The year is 1985. The Cold War seems ready to turn hot as the United States and Soviet Union increasingly rattle their sabres. Superheroes are banned and President Nixon is serving his fifth term as leader of the free world.
In 1986, two groundbreaking graphic novels shared that synopsis – aside from the resident of 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue. The first one, debuting in February, was Frank Miller’s The Dark Knight Returns. The second was Alan Moore’s Watchmen which began its 12-issue run in September of that year. Both tales feature super-powered humans coming out of the shadows of retirement to swing into action again. But that’s really where the similarities end.
The Dark Knight Returns heavily influenced Tim Burton’s 1989 film, Batman. It would continue to influence the subsequent films of the franchise and its presence can be felt in the “grimdark” vibe that Zack Snyder employed in the broader DCEU movies. In fact, Snyder cited Miller’s work at the 2008 San Diego Comic-Con when asked about the maturity of comic book adaptations. By contrast, Watchmen was long deemed unfilmable, especially by its own creator. Not only were the characters universally fallible, but most were unlikeable. Further they were also exclusive to Moore’s tale and did not have the 50+ years of fandom that supported the wholesale re-envisioning of Batman and his foes. But even with that, perhaps the one factor that thwarted a big screen version of Watchmen until 24 years later was it’s creator’s avowed disdain for any adaptation. Moore has been quite vocal in opposing any translation of his story from the printed page to any other medium – or even any further stories of any kind about them. However, the contract he and co-creator Dave Gibbons signed would only return to them full ownership of their characters and story once Watchmen went out of print. And, it has never gone out of print.
Popularity and Pitfalls
It is that enduring popularity – a full generation after its publication – that has lead HBO to greenlight a series based on that world. Produced by Damon Lindoff, who most recently helmed the HBO series Leftovers and who’s other previous works include Lost and Prometheus.
Lindoff is very much aware of the pressure from fans as well as Moore’s ongoing outrage. He wrote a lengthy, five-page Instagram letter to the fans – and obliquely to Moore. In it, he reveals that he’s been approached about filming something based on the novel twice before, but refused each time. But, in an effort to make it clear what the show will not be, he writes:
“We have no desire to “adapt” the twelve issues Mr. Moore and Mr. Gibbons created thirty years ago. Those issues are sacred ground and they will not be retread nor recreated nor reproduced nor rebooted.
They will, however be remixed … The Comedian died. Dan and Laurie fell in love. Ozymandias saved the world and Dr. Manhattan left it just after blowing Rorschach to pieces in the bitter cold of Antarctica.
To be clear. Watchmen is canon.”
Whither the Watchmen
Details are sparse about the upcoming show. The show will depict other super-powered individuals within Moore’s world. It has also been stated that the series will not be a sequel. That designation falls squarely on the events in DC’s The New 52, Rebirth and Doomsday Clock series where Dr. Manhattan has been brought into the mainstream as the foil to reset much of the DC comic universe (again). That leaves a lot of possible openings, such as taking place concurrently with the events of the novel with the characters observing them from a distance for example.
HBO will clearly start teasing details as the (undisclosed) release date nears. With Game of Thrones coming to an end, HBO is looking for other series to pick up the slack and keep viewers paying their monthly fees. Watchmen will join Westworld’s third season as part of that effort.
The pilot episode, directed by Nicole Kassell, wrapped up filming on June 27 according to another Instagram post by Lindelof. Kassell previously worked with Lindelof on The Leftovers. A little over a month later, HBO announced that it had picked up the series for a full season.
Some big names include Jeremy Irons, Don Johnson and Louis Gossett Jr. are among the cast. Veteran actors, Tom Mison, Frances Fisher and Andrew Howard among them may be lesser known, but still have impressive resumes. Another collaborator from The Leftovers, Regina King, is also among the names attached to the series. Even if only some of those names are playing super-powered roles, they are physically different enough from Nite Owl, Silk Spectre and others of the original team to suggest these will be completely new characters taking part in a setting where the heroes and villains are often indistinguishable from each other and where even the best of intentions can have the direst consequences upon the world.