The Political Theology of Watchmen

The publication of The 1619 Project in an expanded book form may be the appropriate time to revisit another attempt to rewrite a popular story to center racial oppression. I am speaking, of course, of HBO’s Watchmen, created by Damon Lindelof, a sequel and adaptation of Alan Moore’s legendary graphic novel of the same name. By happenstance, I have been rereading the comic this week, as a colleague who had borrowed my copy prior to the pandemic finally returned it. Returning to the original text with the HBO series in mind reaffirms to me that Lindelof and his team of writers have achieved an absolute masterpiece of adaptation and reappropriation. The HBO series shows that our contmporary culture of endless remakes, prequels, and sequels does not have to be creatively barren — that the act of taking up a beloved source can actually inspire greater artistic feats and add a layer of enjoyment unavailable from a more original story.

(Since it has been two years, perhaps we are past the statute of limitations for spoilers, but I will do everyone the courtesy of putting plot details “below the fold.”)

The HBO series’ boldest and most discussed intervention into Moore’s original world was one of the greatest “retcons” of all time, revealing that the first-ever costumed adventurer, Hooded Justice, was not the white supremacist that the hood and noose imagery suggested, but rather the victim of an attempted lynching who decided to take the law into his own hands. This is the series’ true 1619 Project moment, refounding Alan Moore’s world (in which costumed “superheroes” really existed) in the Black experience — and the results are just as ambivalent as in the Project itself. The character who will become Hooded Justice is portrayed narrowly surviving the Tulsa Race Riot, which occurs as he is watching a film about a Black sheriff in the Old West (who is based on a real individual). Despite the horrific violence and lawlessness that he experiences, the future Hooded Justice holds onto his hero’s motto: “Trust the law.” His vigilantism is ultimately an attempt to reassert the law in its ideal form, which existing institutions fall short of — much as The 1619 Project sees Black Americans as the key to actualizing the best in the American Experiment.

There are many questions to be asked about the racial politics of the HBO series, and Aaron Bady does a great job of raising them (and of linking to the broader discussion). To me, though, the more interesting question that the series raises is not so much about race as such, but rather about legitimacy. And this is of course my stock in trade as a scholar of political theology, which I have defined elsewhere as a study of systems of legitimacy — in other words, of the ways that political institutions justify themselves by claiming to represent indisputable values (the “theological” element, in the broad sense of theology as an investigation of “ultimate concerns”).

At the conclusion of Moore’s Watchmen, Adrian Veidt, the billionaire celebrity who was once known as the costumed adventurer Ozymandias — yes, it’s that heavy-handed — has exercised a unique form of sovereignty. At a time when the US and Soviet Union seem all but certain to unleash nuclear armageddon, he engineers a fake alien attack, killing millions and psychologically scarring many more (not only through run-of-the-mill PTSD, but through a blast of psychic energy), in the hopes of staving off human extinction. A group of his former colleagues, whose investigation of various strange events has led them to his Antarctic retreat, are initially repulsed by Veidt’s act of casual slaughter. But as they all watch the headlines flood in, showing that the Russians have relented and world peace seems to be at hand, all but one agrees to keep his secret so as not to endanger the fragile new truce. The holdout, Rorschach, is killed, but he has mailed his diary detailing as much as he knew of the plot (including Veidt’s involvement) to a right-wing conspiracy rag. The last frame shows a poor intern, tasked with filling a couple extra pages, reaching into the slush pile for Rorschach’s journal.

Hence the original series ends on a note of ambiguity — did the peace hold, or did the truth get out? Lindelof’s adaptation presents us with a world in which the answer to both questions is yes. On the one hand, the plot was not only never revealed, but succeeded beyond Veidt’s wildest dreams. Robert Redford is elected as a leftist president who transforms American society. One of his greatest achievements is finally granting reparations (administered by Treasury Secretary Henry Louis Gates!) to the descendants of slavery and victims of other racial violence. On the other hand, all these developments have spurred significant resistance, of which Rorschach has become a symbol. The Rorschachs carry out terrorist acts, including against the police, whom they view as aligned with the new racial order. After a particularly brutal attack against the Tulsa police, the chief (Judd Crawford, played by Don Johnson) requires all police to go masked, and some (including Regina King’s character, Angela Abar or Sister Night) choose to carry out their duties as costumed heroes.

The story begins when Crawford is found hanged, which leads to a series of revelations of a vast conspiracy to restore the traditional racial hierarchy by stealing the powers of Dr. Manhattan — a godlike entity whose existence in the Watchmen universe further justifies my analysis in terms of political theology. In addition to the twist that real costumed heroes started playing cops and robbers, Moore introduces a further turn of the knife when a real super-powered being enters the scene, rendering the normal, if highly athletic, human heroes irrelevant at a stroke. Along the way, we learn that Crawford keeps a KKK uniform hidden in the back of his closet (a setup that evokes a major character’s hidden costume from the original series), that a promising young senator is actually a white supremacist plant, and that the right-wing radicals have all been played by Lady Trieu, who turns out to be Ozymandias’s daughter and is determined to outdo her father by actually assuming Dr. Manhattan’s godlike powers to do good. In the end, of course, Lady Trieu is defeated, and our heroes — including one of the characters who agreed to keep Ozymandias’s secret in the first place (Laurie, brilliantly played here by Jean Smart) — decide it’s time to reveal that the alien attack was staged.

