"Watchmen" And The Limits of Superhero Stories

The 1980s Watchmen comic contains a compelling argument against superheroes. When the superhero Ozymandias tries to launch a new team of costumed crime-fighters, The Comedian’s cynical but correct observation stops him cold: why target street crime in a world threatened by nuclear annihilation?

The HBO series Watchmen plunders its source material for Easter eggs and imagery but somehow missed that scene and its advice. Modern audiences desperately need to be shaken out of a superhero entertainment stupor. Watchmen is a failed attempt at elevating superheroes to prestige television, which will only make people more deeply asleep.

As we face a bleak future of catastrophic global warming and rising global fascism, simple and morally unambiguous superhero entertainment dominates our culture. Watchmen is a clumsy and unsuccessful show, but it’s a bellwether for strange trend in our embrace of superheroes. As comic book movies crowd out more sophisticated entertainment, we’re increasingly demanding that superhero be considered sophisticated works of art.

In a recently resurfaced 2017 interview, Alan Moore worried that our cultural fixation on superheroes causes culture-wide emotional arrest and cultural stasis. Superheroes, Moore said, are “perfectly suited” to the imaginations of children but serve a “different function, and are fulfilling different needs” when read by adults. For modern adults, superhero films are a way to hold onto “relatively reassuring childhoods” and the “relatively reassuring 20th century” when they need to move past both.

The interview surfaced shortly after the prolonged back and forth between Martin Scorcese and superhero entertainment advocates about whether superhero movies constituted art. The quotes circulated after Joker became the first R-rated comic book movie to make a billion dollars.

Joker is a gritty character study smeared with comic book makeup. Its success means we can look forward to years of serious adult versions of comic book characters to come.

Moore’s comic book series Watchmen is the most acclaimed comic book of all time. In 2010 Time Magazine ranked it among the 100 best English-language novels published since 1923.

HBO knows audiences are stuck in comic book stasis and want to take advantage of that stasis with their own programming. And even though the cable channel is owned by WarnerMedia, the same corporation that owns DC Comics, they know their prestige TV audience wouldn’t spend Sunday nights with any old guys in capes and masks. So they adapted the only superhero comic that’s been accused of respectability.

Watchmen is a low-rated show struggling for positive word of mouth. But it’s sure to be the first of many prestige superhero shows to come.