In Its Portrayal of Cops, 'Watchmen' Bends Towards Fascism

The Watchmen premiere introduces a great idea for reducing police shootings. Then it immediately dashes away the idea for the sake of dramatic tension.

When a police officer pulls over a truck, he can’t immediately access his firearm because it’s locked into a plastic device in his patrol car that can only be opened remotely. The cop calls dispatch and gets patched through to an officer who can authorize unlocking the gun. From the patrol cop’s reaction, we know the authorizing officer is a stickler for rules and insists that the officer answer a series of questions about the situation justifying the need for releasing the gun. Alas, the procedure takes too long and the truck’s driver shoots the officer dead.

In the process, Watchmen becomes yet another piece of popular entertainment illustrating how well-intended liberal decision-making policies hamstring cops from taking down the bad guys. It’s tired, cliche storytelling. And for a show that so wants its audience to be attuned to its politics, it’s a surprisingly conservative worldview.

Watchmen showrunner Damon Lindelof and his team saw how Alan Moore’s original comic book series mined Cold War-era nuclear dread for its mood and story and created allegories to modern politically-motivated dread for the sequel.

Building its world, the show foregrounds how politics affect American’s daily lives. Almost every scene is informed by hot-button race and power issues ranging from police shootings to white supremacists to reparations. Electoral politics also loom large. A scene at a police headquarters features portraits of recent presidents, including current executive-in-chief Robert Redford, who’s held office for decades. A later dinner scene opens with children reciting the line of presidential succession for anyone who checked their phones during that scene.

But after alerting viewers to politics, it’s disappointing to see the show lazily leaning on a conservative worldview.

In the real world, cops have far too much leeway and far too little oversight about their use of guns. Remote locks on police weapons would save innocent lives every day. For example, if Dallas police officer Amber Guyger needed to call headquarters before drawing her gun and a superior asked if she was sure she was in the right apartment. But the story Watchmen wants to tell wouldn’t work if it reflected the real truth about guns and cops.

In the show’s world, cops have the secret identities and lack of oversight of superheroes but the institutional support of police officers. It would be easy to mine drama from scenarios where a population is under the heel of a rogue police force with no checks or accountability. But the show’s sympathy is with the cops, at least in the early going, so that doesn’t happen. We see the cops at home, caring for their children and spouses. Masked police officers, roughing up suspects held without warrants and the use of intrusive surveillance technologies are effective ways to catch bad guys. Meanwhile, the sensible deviation from the real world, the gun lock, is immediately shown to be foolish.

The cop’s struggle with the gun lock is the same battle with red tape that rogue cop Harry Callahan wrestled with in the dusty old Dirty Harry movies, a connection that’s even more clear when Regina King’s character wears a superhero costume to roust a suspect from a trailer park home on a hunch. The show muddies its pro-excessive force bias by having a largely-black police force battling white supremacist terrorists. But it’s still a blue lives matter message at heart.