One of the more surprising series joining the comic book TV show universe is HBO’s Watchmen, an ambitious project, as seen in the teaser trailer released Wednesday, that seems like the concept’s best destiny. The 2009 feature film version, which was directed by Zack Snyder and received only a 64% Tomatometer score, was the end result of a protracted development process that saw filmmakers like Terry Gilliam suggest the material was better suited to a high-end television miniseries. But what fans of the comic book will get when it debuts this fall is something much stranger and more daring than a simple adaptation. Take a look at what we what know about the program so far.
Alan Moore and Dave Gibbons’ landmark 12-issue series debuted in 1985 to immediate acclaim. Based on the Charlton Comics characters DC Comics acquired in 1983, Moore and Gibbons envisioned a world in which costumed heroes surfaced in the 1930s and changed the course of history. True historical events like the Vietnam War and the Nixon presidency were drastically altered by costume vigilantes and the one genuine super-powered being in their midst.
The story itself is set after the various mystery men have all retired, died, or found themselves on the wrong side of the law. Some, like Adrian Veidt parlayed their notoriety into corporate success. Others, like the masked Rorschach, still try to hold back the tide of anarchy in a world completely and utterly tired of their shenanigans. Meanwhile, the one genuine superhero, Dr. Manhattan, finds himself less and less concerned with humanity’s petty squabbles as his consciousness continues to expand into cosmic realms.
And as the tale begins, one of their number – the Comedian – is found dead. Rorschach sets out to learn the truth behind the murder and uncovers a vast and seemingly sinister plot.
With its deep themes and rich world-building, Watchmen always seemed like a natural fit for television, particularly the sort of exquisitely produced examination of genres HBO trades in. Where The Wire took the basics of the cop drama and wove a Dickensian tale of disintegrating infrastructures, Watchmen could deconstruct the superhero and comment on the society responsible for their literary creation. Considering the teaser makes of point of associating the Rorschach mask with armed militia groups, we’re going to assume the deconstruction will not be favorable to the heroes.
But as executive producer Damon Lindelof pointed out in a letter to fans last year, the original Watchmen comic already did that and repeating its events would be pointless. Instead, his series will be something of a sequel (though he avoided using that word) set in contemporary times, but acknowledging the events of the book as part of the world’s history. Rorschach uncovered the truth, Adrian Veidt executed his plan, and Dr. Manhattan disappeared 34 years ago.
“This story will be set in the world its creators painstakingly built,” Lindelof explained at the time. “But in the tradition of the work that inspired it, this new story must be original.”
In that chasm of 30-odd years, life went on. A devastating attack on New York changed peoples’ perceptions of everything and a grand plan to make life on Earth for the better collapsed when the public learned the price of paradise.
HBO’s Watchmen picks up well after those times. As seen in the teaser, the world looks like it is once again 3 minutes to midnight. Cops wear masks for fear of being hunted. The Rorschach mask itself has been co-opted by an armed militia group and at least one man (Don Johnson) expects the world to end in the not-too-distant future. The grim, “pre-apocalyptic” tone of the original comic book prevails even after we see a bevy of new faces. Will they hold back the end or will one last member of the book’s surviving case be called upon to stop the madness of the world?
And what of costumed heroes themselves? The teaser suggests they went into hibernation, but will they prove any more successful in saving the world than the Minutemen who trailed and failed in the 1980s?
Shortly after Lindelof published his letter to fans, HBO began to release details of the program’s expansive cast. Johnson, Regina King (pictured above ), Tim Blake Nelson, Louis Gossett Jr., Adelaide Clemens, and Andrew Howard were the first cast members announced for the pilot. Soon they were joined by Jeremy Irons, Sleepy Hollow star Tom Mison, Titanic’s Frances Fisher, Superfly’s Jacob Ming-Trent, and Aquaman’s Yahya Abdul-Mahteen II. Other cast members include Jean Smart (Legion), Sara Vickers (Endeavor), Hong Chau (Big Little Lies), Dustin Ingram (True Blood), and James Wolk (Tell Me a Story), as well as child actors Dylan Schombing, Lily Rose Smith, and Adelynn Spoon.
In November 2018, word broke that Iron would be playing Adrian Veidt, confirming Lindelof’s intent to include at least one familiar character from the comic book. In the teaser, he can be seen mediating on a desk, recalling the Veidt of the comic book. In that story, he was the ultimate perpetrator of the conspiracy the Comedian and Rorschach uncovered. But in defiance of all comic book bad guys, his monstrous plan would ultimately better the world. Well, at least for a time. Rorschach sent his journal detailing Veidt’s crime to an extreme right-wing publication. And now that we think about, connecting the Rorschach iconography to militias makes absolute sense.
Meanwhile, Clemens will play Pirate Jenny, a clear reference to the Tales of the Black Freighter comic strip inside Watchmen, which is itself a reference back to the song “Pirate Jenny” from The Threepenny Opera. Smart is also said to be playing an FBI agent with the last name Blake, suggesting she may have a blood tie to the Comedian.
Also, the teaser suggests a new mirror-masked Rorschach will be on the scene. In the current DC Comics miniseries Doomsday Clock, Reggie Long, the son of Watchmen prison psychologist Dr. Malcolm Long, donned the inkblot mask and adopted the identity for himself. But 30+ years on, anyone could be hidden underneath. In fact, that theme of obscured identity is strong across the series as the police, militia members, and potential vigilantes alike use masks to hide themselves from opponents and the public at large. Clearly, privacy is on Lindelof’s mind. And in a 2019 where both Apple and Facebook trade on their ability to keep user information safe (but don’t always succeed), it serves as a good underlying panic in the same way the original comic book traded on the fear of nuclear annihilation.
Proving the series will be very different from other superhero shows, the musical score will be provided by Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross of The Social Network and Gone Girl. Unlike the often rousing themes of superhero films or even the pulse-pounding tracks of The Flash or Arrow during its action scenes, Reznor and Ross are known for quieter. deliberate work. Fitting for a show which will no doubt eschew the usual superhero fights for something more graphic, harrowing, and pointed. Of course, they are capable of the bigger sweep as well, but one look at the teaser indicates bombastic music will be used in a more ironic way than, say, Avengers: Endgame.
As the teaser revealed, the series will debut sometime in the fall. Clearly, it is hoped the series will take the buzzy place of Game of Thrones, which will conclude its eighth and final in just two weeks. Considering the sort of passion Watchmen inspires from its fans – look at any discussion thread about Snyder’s film version or DC’s decision to make Watchmen prequel comics in 2010 – it is likely the series will become one of the most talked about comic book-based projects of 2019.
Watchmen will air on HBO in the fall.