How 'Watchmen' Has Always Been About Race
If you love superheroes but hate that it has not once rained interdimensional monster abortions in over a half-century's worth of Batman movies, we hope you've checked out HBO's Watchmen. The new series / hot take generator functions as a sequel to Alan Moore and Dave Gibbons' landmark 1986 comic. While the original focused on '80s Cold War anxieties, the TV show primarily tackles racial tension in America, albeit in the alternate reality of the Watchmen-verse.
In this world, the late masked vigilante Rorschach has inspired a white supremacist terrorist group called the Seventh Kavalry, who read all his journals but somehow couldn't crack his "no eyehole" mask technology.
While the show has garnered plenty of critical acclaim, some folks aren't so thrilled with the politics, seemingly "review-bombing" Watchmen on sites like Rotten Tomatoes and IMDb. One user complained that it should be called "Wokemen." Another lamented how HBO "took my favorite comic series and used it as a vessel for delivering political/ideological rhetoric."
OK, complaining about politics in Watchmen is like complaining about Rocky movies being a little too focused on punching. But these criticisms are even dumber than you might think, because similar themes about race are deeply embedded in the original comic, albeit in far subtler ways.
According to Moore, Watchmen was ultimately "an investigation of the different uses of power." And since Moore has the reclusive temperament and crazy beard of a genius, he probably knows that throughout history, people have achieved and maintained power through the abuse and dehumanization of other races. The most widely known 20th-century example of this is Nazism, and Watchmen is full of references to Nazism. In the very first issue, Adrian Veidt (aka Ozymandias) calls the Comedian a "Nazi," leading Rorschach to make this inadvertently prescient statement:
While Rorschach more obviously displays bigotry, Veidt may be the more potent Nazi reference point. He's a cartoonishly Aryan son of German immigrants who ultimately commits mass murder. The book slyly compares him to Hitler even before we learn of that secret plan.
Then there are the concert posters we see plastered throughout the city. Since Freddie Mercury was presumably assassinated by the Comedian for stealing his mustache, the hottest act in town is apparently a group called "Pale Horse."
Unfortunately, their big NYC gig ends pretty abruptly:
The band's name is a Biblical reference. The "pale horse" is ridden by Death in the Book of Revelation. The band's supporting act? "Krystalnacht," likely named after Krystallnacht, the series of antisemitic attacks that occurred in Germany in November 1938. The name literally means "Night of Crystal" because of all the "broken glass from the windows of synagogues, homes, and Jewish-owned businesses" following the violence. The SS arrested up to 30,000 Jewish men, marking "the first instance in which the Nazi regime incarcerated Jews on a massive scale simply on the basis of their ethnicity." Even today, the event's anniversary is a lightning rod for antisemitism throughout Europe.
So references to Nazism and death are threaded throughout the book with Where's Waldo-like subtlety. Even Rorschach has a tangential but nonetheless meaningful connection to the Nazis. Rorschach tests were given to captive Nazis during the Nuremberg trials -- not for any legal purposes, but to study how their brains worked. Disappointingly, it turned out that there was no "moral chasm between the Nazis and 'us.'" In fact, the tests "seemed to have reached the opposite conclusion."
But perhaps the most prominent example of how white supremacy underscores Watchmen lies in the character Hooded Justice (SPOILER: While still wrapped up in racial issues, the show and comic diverge greatly on this character's identity and origin). Even though he only appears in one flashback and in a few bits of supplemental material, he was the first superhero, which makes him a significant part of this world. In one of the supplements, an excerpt from former superhero Hollis Mason's memoir Under The Hood, Mason claims that before the U.S. entered World War II, he "heard Hooded Justice openly expressing approval for the activities of Hitler's Third Reich." The titular hood even resembles that of a Klansman, with an added noose reminiscent of lynching.
In a 2017 interview that recently hit the web, Moore makes some incendiary comments about the impact of superheroes on popular culture. He asserts that most of the iconic superhero characters are "still very much white supremacist dreams," and muses that D.W. Griffith's Klan-adulating 1915 film Birth Of A Nation could be considered the "first American superhero movie, and the point of origin for all those capes and masks."
So yeah, this seems pretty intentional. And if you want something more canonical, DC's 1987 role-playing game Watchmen: Taking Out The Trash (which Moore was consulted on) confirmed that Hooded Justice was a member of the KKK:
It isn't just Hooded Justice. In Watchmen, the entire bedrock of superheroism is prejudice. Another foundational early hero, Captain Metropolis, is clearly racist with fascist leanings. When we see a flashback to the first Crimebusters meeting, his plan for do-goodery isn't so much battling supervillains, but instead tackling things like promiscuity, drugs, antiwar demonstrations, and most disconcertingly, "black unrest."
It's a character reading a comic in a comic. Meaning that he represents us, the readers. If the story is about rejecting the moral authority of institutions and leaders, this character is the embodiment of the people, to whom the power rightly belongs. This doesn't nullify all criticism, but the choice to make this character black feels pretty pointed.
All of which isn't to say that you have to like the new series. Feel free to dunk on HBO shows all you want. Hell, we still have some bones to pick with Arli$$. But to pretend as though the show's writers are using Dr. Manhattan's blue glowing junk to teabag the audience with unprecedented politics and themes around race is just wrong.
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