With the impending premier of HBO’s new Watchmen series looming over us like the Doomsday Clock, it’s probably a good time to revisit the original story so you know what the hell is going on. The new series, from Lost showrunner Damon Lindelof, looks in part like HBO’s attempt to fill the violent intrigue and nudity void left by Game of Thrones with violent intrigue and superhero capes (and probably also nudity). Such is the burden of prestige television.
However, if you’ve never read Watchmen, you’re going to be confused when you tune into the first episode this Sunday. That’s because the HBO show is a sequel to the graphic novel specifically (and not the 2009 film). Lindelof is a longtime fan of the graphic novel, written by Alan Moore and illustrated by Dave Gibbons. In fact, a praise-heaping quote from Lindelof has been included on the back cover of every trade paperback edition of Watchmen since the mid-2000s, and he has said that it was a huge inspiration on Lost’s time-hopping narrative of interconnected flashbacks. So it’s no surprise he wanted to base his new story on the source material, rather than do a continuation of the film adaptation.
But odds are you probably don’t have time to cram in a reading of Moore and Gibbons’ notoriously dense story before the show airs this weekend. Luckily, I have nothing but time for things like that, because I’m catastrophically irresponsible and great at compartmentalizing. And I’ve written a helpful summary of the story of Watchmen to tell you everything you need to know before using your friend’s parents’ HBO account to watch the show this Sunday.
Watchmen takes place in an alternate history 1985, in a world where costumed superheroes are real. However, only one person with actual superpowers exists – Jon Osterman, AKA Dr. Manhattan, a physicist who gained near-omnipotence after a freak accident. Among Dr. Manhattan’s powers are the ability to rearrange matter at will, teleport anywhere in the universe instantaneously, clone himself infinitely, see backwards and forwards in time simultaneously, and blow people up with a hand gesture. He’s like a mix between Superman and Professor X, with some Dr. Strange thrown in for good measure.
In the story’s timeline, superheroes become outlawed in the 1970s. Only Dr. Manhattan and The Comedian – a violent, Punisher-type militant – are allowed to continue to operate, because they agree to work exclusively as agents of the U.S. government. The rest of the heroes – Dan Dreiberg AKA Nite Owl, Laurie Jupiter AKA Silk Spectre, and Adrian Veidt AKA Ozymandias – are forced to retire. Adrian retires publicly, revealing his identity to the world. He’s basically Tony Stark. Dan and Laurie’s identities remain secret, although Laurie lives with Dr. Manhattan in a government facility as his lover / babysitter. Dan is kind of a sad Batman, while Laurie is sort of like Black Widow meets Black Canary (again, without any superpowers). The only hero who refuses to retire is Rorschach, a brutal, murderous vigilante clad in a fedora and a white mask covered in ink blot patterns that are constantly shifting. He’s still prowling the streets, attacking criminals and evading capture by the police. We’re also led to believe that he smells like a sack of dead cats in a diaper bin.
Meanwhile, Dr. Manhattan has allowed the U.S. to keep a stranglehold on the world. The Vietnam War was a decisive American victory, Richard Nixon has been president for several terms, the Watergate scandal never happened (it’s implied The Comedian murdered Woodward and Bernstein), and the Cold War has mostly consisted of the United States using Dr. Manhattan to flex on the Soviet Union. However, the Soviet Union is getting tired of it, and threatens to invade Afghanistan to goad the U.S. into mutually-assured destruction. (This happened in real life as well, for those of you who don’t remember, but in Watchmen the Soviet Union’s invasion of Afghanistan happens much later.) So, despite the presence of an honest-to-god Superman who could stop 98% of incoming nuclear missiles from ever reaching the U.S., the world is still on the brink of world-ending nuclear war.
Still with me? Great, because that’s just all the stuff that happens before the story starts. So, deep breath, here we go:
The story begins with the Comedian getting murdered by an unknown attacker. Rorschach investigates, initially believing that someone is bumping off all the old superheroes. He notifies Dan, Adrian, Laurie, and Dr. Manhattan of both the Comedian’s death and of his “superhero killer” theory, but none of them take his warning very seriously. Particularly unfazed is Laurie, because the Comedian had assaulted and nearly raped her mother, the original Silk Spectre, back when her mother and the Comedian were on the same superhero team, the Minutemen.
Meanwhile, Dr. Manhattan gets hit with a series of allegations from former friends and coworkers claiming that exposure to his super-powered body gave them all terminal cancer. Manhattan, whose god-like status already has him struggling to continue to care about regular humans, has a good old fashioned freakout and teleports to Mars, like you do. With him gone, the Soviet Union takes the opportunity to invade Afghanistan, bringing the world even closer to nuclear war. Meanwhile, an assassin shows up at Adrian’s office and tries to kill him, and Rorschach finally gets arrested after a meeting with an informant turns out to be a setup. (The informant, a former supervillain named Moloch, is murdered before Rorschach arrives.)