This is all very convoluted, as befits a comic book narrative, and there are many twists and turns that I have left out. But underneath it all, the HBO series presents us with an ambivalent utopia that is based on a lie. It doesn’t make the all-too-easy (and sometimes seemingly mandatory) pop-cultural move of claiming that the reformers are just as bad as they replaced, that Robert Redford is just as bad as Nixon (who served multiple terms after Dr. Manhattan ended the Vietnam War and enabled vast technological advances). The backlash is serious and frightening, but the gains are very real. The ending of the series — and may it be a true ending, with no ill-judged second season! — focuses on the question of whether Angela may actually be the one to gain Dr. Manhattan’s powers, but the real ambiguity from my point of view is whether the post-Redford American utopia can survive the revelation that it was all based on a lie, with which Redford himself is revealed to be complicit.

Again, this question of legitimacy is, from my point of view, more interesting than anything the show does “directly” with race. Nevertheless, the fact that the question of legitimacy is, quite unexpectedly for readers of the original series, inflected so much through the lens of race is what gives this strange adaptation of a decades-old comic book its unique contemporary purchase. The current controversy over “Critical Race Theory” and “wokeness” is of course about race, but it’s about the question of race as the question of American legitimacy. The 1619 Project may be confident that revealing the deep implication of every aspect of American society with racial oppression will be compatible with achieving something recognizable as “America,” just as our heroes appear confident that American society can withstand the revelation of Ozymandias’s unimaginable crime and Redford’s complicity with it: “Trust the law!”

It should be clear that I do not share the confidence of either the Project or Lindelof’s fictional do-gooders — but the fact that the question is even being broached in the cultural mainstream (in the “accessible” form of journalism, popular history, and HBO prestige drama), rather than in the pages of scholarly journals and intra-activist debates, is remarkable. By the same token, the fact that there has been such a violent reaction against the mere discussion of such issues without any significant real-world reform is… discouraging.

Returning to the question of Dr. Manhattan, I would be remiss if I did not point out that the HBO series is an example of my contention that every god wants to die. The original series shows Dr. Manhattan becoming increasingly detached and fatalistic, as his overwhelming power and (apparent) knowledge of the future renders everything, even the prospect of nuclear war, meaningless and indifferent to him. In the end, his girlfriend Laurie convinces him that humanity is a unique miracle in the universe, and he chooses to leave Earth after Ozymandias’s alien attack in order to give humanity the best chance at survival (his existence seriously tipped the balance of the Cold War, ultimately making the danger of nuclear war worse) and perhaps to create some life in his own.

In the new series, Dr. Manhattan has in fact created life on one of Jupiter’s moons, but more importantly he reconnects to his humanity. With the help of Ozymandias (who has technology that blocks Dr. Manhattan’s ability to see the future), he erases his memory and lives as a normal human being, namely the husband of Angela Abar (the Regina King character). This “blackface” — and the fact that Angela is willing to go along with it — obviously raises a lot of uncomfortable questions. At the same time, it is interesting to me theologically because it portrays a virtual god who wants to lose his godhood and become just a normal finite human person. More than that, it shows a god who is accepting, even welcoming, of his own death. Eventually Angela removes the device that keeps Dr. Manhattan from knowing his true identity, a move that restores his ability to see the future — including his own destruction, which he makes no effort to evade. The original comics and the series both portray Dr. Manhattan as believing in something like predestination, though it is repeatedly revealed that the future is not entirely predictable and his foreknowledge can be blocked. I choose to believe, then, that Dr. Manhattan allows the events to play out as he foresees them because, now that his human idyll as Angela’s husband has ended, there is nothing for him but to die.

The show wants us to view Lady Trieu’s desire to seize the Dr. Manhattan powers as obviously undesirable, though it’s not clear why. At one point, the former Hooded Justice points out that Dr. Manhattan could have done a lot more for humanity with his powers, and it’s hard to disagree. After all, we are dealing with a guy who became more powerful than a thousand Supermen and basically decided to become a US military asset and invent some gadgets.

The ending seems to tease the idea that Angela is a better candidate to become a goddess, but I wonder if Dr. Manhattan’s own approach is the one we are supposed to endorse — that is to say, if the reason it’s bad for Lady Trieu to become a god is that it’s bad for anyone to become a god. If so, then the show is leaving us with a scenario in which both the King (Ozymandias as the sovereign who has decided on behalf of all humanity, killing the village in order to save it) and God (Dr. Manhattan as the performer of miracles that somehow only increase the forces of chaos and destruction) have been deposed, abandoning humanity finally to its own devices. How we respond to the prospect of Angela taking it upon herself to regain the Dr. Manhattan powers — becoming the sovereign decider and the almighty God all at once — reveals, I think, how much hope we have in humanity’s ability to govern itself and shape its own future.

One thought on “The Political Theology of Watchmen

Comments are closed.