Tuesday, July 14, 2020
July 14, 2020: AmericanStudying Watchmen: Hooded Justice
[Along with Bosch, another acclaimed show I’ve finally had a chance to check out during lockdown is HBO’s Watchmen, and it lived up to the hype. Among its many strengths, I’d emphasize in particular its remarkable depth when it comes to American history, and this week will focus on five sides to those themes and threads. Leading up to a special weekend post sharing student perspectives on both the show and its graphic novel source material!]
[NB. SPOILERS will abound all week—go check the show out and then come back to read these posts and share your thoughts!]
On the adaptation choice that changes everything, and why it makes perfect sense.
The decision to adapt a beloved cultural work—I’m talking about Dave Gibbons’ and Alan Moore’s magisterial 1987 graphic novel, obviously; the less said about Zach Snyder’s 2009 film version, the better—must always be a complex and fraught one. If you try to recreate the original text in this new medium, you’re likely going to just remind audiences of how your version won’t ever be precisely the same as that established classic; but if you make any significant changes, you’re definitely going to make some subset of those fans (Tom Bombadil stans, we might call them) very angry. When Damon Lindelof decided to make a TV show based on Watchmen, he went all in for the latter type—and while his show is more of a sequel than a straight adaptation, it does engage in central ways with a number of characters and stories from the graphic novel. And moreover, Lindelof has stated in interviews [one more time, MAJOR SPOILERS here and throughout this post] that it was the chance to radically rethink one of those characters—Hooded Justice, the graphic novel’s foundational early 20th century superhero—that made him want to work on the show in the first place.
Lindelof and company hold the reveal of that rethinking until the show’s 6th episode (of 8 total; and again, SPOILERS in that wonderful Alan Sepinwall piece, not just for this reveal overall but for all the details of that episode in particular), but when we get it it forces us to rethink all five prior episodes, among many other things. Hooded Justice, it turns out, was black, and indeed the same young boy (Will Reeves) whom we followed during the first episode’s 1921 Tulsa-set opening sequence. That boy grew up to become a police office in late 1930s New York City (played as a young man by the wonderful Jovan Adepo, and as an elderly man in the show’s present by the eternally wonderful Louis Gossett Jr.), and then when he realized the law was not the source of justice he (like his childhood hero and namesake Bass Reeves) thought it was, he decided to take justice into his own hands. The episode’s historical revelations thus change our entire perspective on both the multi-generational legacy of superheroes (HJ was the inspiration for the Minutemen, the first group of superheroes who then inspired the Watchmen who then inspired the show’s current superheroes) and the show’s multi-generational family story (Regina King’s character Angela Abar/Sister Night, our most consistent protagonist, is revealed to be HJ’s granddaughter).
Given that many Watchmen readers are apparently big fans of the character Rorschach, who is at best a reactionary sociopath if not also a blatant white supremacist (and the TV show goes with the latter, on which more in tomorrow’s post), I have to imagine that a black Hooded Justice didn’t go over well with them. But for me, it’s one of the best and smartest choices I’ve seen in any TV show or cultural work. It works very well within the show’s and graphic novel’s stories and worlds, both extending and challenging core elements of them. But I think it works even better within the broader frames of American history and culture. It’s pretty telling that when comic books were finally able to feature black superheroes, the first prominent such character was from a fictional African country, rather than here in the United States. I understand that choice, but at the same time, no American community would have more reason to seek the kinds of extralegal, vigilante justice that superheroes offer than African Americans, which is literally how Will becomes HJ—he is nearly lynched by fellow police officers, and when he subsequently happens upon another crime in progress, the lynching rope still around his neck, he decides to put on a hood and deal out his own justice. That just might be my favorite American pop culture moment of the 21st century, and is the central, unequivocal triumph of HBO’s Watchmen.
Next WatchmenStudying tomorrow,
PS. What do you think? Other takes on the show you’d share?