HBO's 'Watchmen' finale puts an exclamation point on the superhero decade

“Watchmen” made race and injustice a central theme of its story — but with a radical twist for an ending.
Hong Chau and Yahya Abdul-Mateen II in the the "Watchmen" series finale.
Things are not always as they seem in the "Watchmen" series finale.Mark Hill / HBO
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By Ani Bundel

History will remember the 2010s as the era of the superhero. Between Marvel Studios and its competitors, there have been nearly 50 superhero films and another two dozen or so superhero TV shows created in just the last 10 years. But it is somehow fitting that Damon Lindelof’s “Watchmen” should have the final bow this Sunday, its finale heralding the end of the last superhero series of the decade. After years of repetitive comic book fare, “Watchmen” found a new way of looking at the genre.

(Spoilers below.)

It is somehow fitting that Damon Lindelof’s “Watchmen” should have the final bow this Sunday, its finale heralding the end of the last superhero series of the decade.

Superhero origin stories are, by now, as familiar to moviegoers as Joseph Campbell’s hero’s journey. Marvel has attempted to break the mold here and there. “Captain Marvel” for instance, cast the usual story as a parable for the patriarchy. “Black Panther” somewhat forewent the origin story, but it too hewed closely to many other standard tropes. In one sense, to take a familiar story and retell it through the lens of a black cast was radical. But the movie didn’t seriously explore America’s racial divide. “Watchmen,” on the other hand, has made race and injustice a central theme of its story.

The series premiere at the end of October felt like a delicate homage to its source material. Not a reboot or a reimagining, but a strange sort of sequel, where the method of storytelling was as integral as the history. Alan Moore and David Gibbon’s “Watchmen” comic was a superhero story that wasn’t about superheroes. Rather, it depicted a world in which vigilantes kept the peace, changing the course of history.

For the first five or so episodes of “Watchmen,” it seemed like Lindelof was similarly uninterested in the familiar tropes of the superhero genre. This was a show about America grappling with its own racist, ugly history. Caped and masked vigilantes like Regina King’s Angela Abar tried to keep law and order as larger-than-life figures like “Sister Night,” but that often took the form of violence and abuse. Even though this world was politically liberal, "Watchmen" reminded viewers that the state will try to abuse its power no matter what kind of society it attempts to uphold.

And then the show reached episode six. In an hourlong flashback to the 1930s, William Reeves, an African American cop, finds himself beaten and nearly lynched for attempting to do his job in New York City. In response, he becomes the first superhero, named “Hooded Justice,” using the hood dragged over his head as a mask and the noose that nearly killed him as a costume symbol. Hooded Justice is no Superman, though, no mild-mannered man whose alien abilities make him better than those around him. He knows that the world is unjust, and this reality enrages him. After years of asking what would drive someone to put on a mask and fight crime, Lindelof had come back with an answer far different than any other comic, film, or TV series: because our society gave him no choice.

After years of asking what would drive someone to put on a mask and fight crime, Lindelof had come back with an answer far different than any other comic, film, or TV series.

It was a stunning hour of TV, both in the storytelling and in the cinematography; the past rendered in black and white, even as the story took on dozens of shades of grey. Hooded Justice inspires other to join him, but they are white. Those like Nelson Gardner (aka Captain Metropolis) are able to embrace both their true selves and their alter egos, and profit from their choices — meanwhile William’s family barely scrapes by. Hooded Justice remains stuck behind the mask, trusting Gardener to keep not only his race a secret, but also their love affair as well.

But as the show introduced these new interpretations to the classic hero’s origin tale, it also began introducing the comic book tropes it had previously ignored. Hooded Justice fights “Cyclops,” a supervillain collective that could easily be mistaken for Marvel’s Hydra — except instead of Nazis, these bad guys are white supremacists. Cyclops, it turns out, is behind the white supremacist gang in Tulsa that Angela is fighting. This is the same plot used in Marvel’s “Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D.” where Hydra keeps turning up; always the bad guys behind the bad guys. But the contemporary setting and tone of “Watchmen’s” villains, with their goal of “taking the country back,” has a radically different tone in Trump’s America.

From there, supervillains, mad plans, and impossible scenarios multiply. Angela, it turns out, has her own superpowered secret sitting at home, in the form of her husband. It once again allows the series to take one of the “Watchmen” comics’ most well-known characters, Dr. Manhattan, and reimagine him as an African American character as well, one that a passel of white supremacists and trillionaires alike wish to drain of his power, and take for their own. One the one hand, it’s not exactly a subtle commentary on the way our society fears and treats men of color. But then again, comic books have never been known for their subtlety.

After unconsciously following in her grandfather’s footsteps, in the finale Angela puts aside her mask, her costume and her powers of the state. But does she really? The series, which Lindelof heavily suggested would not have a second season, ends on a cliffhanger as events seem to offer her Manhattan’s god-like powers.

For most comic book stories, Angela’s first step into this wider world would be the season’s climax, followed by a showdown with an antagonist bent on defeating the newly minted superhero. But not here. “Watchmen” doesn’t even conclusively show if Angela gains new powers or not. It’s up to the viewer to decide what they believe happened next, a radical ending in a genre of endless sequels and franchise installments.