The World of ‘Watchmen’ Ended Twice This Week

For fans of Alan Moore and Dave Gibbons’ 1986 comic book series Watchmen, this week is a strange moment in time. On Sunday evening, HBO’s Watchmen—at once a sequel to, and response to, that original comic—aired the final episode of its first season. Today, the final issue of DC’s Doomsday Clock, the 12-part comic book miniseries that combined the Watchmen and DC Universe characters, hits shelves. Somehow, 32 years after the conclusion of the original comic, Watchmen is ending all over again.

It should be noted that the HBO series and Doomsday Clock coexist separate and apart from each other, in different fictional universes, despite in theory both emerging from the same starting point. The opening of the latter sees an apocalyptic event seemingly decimate New York City in 1992, but the television show’s New York has been left unscathed since the squid attack of 1985, despite an understandable drop in tourism since. Both come at the idea of the legacy of the original from different angles, and—despite some shared ideas—have very different ideas about what Watchmen, as envisaged by Moore and Gibbons, actually represented.

Of the two, Doomsday Clock is the most traditional and, ultimately, the least successful. (Those two things are, unsurprisingly, not unrelated.) There are multiple reasons for this—including the fact that the series was beset by massive delays, with what was intended as a monthly serial when it launched in November 2017 quickly slipping into a bimonthly, then entirely irregular schedule—but what truly doomed the project was an inability to deliver on what was, admittedly, an ambitious idea at the heart of the story.

The original Watchmen was a comic book series that redefined what superhero comics could be, and in Doomsday Clock, writer Geoff Johns created a story that made that subtext text: Dr. Manhattan, the omniscient blue nude that dominates the original Watchmen, has visited the DC universe of Superman, Batman, and Wonder Woman and, unbeknownst to everyone, changed its history to create a colder, more violent world. As the series continues, however, Johns only builds on that idea in the most clichéd and conservative ways. More and more heroes appear and overwhelm the narrative as everything devolves into endless fight scenes and narration that is forced to explain the bigger ideas because they’ve become lost in the action.

Ideas aren’t the only thing to get lost as the series goes along. As the cast grows, many characters who were ostensibly protagonists get pushed to the periphery, disappearing for interminably long stretches as Johns and artist Gary Frank seemingly forget about them. It’s as if the DC universe itself takes over and demands more space. In the final issue, predicting Superman’s future, and the futures of his fellow heroes, gets as much attention as closing out the stories of Doomsday‘s original stars, all of whom have become afterthoughts by accident. It’s a sign of how overwhelmed Doomsday Clock becomes by the superhero status quo it seeks, not entirely successfully, to challenge and address.

The same can’t be said of HBO’s Watchmen, which proved to be as intricately constructed as the comic book that inspired it, filled with mysteries and puzzles that weren’t even revealed to be puzzles until their secrets were laid bare. (That Ozymandias status reveal!) If Doomsday Clock was a story interested in the meta impact of Watchmen on the comic book medium, Watchmen the show was one fascinated by the implications of the comic’s facile promise of “superheroes in the real world,” and something that drove directly through the ways in which the original fulfilled and failed that promise.

Watchmen the show was all too aware of the most obvious failings of Watchmen the comic—it’s too white, it’s too male—and addressed those criticisms by centering the show on women and people of color; it asked questions about the power structures of the original comic, and also of the real world, and dared to imagine better alternatives than most. It was, after all, a series that topped itself after revealing that the original hero of the fictional universe was, in fact, a black man, and then topped itself again in its closing moments by teasing the possibility that its lead character, Regina King’s Angela Abar, could transcend toward godhood herself. (Doomsday Clock nodded toward the original’s whiteness in its earliest issues with a new Rorschach, who was a young black man, and a newly-created Latinx villain, Muse. But both essentially disappear from prominence in the final third of the series.)

That HBO’s Watchmen ends with the promise of Dr. Manhattan’s power residing in a new host is one of the more curious crossovers between the show and Doomsday Clock—the final pages of that comic also end with Manhattan gone and someone new using his powers. Central to both cases is the idea that Manhattan was, in essence, too removed from humanity to be truly effective; Will Reeves tells Angela in the closing moments of the show, “He was a good man, but considering what he could do, he could’ve done more.” Both the white supremacists of Cyclops and Lady Trieu want to take Manhattan’s abilities because they, too, believe that he wasn’t using them effectively.

Similarly, Doomsday Clock’s grand solution is that Manhattan finds himself inspired by Superman’s inherent goodness, and seeks to serve the world by making it a kinder place. “I can never be the hero this world needs, because I don’t have what Superman did,” he explains in monologue, referencing the fact that he never had a loving family as a child. He sacrifices himself and passes his power to his adopted child—whom he kidnapped as a baby, in one of the stranger reveals of the final issue —and says that he does so “so that this planet has a protector who will receive love. And return it.”

Superman’s presence, oddly, is another shared reference point for both Doomsday Clock and the HBO series; he appears in the former directly and in the latter indirectly. Not only do his fictional exploits indirectly inspire Will Reeves to become Hooded Justice, but the show’s writers implicitly reference Superman’s origin story in Will’s, except the dying world Will leaves as a baby isn’t the planet Krypton but the district of Greenwood in Tulsa, Oklahoma, during the 1921 massacre. The first superhero of them all looms over Watchmen’s legacy in the sequels in a way he never did in the original comic.

The choice of which Watchmen characters return for those sequels is also telling. Both the HBO series and Doomsday Clock use the two surviving dominant male characters from the original—Dr. Manhattan and Adrian Veidt—as well as find a use for the legacy of the dead third, Rorschach. Yet the HBO series places all three in supporting roles to the women, whereas Doomsday Clock remains resolutely male in its focus—even the finale, which ostensibly speaks to Superman’s empathy and the importance of his parents in his upbringing, focuses on his father’s influence at the expense of his mother’s—and foregrounds the legacy characters to a far greater extent.

In the end, Doomsday Clock and HBO’s Watchmen are stories that struggle with the legacy of the original Watchmen comic book series even as those inside the stories struggle with the events of the original series. They approach the matter from different angles—Doomsday Clock purposefully leaning into tropes, the HBO series leaning away from them—and come up with separate, if related, conclusions as a result.

One thing is clear, if purposefully left unstated by both: The original Watchmen was more right than it could have known, three decades earlier. In the world of pop culture, and particularly the world of a book that has become the best-selling graphic novel of all time, nothing ever ends. Especially when sequels can get such high ratings.

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