‘Watchmen’ Embraces the True Power of Superhero Stories

The new HBO series Watchmen is a superhero show that deals with serious themes of race and trauma. Science fiction author Tobias S. Buckell was impressed to see the show highlight the 1921 Tulsa race riot, in which a prosperous black neighborhood was destroyed by an angry mob.

“That’s the magic of genre, the magic of fiction,” Buckell says in Episode 393 of the Geek’s Guide to the Galaxy podcast. “We can take something like that, and kind of pull it apart and put it back together into something new and unexpected that gets it past more barriers than it otherwise might have.”

Race wasn’t a focus of the original Watchmen graphic novel, but TV critic Anthony Ha feels that the new series is firmly rooted in the spirit of the original comic.

“What a lot of people have taken from [the graphic novel] is this idea of grittiness and realism, but what I love about the show is that it’s a lot less interested in that and a lot more interested in trying to achieve the same level of intellectual audacity, formal audacity, and is in many ways even more politically audacious,” he says. “I think that is the absolute right lesson to take away from the Watchmen graphic novel.”

Fantasy author Lara Elena Donnelly notes that the Watchmen finale is a bit of a letdown after what came before, but that when the show hits its stride it’s simply breathtaking. “The real astounding television was right there in the middle,” she says. “You’re like, ‘My god, I can’t believe this was put on television.’ This is the most wild, unique, incredible show. I have never seen anything like this on TV.”

Geek’s Guide to the Galaxy host David Barr Kirtley was nervous about the show due to showrunner Damon Lindelof‘s previous track record on Lost, but he says that Watchmen definitely exceeded his expectations.

“I’ve officially forgiven Damon Lindelof for the ending of Lost,” he says. “So he’ll be relieved to hear that.”

Listen to the complete interview with Tobias S. Buckell, Anthony Ha, and Lara Elena Donnelly in Episode 393 of Geek’s Guide to the Galaxy (above). And check out some highlights from the discussion below.

Tobias S. Buckell on writers of color:

“I really enjoyed reading some articles about how many writers of color and actors of color Damon Lindelof was pulling into his orbit to help him not step on any land mines, in terms of doing stuff that would seem original and daring to him, but might not necessarily be so. And so that kind of gave me a confidence level and excitement about jumping into this. … There was one interview in particular in which Regina King was being interviewed and talked about the influence that she and other actors of color had, in terms of basically telling Damon what he could do and what he could not do, and that kind of let me relax and get excited about seeing it.”

Anthony Ha on the Watchmen finale:

“The structure of the finale is that Lady Trieu is essentially the ‘big bad,’ which I found very unsatisfying. … The only reason we’re given, that’s stated in the show itself, comes from Ozymandius—who is admittedly not the most trustworthy source—but he basically says, ‘No one who wants the power should be trusted with the power.’ And I just found that a really unsatisfying explanation for why we’re supposed to suddenly root against this character who until that point had been really complex and interesting and compelling. To put her into the villain role just so we could have this spectacular ending was kind of a letdown.”

David Barr Kirtley on time travel:

“With Dr. Manhattan you’ve got time travel or being unstuck in time, and there’s just something so powerful to me about a lot of recent TV shows that have dealt with time travel and characters unstuck in time. In these episodes, the time travel stuff made me cry. There was an incredibly powerful episode of The Haunting of Hill House where it’s all about being unstuck in time, and there was another one in Castle Rock that made me cry. And I just want to draw a little bit of attention to that. There’s just something about the different time periods of someone’s life all kind of colliding and being jumbled together that is just so resonant with me.”

Lara Elena Donnelly on Watchmen and race:

“My friend Andrew has an essay on his blog about black men in horror movies. The joke is that black men in horror movies always die first, but he says they don’t really die first, but they die in the part of the movie where our heroes are having all of their tools and advantages taken away. … The last couple episodes of Watchmen made me think about that essay, because Dr. Manhattan keeps Cal’s body, and is clearly a black man, and is being treated as a commodity by all these people who just want the power that he can offer them. And the only people who still think of him as human are Laurie and Angela, these two women who have loved him. So to me the show didn’t stop talking about race, it just started talking about it in a different medium.”

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