Blu-ray Review: HBO’s Watchmen Rewards Re-Watching
Before there was ever a Watchmen movie, many fans insisted that only an HBO miniseries could possibly get it right. Then, years after Zack Snyder’s movie adaptation, HBO indeed announced a miniseries, and fans complained it might beat a dead horse. Prematurely, it turned out, for HBO’s Watchmen emerged as a real-time sequel to the comic miniseries. It still faced an uphill battle: for most Watchmen fans, the original 12 issues made a perfect, sacred text that needed no expanding. But after DC Comics and writer Alan Moore finally fell out for the last time, that freighter had sailed. DC already commissioned comic prequels, as well as the sequel series Doomsday Clock which crossed over into the DC Universe proper. Damon Lindelof‘s sequel series couldn’t possibly come off any more calculated than those. And against all odds, it was a whole lot better.
A digital version became available for purchase shortly after the season ended, but this week sees the release on Blu-ray with a couple of new bonuses. So how does it hold up?
The Non-Spoiler Version:
For those who have not seen HBO’s Watchmen, and waited until now to rent or buy the Blu-ray and more affordable digital copy, here’s what you need to know. Showrunner Damon Lindelof has pulled off a thermo-dynamic miracle, not unlike turning lead into gold. Substituting race relations as the era-defining issue in place of the Cold War, Lindelof and his team pulled off a rich treatise on the politics of vigilantes and masks. Not to mention the way superhero narratives often originated with minority stories, became co-opted, and are now being reclaimed. In some ways, the show actually pulls off an Alan Moore-level deconstruction of Alan Moore.
The original comics weaved in numerous real-world references. Many young readers learned about such disparate subjects as Devo, Laetril, G. Gordon Liddy, and the Kitty Genovese murder in its pages. So too does the new Watchmen introduce many viewers to the Tulsa race riots of 1921, Bass Reeves, and Henry Louis Gates. And just as the source material rewarded detailed re-reads, so too does the show. It sometimes works even better when the outcome is already known. That, of course, is the way the godlike Dr. Manhattan perceives everything anyway. Unlike him, not all viewers are guaranteed to change their minds about whether this experiment has merit. But it won’t be for lack of effort on the show’s part.
It’s also written as a one-and-done season, which is unlike other Lindelof productions. Every major question gets answered by the end of episode 9. The series does not, however, work as a direct sequel to the Snyder film, since it references certain events from the comics that were changed for the screen. At the same time, where possible, it conspicuously tries not to contradict the movie too much. Returning characters, for example, usually appear out of focus unless they have an in-story reason to look different. And individual episodes take on different parts of the whole differently, including one that’s mostly black and white with splashes of color like Sin City.
This is, all in all, as worthy a follow-up as is likely possible.
The Spoiler Version:
For those who have watched the show once before, the big question is whether it holds up with all of the mystery elements resolved. And the answer is that it’s actually better. Dr. Manhattan falls for Angela Abar (Regina King) based on events that take place at the end of their relationship rather than the beginning. And so too does the viewer appreciate Angela more from moment one with the knowledge of where her arc ends. There’s no longer the initial question about what any of it has to do with Watchmen. The whole picture has been seen, and now the beautiful intricacies of the design can be cherished.
Dialogue that initially played as maddeningly elliptical takes on double meanings. Will’s declaration that he wants Angela to know where she comes from, for instance, refers not just to the Tulsa riots, but a masked hero lineage. And two episodes before Angela takes the pills to see Will’s past, Lady Trieu (Hong Chau) mocks the entire device as a rather gratuitous form of exposition.
One interesting side effect of re-watching the show alongside someone unfamiliar with Watchmen is to see what reactions are reflexive. Fans may get excited when Laurie Blake (Jean Smart) shows up, but non-fans may find her an annoying hardass who just gets in the way of Angela’s mission.
Watchmen‘s Blu-ray pointedly comes out on the 99th anniversary of the 1921 Tulsa massacre that opens the season. What HBO couldn’t have foreseen is that it would come out during a period of both inflamed racial tensions and legal mandates to wear masks. A viewer can pause the disc, turn on the news, and feel like “nothing ever ends,” as Jon Osterman would say. Naturally, Watchmen reveals that higher-up forces manipulate the anger surrounding racial issues on a street level. It’s no stretch to say that plays into the beliefs that some people have about real world issues. Months after it first aired, this miniseries proves even more prescient than it did last fall.
King, Smart, and Chau give instant-classic performances that rank among the best female superhero/supervillain depictions in live-action to date. While all three would read on paper as stereotypically Strong Woman characters, they’re entirely different from one another. Though all are, in their way, legacy daughters dealing with abandonment. Angela Abar deals with her childhood orphan past by forming a new family and serving the law. Laurie, forced into the FBI life rather than the vigilante one once thrust upon her, takes out next-gen wannabes with gusto and her mom’s cynical humor. Meanwhile, Trieu is more like Ozymandias than a now slightly insane Ozymandias is. And she has a better American accent as well. Seriously, Jeremy Irons‘ attempt remains hilarious.
It’s no small feat to maintain a tonal balance between the KKK and racist cops in the 1940s, and Irons goofing around in a constructed reality where he grows (and sometimes kills) fetuses in a lake. To do so while also taking on the mantle of Watchmen, and not falling flatter than Eddie Blake to the pavement, is a masterstroke. In content, theme, character, tone, and its decisive rebuke to the sorts of online trolls who complain about politics and social justice in comics adaptations, Watchmen is a must-watch. It looks even better on Blu-ray than it did on HBO. Comic-style blues and greens and yellows give it an otherworldly pop.
About 100 minutes of extras are promised, but they’re not necessarily comprehensive. Given the thought that went into this series, some sort of commentary or Easter egg breakdown would have been nice. It’s not happening. Instead, multiple short supplements feature a lot of non-spoiler filler, and many feel like HBO bumpers played between movies. The best featurettes are the two new to this set: a pair of deep-dives into Ozymandias and Hooded Justice, as seen in the comics and on the show. An edited version of the 2019 New York Comic Con panel largely consists of Irons joking about his bad eyesight. Every other actor on the panel gave Lindelof faux-grief for not buying them lunch.
Other extras have names that imply more content than they actually have. “Notes from the Watchmen graphic novel artist Dave Gibbons” is simply Gibbons talking as he draws a picture of Sister Night. “Andrij Parekh on Directing” is so absurdly short it feels like a disc error. Spoiler: he likes directing! “Sadiqua Bynum runs, jumps and falls for Sister Night” is literally that and no more from the stuntwoman. Tim Blake Nelson has some fun showing off his survivalist shelter set, while a visual effects time-lapse breakdown is impressive. Lindelof offers a few tidbits in some of the other shorts about the psychology of masks. The diverse creative team also talks a little bit about bringing their experiences as POC to the material. But it’s not a lot.
One unfortunate, notable omission: the “Peteypedia” in-universe documents that HBO posted after each episode. Those added important context — none of it absolutely essential to getting the point, but good luck making sense of the “Lube Man” scene without them.
But some of the best art works without over-explanation. No one needed an Alan Moore interview packed in with the original comics in order to enjoy them. But Blu-ray aficionados expect their discs to give up a little more. This set is still worth the purchase for the brilliant show alone. But the bonus content doesn’t add a ton of value.
Recommended Reading: Watchmen Collector’s Edition Slipcase Set
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