack by a white supremacist group known as the Seventh Kavalry — have taken to wearing masks to protect their identities. When Angela’s beloved boss, police chief Judd Crawford (Don Johnson), is murdered, Angela wants to get to the bottom of it, especially when she finds a mysterious, hundred-year old man in a wheelchair named Will Reeves (Louis Gossett, Jr.) at the scene of the crime, claiming to have done the deed. Angela’s investigation, confounded by unexpected twists and turns from various competing interests, gradually begins to unravel a world-shaking conspiracy that ultimately entangles the notorious Dr. Manhattan, the godlike superhero whose intervention during Vietnam drastically reshaped the world before he disappeared to Mars.
The preceding paragraph is a wholly inadequate summary of Watchmen, which is rife with unexpected alcoves and niches, tangents and side plots, intricate detail and eye-popping spectacle. By virtue of its nonlinear narrative and alternating points of view, it willfully resists easy summary. It is a flawed but impressive thing, a compelling, different, and thought-provoking sequel that uses the original as a springboard for inventive, politically charged commentary. Its alternate present, which originally looks like it might be an unrealistic inversion of structural racism, reaches back in history to the Tulsa race massacre and charts a different historical course forward — and one that turns out to be similarly fraught. The divisive culture war still rages, but in a different fashion, set against a reshaped backdrop characterized by vastly different power dynamics and advanced technologies. By looking at the issues through this warped new lens, it provides a powerful new perspective, bringing buried history to light while also examining alternative ways the United States could have addressed its long legacy of racial injustice. Certain elements of the world-building execution here struck me as unconvincing, alas, but the intent is admirable, and the performances in this sphere — from King, Gossett Jr., Jovan Adepo, and others — contribute greatly to the power of this major thematic focus.
Speaking of great performances, the show is rife with them, memorable characters brought vividly to life. My favorite, perhaps, was Jean Smart in a delightfully spirited performance as Laurie Blake, an FBI agent that comes to Tulsa to lead an anti-vigilante task force. But Jeremy Irons is also a scenery-chewing hoot as Adrian Veidt, in a off-the-wall side thread that eventually waves it way back to the main story. Then there’s Hong Chau, who portrays trillionaire biotech genius Lady Trieu, and Tim Blake Nelson, as the paranoid, drawly mind-reading cop Looking Glass. Whatever else it does, Watchmen does a commendable job of resurrecting the original characters for a new context, and also populates the world with new characters who are just as rich, nuanced, and entertaining to follow.
Finally,Watchmen is simply a stunning production. Its effects and costumes and overall production values are top-notch, bringing even the most gonzo of its world-building flourishes to life. There is so very much to look at and absorb and admire here, and the restless, multi-faceted, fascinating story surely will support repeat viewings that feel fresh as new details are noticed.
Given all these obvious strengths, you may ask, why not recommend Watchmen with more enthusiasm? If I had to crystallize an answer, it’s that I couldn’t fully submerge in it; seeing the techniques being wielded against me frequently broke the spell. One complaint is fairly shallow: I couldn’t help but compare it to Legion, the superhero show that broke the stylistic ground upon which Watchmen treads — but with a decidedly more calculated attention to satisfying a mainstream viewer. Series creator Damon Lindelof is great at creating a certain compelling mystique in his work (see Lost), but also tends to make that mystique feel market-driven (see also Lost) or falls apart under scrunity (again, see Lost). For all its ambition to challenge, Watchmen doesn’t trust the viewer enough, spelling out themes and connections with unnecessary flash-cuts, glaring symbolism, and groaningly obvious music cues. The clever construction of its many interlocking pieces is outwardly satisfying, but the logistical contortions don’t always add up when you put them under a microscope. Motivations and decisions feel contrived, geared toward holding the contraption together rather than growing organically out of the characters’ needs or their inner truths. Even as I enjoyed the series, I never wholly lost myself in it; it raises too many distracting questions, painful, distracting little hangnails that spoil the magic.
Stepping back, I still think Watchmen is very much worth watching. My reservations, I suspect, stem from my personal baggage: hyped expectations, pet-peeve-triggering techniques, or perhaps just the mindset of being a reviewer. I wouldn’t fault anyone for loving the hell out of it, and there’s certainly enough going on here to warrant plenty of reflection and admiration. But for me, for whatever peculiar reasons, it’s a qualified success.