This will contain spoilers for All-Star Superman and Watchmen on HBO. Spoilers for Watchmen will only be for what has aired, as I don’t have access to screeners.
We’re at the end of this season of Watchmen, HBO’s audacious sequel to the Alan Moore/Dave Gibbons masterpiece. I have a lot of feelings about the show (I’ve written a thousand words I’ll probably never publish about whether or not it was correct to answer a question Moore purposefully and thematically left unanswered in the comic. The show is very good, but as a huge fan of the comic (I have a Dr. Manhattan tattoo!) I get twitchy about some things), but in general it’s been absolutely amazing.
What’s been most amazing about the show – so far – is how thematically and emotionally in line with Watchmen the comic it is, while at the same time seeming to push back on some of the comics’ initial thesis. Moore and Gibbons were doing a deconstruction in Watchmen, taking apart superheroes and displaying their fascism and perversion. He was taking the white adolescent male power fantasy and peeling away the veneer and showing the ugliness beneath it. But Damon Lindelof’s (and company) take on the sequel feels more like a reconstruction.
While I’m not wild about answering the question of Hooded Justice’s identity (Moore left it open as a nod to the fact that life doesn’t have pat answers, and some mysteries remain forever unsolved), by rooting the superheroes of this world in America’s dark history of racism and violence, the show begins to rehabilitate the image of the superhero. Yes, the mask is a response to trauma, but in the case of Hooded Justice it’s a (mostly) righteous response to generations of trauma. That’s a far cry from the comic, where most masked adventurers were driven by either some kink, some ugly secret or the whims of being the idle rich. Moore didn’t ascribe much positive motivation to his heroes.
In Watchmen there’s just one Superman, and he’s American. Dr. Manhattan is the only character with actual super powers, and over the course of the series we see how much those powers – his godlike status – has alienated him from humanity. Jon Osterman becomes aware of the way the machinery of the universe moves, and everything about the human world becomes silly and distant to him. This is Moore’s take on Kal-El, the baby rocketed to Earth from Krypton, who is so far above our species that it’s hard to imagine him really giving much of a shit about us.
It’s not all nihilistic – Dr. Manhattan has his own romantic side, talking about thermodynamic miracles, and he’s able to be made enraged – but mostly Moore envisions superbeings as way way beyond our human concerns. At the end Dr. Manhattan leaves our galaxy, maybe even our universe, to go and perhaps create his own human beings and study them. This all lines up with the watchmaker stuff in Manhattan’s origin – the old teleological argument about the Watch on the Beach* is extended out to the absent watchmaker. The watch was left on the beach because the watchmaker didn’t really care that much about it – it’s just a watch, he can make another. That, in the comic, seems to be Moore’s view on God.
In the HBO show Manhattan has not played much of a role until this week. We learn that Manhattan is, like God incarnating as Christ, living among us in some way. And we also learn that racist Senator Joe Keene’s plan is to capture Manhattan and gain his power (shades of Neil Gaiman’s Sandman). Lady Trieu, genius inventor and mystery woman, warns of that kind of power being in the hands of racists.
If we go by the original Watchmen and the way this show has been structured to date, I think we can guess two things:
1) we’re not sure what Lady Trieu’s deal actually is yet and her Millennium Clock seems very sinister and in line with Adrian Veidt’s squid project. Don’t trust anyone trying to save humanity in the Watchmen universe
2) Keene might well succeed. It fits in with the way Adrian’s plan went off; Keene is certainly monologuing in advance in a way Veidt wouldn’t have, but I have a suspicion Angela cracking open Cal’s head is the first step to getting Dr. Manhattan trapped, and maybe even ‘killed’ by the Seventh Cavalry.
So what happens if Keene becomes God?
Step back to 2005. DC Comics launched the All-Star comics line, a space to give great creators to tell stories unencumbered by continuity. They could do whatever they wanted, so in All-Star Superman Grant Morrison, one of the greatest writers of comics ever, (along with artist Frank Quitely, one of the great superhero artists of his time) decided to tell a story about Superman dying.
I won’t go over all the plot points but Superman gets super-exposed to solar radiation and it’s killing him by making him almost God-level powered. He spends his last months on Earth doing all kinds of fantastical and cool things, and over the course of the story he has his final confrontation with Lex Luthor. Stuff happens and Superman ends up becoming a being of solar radiation, but not before hitting Lex with a device that basically makes him Superman level. And this is what happens:
Superman ultimately defeats Lex Luthor not by punching him but rather by giving him another perspective, by allowing him to see the world as he sees it. Lex thinks that when he transcends to Superman levels of power he’ll be able to take over the world, but the transcendence allows him to see the foolishness of that goal, and the beauty and fragility of the world itself.
Morrison and Quitely’s book operated as a reconstruction of Superman, even as it was ostensibly killing him. Morrison wanted to examine everything that made Superman great. As Lindelof and his team reconstruct superheroes in their own way, and as they bend over backwards to work more Superman references into the show, could this be their endgame for Keene? Where Moore and Gibbons presented the idea of transcending to a higher status as one that removes you from the concerns of the world, could Lindelof et al present it as a transcendence that lets you truly experience the concerns of the world?
What if a racist DID become God? Well, very quickly he would understand that his racial theories have no fundamental basis in reality. He would see, with perfect clarity and understanding, that race has no bearing on who we are, just as our hair color has no bearing on it. But he might, with his new perspective, see the way injustice and pain caused by racism has rippled down for generations and generations. Yes, it took Jon some time to truly become the distant Dr. Manhattan – he ran around in undies, he won Vietnam – but I could imagine Keene almost immediately coming to a Luthor-like understanding.
Is that too schlocky? It wasn’t when Morrison did it in All-Star Superman, but it might be for this universe. But I can’t shake the feeling that what Lindelof is going for here is a hopeful conclusion to this season (which he claims was conceived as a standalone single story, although he lies so much in interviews who even knows). He’s dredged up some of the ugliest moments in US history – shone a light on an under-discussed incident of racist murder – but I don’t believe his plan is to leave us stewing in that. I think his plan, as he subtly and slightly rehabilitates the very idea of the superhero, is to leave us with something positive and hopeful at the end. After all, if a man can change into a being of pure energy, what other change is possible within him?
*”If you come upon a watch on the beach it’s clear the watch had a maker” is expanded out to the physical universe. The fact that it exists proves someone or something made it exist.
Special thanks to my brother Derek who, when we were discussing the possibility of Keene’s plan working, reminded me of this story from All-Star Superman, and who shared the image above with me.