Dan and Laurie get together, and begin to suspect that some aspects of Rorschach’s theory may be accurate. They bust Rorschach out of prison, at which point Dr. Manhattan reappears and admits that he can’t really find a reason why he should care about humanity or what happens to the world, because in addition to being an immortal metahuman, he is also a colossal douche canoe. Laurie goes with him back to Mars to try and convince him to help them stop the impending nuclear war and whatever sinister conspiracy seems to be egging it on.
During her talk with Dr. Manhattan, and partially using his ability to see past events as clearly as the present, Laurie realizes that the Comedian is her father, and that he and her mother loved each other. The news devastates and confuses her, as she struggles to reconcile how her mother could’ve gone on to have a romantic relationship with the man who had brutally attacked her years before. Dr. Manhattan is intrigued by the random, unpredictable chaos that brings each human life into being, and decides to return with Laurie to Earth to help stop the war. Like I said, he’s a dickhead.
Dan and Rorschach, now on the run from the police, follow a series of leads that leads them to Adrian’s office. Adrian, it turns out, owns both the company that employed Moloch, and the company that employed all of Dr. Manhattan’s former coworkers now stricken with cancer. Uncertain if they will survive confronting Adrian, Rorschach mails a journal detailing all of the incriminating evidence against Adrian to a newspaper. He and Dan then travel to Adrian’s Arctic getaway, Karnak, to talk to him, at which point Adrian freely admits to being behind the entire plot.
Adrian’s plan is complicated, so I’m going to give you the short version, followed by the longer-but-still short version. Basically, Adrian wants to put an end to nuclear war and achieve a form of world peace. He does this by staging a catastrophic alien invasion, which he triggers just before Dan and Rorschach arrive to confront him. He stages the invasion by genetically engineering a giant psychic “alien” and teleporting it into the middle of Times Square. As the “alien” dies, it lets out a psychic explosion that wipes out millions of people. By staging a terrifyingly violent alien attack, the impending nuclear war with Russia is averted and the world powers unite under the belief that the aliens could strike again at any moment. Dan and Rorschach try to stop him, but a pitying Adrian reveals that the attack has already happened, and millions of people in New York City are already dead. Ok, that’s the short version. Maybe hit the bathroom, grab a glass of water, and let’s continue.
To accomplish his goal, Adrian hires a writer, a surrealist painter, a science fiction author, a “radical architect,” an avant-garde composer, and a eugenicist, and brings them to a secluded island, paying them handsomely to sever all ties with friends and family for the duration of their stay. He uses the team’s specialized talents to create his alien monster, which the team believes is for a movie. Adrian has the eugenicist genetically engineer the alien and fill it with the cloned brain of a famous psychic, who died recently of a stroke, although it is heavily implied that Adrian simply murdered him. Adrian has the mammoth psychic brain exposed to bizarre, otherworldly sounds and imagery created by his team of artists, to ensure that the psychic burst triggered by the alien’s teleportation death will be mind-shreddingly lethal.
Oh, yeah – genetic engineering exists in the world of Watchmen, along with a number of other incredible scientific advances. Thanks to Dr. Manhattan, things like clean energy and teleportation technology also exist, although teleportation is ultimately deemed unworkable because it immediately kills any living thing you try to teleport. Also, psychics apparently exist, but the book kind of hand-waves that one.
Anyway, once the alien is completed, Adrian puts his team of scientists and artists on a tugboat and blows them straight the fuck up. His murder of The Comedian, the inciting event of the story, occurs after the Comedian just happens to stumble on the island while flying over it on a mission for the U.S. government. Thinking it might be an insurgent base, he goes in for a closer look and uncovers Adrian’s plan, the scope of which totally breaks him. And although the Comedian never attempts to spill the beans, Adrian kills him anyway, just to be certain. Adrian also murdered Rorschach’s informant and orchestrated his arrest, to prevent him from uncovering the plan. Ok, long version over. Now here comes the climax.
Dr. Manhattan and Laurie teleport back to Earth in the middle of Times Square and see the carnage firsthand – dead bodies littering every square inch of asphalt, buildings demolished, and the carcass of an impossibly huge “alien” monster bursting from the ruins of Madison Square Garden. They teleport to Karnak and confront Adrian alongside Dan and Rorschach. After a brief fight, Adrian shows them a series of news broadcasts from around the world, each one reporting that hostilities between nations have virtually disappeared, with the world’s super powers agreeing to an indefinite peace in order to prepare against further attacks from the alien threat.
