HBO’s Watchmen expands upon the genre-breaking/myth-building work of Alan Moore and Dave Gibbon’s limited comic book series of the same name. First published in serial form during the mid-1980s, Moore and Gibbons’ Watchmen reinvented the costumed superhero genre, creating a sophisticated, multilayered storyline populated by complex, conflicted characters dealing with difficult moral dilemmas far beyond the simple problems traditionally featured in such narratives. The popular and critically acclaimed HBO series is not merely a slavish sequel to its source material. We argue that this incarnation is particularly compelling when interrogated through a mythic critical lens for the following three reasons.
First, and most significantly, HBO’s Watchmen expands the original’s mythic world to include people of color as prominent characters—highlighting their history and addressing their concerns—rather than relegating them to the periphery as was the case with Moore and Gibbons’ narrative.
Second, the HBO series gives mediated ritual expression to contemporary sociocultural and political concerns, especially with respect to America’s racialized history. Mediated rituals and the myths that inform them provide us with what Burke (1935/1965, 1941/1967) calls ‘‘equipment for living’’ as they offer us a means of making sense of and dealing with the issues that influence our lives and shape the sociocultural milieu in which we operate. The 1980s Watchmen focused upon Cold War concerns of the Reagan era, although these are dealt with via the context of an alternative history in which the United States won the Vietnam War and Nixon remains in power well into the 1980s. HBO’s incarnation begins with the Greenwood Race Massacre, which provides context for and situates a present-day storyline that features the resurgence of the white supremacist group (the 7th Kavalry) and racial violence as central to the narrative. The overarching concern driving the narrative of the original comic book series was international in scope, reflecting the geo-political exigencies of a then warming Cold War. In contrast, the HBO series has a domestic focus in keeping with American society’s contemporaneous introspection regarding its racial sins past and present.
Finally, HBO’s Watchmen serves as a contemporary cautionary tale regarding those who assume—or have thrust upon them—guardianship over a portion or the whole of humankind. In the words of the 2nd Century poet Juvenal, "Who watches the watchmen?" As the HBO series and its antecedent dramatically illustrate, superior intelligence, exceptional powers, and benevolent intentions do not guarantee desirable moral outcomes. Such was the case with Ozymandias, who took it upon himself to murder millions in order to save billions of lives, which the powerful Dr. Manhattan passively allowed. The same might prove to be the case for Angela Abar/Sister Night, the doctor’s romantic partner, who after his death consumes an egg that might give her Manhattan’s almost godlike powers. The image of the egg is symbolically rich, with strong mythic ties to procreation, re-creation, restoration, and renewal, as can be seen in numerous mother-goddess cults from around the world as well as the egg’s use by many Christians as a sign of Christ’s resurrection at Easter. The first season ends with Angela, having eaten the egg, approaching her swimming pool to test her ability walk on water. The scene ends with her foot inches above the surface, an ambiguous conclusion pregnant with possibilities both good and bad. The implications of those possibilities regarding the racial and ritual themes found within the narrative are left unresolved, just as in our current socio-political climate the future seems disconcertingly unclear. As we have argued elsewhere, in raising and expressing concerns related to societal angst, some popular culture texts function as mythically informed mediated rituals of disquiet. We have coined this term for a type of mediated ritual that simultaneously expresses and provokes the psychological discomfort that comes from posing unsettling questions about important matters. HBO’s Watchmen gives mediated ritual expression to the nation’s current disquiet and the critical conversation concerning where we have been, where we are now, and where we are going with respect to race in general and our collective treatment of African Americans in particular.
Equipment for Living, Perceptions of Power, and Post-Racism
Hi Celeste and Robert, I am intrigued by the implications of the equipment for living offered by the Watchmen. Let me clarify, your analysis suggests that HBO’s Watchmen operates as mythically informed mediated ritual of disquiet, which you define as a ritual that “simultaneously expresses and provokes the psychological discomfort that comes from posing unsettling questions about important matters.” I agree with your assessment that Watchmen takes aim at the history and legacy of racism within the United States. What I am curious is regarding that, as you argue, the show seems to be offering a “cautionary tale regarding those who assume—or have thrust upon them—guardianship over a portion or the whole of humankind.” The reason I find this interesting is because, in doing so, the show seems to be suggesting that power transcends social structures and by extension operates indiscriminately—that is, power is autonomous and unpredictable. This seems to me to carry with it concerning post-racial implications because what is framed as to be feared regarding power is precisely that perceived lack of regard for the established social order; that “power” might be used against those with “legitimate” claim to power. This may well be why Lady Trieu is conceived as dangerous as—if not more than—the 7th Kalvary, and why some may read the prospect of Abar’s possessing godlike powers as concerning as well (which I imagine you are correct: had the show been renewed for a second season, I suspect it would have portrayed Abar’s application of her godlike power as ethically flawed—as there is no utopia in Watchmen).
Thank you, Robert for your comment...
My colleague, Robert Westerfelfhaus and I thank you for your thoughtful engagement with our take on HBO's The Watchmen. In light of your comments, we clarify our concern regarding who holds and wields power, which has nothing to do with any threats to maintaining the status quo but is instead a concern in keeping with Juvenal's classic question about who watches the custodians. In his case, the custodians were those charged with protecting the purity of the Vestal Virgins, who still managed to get pregnant despite the "watchful" stewardship of their supposed guardians. In the case of the HBO series, the custodians--aka, the watchmen--are costumed superheroes and the watched are those whom they putatively protect, but who are never consulted about that protection, who do not give their consent, who are not invited to provide any input regarding which whatsoever, and who are often unaware of the nature of and purpose informing that unsolicited "protection," as was the case when Ozymandias slew millions of New Yorkers sans consultation and without their consent as a means of bringing about peace between the USA and USSR. This same slaughter was passively permitted by Dr. Manhattan. No one was watching these would-be "watchmen," nor were they held answerable to anyone, especially--and most troublingly--to those whose interests they claim to have protected any cost, ironically including the sacrifice of a large number of the very people under their protection. Neither Ozymandias nor Dr. Manhattan are evil per se. Indeed, they considered the atrocities they committed/permitted justified because they were done for reasons deemed beneficial. But as we have already pointed out, this was not done with the consent or even the knowledge of those directly and adversely affected, nor those who supposedly benefited. There is nothing in HBO's The Watchmen to suggest that dynamic will change. And that concerns us.
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