Realizing that exposing Adrian’s crime would essentially mean dooming the world, the heroes agree to keep it a secret and play along with the “alien invasion.” That is, except for Rorschach. Enraged by the “cowardice” of the rest of the group, Rorschach insists that peace earned through deception and the mass murder of civilians is worthless. He leaves, vowing to reveal the truth. Dr. Manhattan intercepts him outside of the base and asks him to rethink his position. Rorschach refuses, and Dr. Manhattan disintegrates him.
The graphic novel ends with the remaining heroes agreeing to keep Adrian’s secret for the good of the world. Dr. Manhattan travels to another galaxy to create his own planet full of life. Dan and Laurie change their names, and indicate that they intend to start fighting crime again as Nite Owl and Silk Spectre (although Laurie insists she’s going to update her superhero name and costume, and maybe start carrying a gun). Rorschach’s incriminating journal revealing Adrian’s involvement arrives at The New Frontiersman, a radical right-wing newspaper, after he dropped it in the mail before his death. Judging by the trailers for the HBO series, Rorschach’s journal was definitely published, but not everyone believes it.
Here’s a couple of other things to know while diving into the new series, which won’t necessarily affect the plot but will help to explain the context of the original story, as well as the direction the HBO series appears to be taking.
The title Watchmen is a reference to a line from the Roman poet Juvenal’s work Satires – “Quis custodiet ipsos custodes,” which roughly translates to “who watches the watchmen?” The graphic novel’s author, Alan Moore, was referencing the term in how it relates to the policing of people in positions of power. Specifically, the comic was meant, in part, as an indictment of Reaganism. Ironically, the quote from Juvenal would eventually appear as an epigraph in the Tower Commission Report, which was the report written by the committee tasked with investigating then-President Reagan and his administration’s involvement / culpability in the Iran-Contra Affair, although Moore and Gibbons began publishing the series almost a year before the report was written. (In a further dose of irony, the report was commissioned by President Reagan himself.) The quote, and a reference to its inclusion in the Tower Commission Report, is included as an epigraph in subsequent reprintings of Watchmen.
The last major thing that needs to be addressed is Rorschach himself. Some of his more fanatical edges were smoothed out for the 2009 Zack Snyder film, to transform him into a murderous vigilante that we can ultimately still root for, like the Punisher or John Wick. But the Rorschach of Moore and Gibbons’ original work is a radical, violent nationalist. He constantly espouses his hatred of homosexuals, women, intellectuals, social programs, liberals, and foreigners. He only ventures out into public to pick up the latest issue of The New Frontiersman, the book’s far-right tabloid newspaper. In the novel, we’re shown an editorial from The New Frontiersman that rails against the “Marxist” mainstream media while arguing that the KKK was the original superhero team, begun with noble intentions of defending the antebellum South before it was corrupted by racist members (a common, false talking point frequently made by the Klan’s supporters to minimize the hate group’s racist history). The editorial is accompanied by a disgustingly racist, Anti-Semitic political cartoon, depicting a white superhero and his white wife and child besieged at all angles by Jewish businessmen, Communist agitators, Italian criminals, and Black drug dealers. This is the only newspaper Rorschach reads, and he reads it every day.
It’s important to understand this aspect of Rorschach’s character because the inciting incident of the HBO series is a coordinated attack on the homes of several police officers, conducted by a group of white supremacists wearing Rorschach masks and calling themselves the Seventh Cavalry. The Seventh Cavalry was the Regiment George A. Custer led into his famed last stand at The Battle of Little Big Horn, and it’s a reference Adrian makes in the graphic novel (only, in Adrian’s reference, the Seventh Cavalry is the last line of defense against the four horsemen of the Apocalypse).
SPEED ROUND! Here I’ll cite some final, minor plot points, just in case they’re referenced or somehow become important in the series:
Nobody witnesses Rorschach’s death at the hands of Dr. Manhattan. It’s ultimately unclear whether the rest of the superheroes – Adrian, Dan, and Laurie – even know Rorschach is dead.
It’s implied that the Comedian murders Hooded Justice, a gigantic hooded superhero who intervenes when the Comedian assaults the first Silk Spectre. It’s also revealed that Hooded Justice had a romantic relationship with Captain Metropolis, the leader of the Minutemen.
The book contains a reference, on the very last page, to Robert Redford’s upcoming presidential campaign, which is derided with “who wants a cowboy president?” (Insert wink.) When the HBO series begins, Redford is president, and has been in office since 1992. They even got Redford to come out of retirement and guest star as himself.
And with that, you should be fully primed and ready to watch the Watchmen this Sunday without growing distraught with angry confusion. That is, outside of the angry confusion Damon Lindelof normally deals in.
Watchmen premiers this Sunday on HBO. For more on the series, read our review.