More than three decades since it first exploded onto the comic-book scene, the mere mention of “Watchmen” still sparks excitement from die-hard fans — and plenty of others enthralled by its revolutionary approach to conventional superhero storytelling. Employing pointed commentary, brutal violence and dark subject matter, including vigilantism and the specter of nuclear war, the series of stories about a ragged group of costumed crime-fighters has since been adapted into a feature film (directed by Zack Snyder) and now a highly anticipated HBO drama series.
But within the sprawling alternate America of “Watchmen,” one element was noticeably absent: diversity. In the original comics and the 2009 movie, all the heroes are white, and the only person of color — Doctor Manhattan, a genetically transformed nuclear physicist — is blue.
The new “Watchmen,” which premiered Sunday, reverses that dynamic in startling fashion, centering an African American woman, known as Sister Night, as its caped crusader protagonist, while injecting hot-button political issues — race and racism, white supremacy and police brutality against African Americans — into its main plot lines.
Even more striking, the fantastic world of “Watchmen,” with science-fiction flavored elements like flying ships and raining squid, has been merged with a story arc based on historical events, one that includes horrific images of black men and women being tortured and killed.
The opening scenes of the first episode, for instance, re-create the Tulsa, Okla., race riot of 1921, in which a prosperous African American community was savaged by angry whites, including the Ku Klux Klan. Black men are shown being dragged by cars. In a scene from a later episode, a black man is strung up, and the scene is shown from his point of view as he looks down in horror at his attackers, gasping desperately for air.
While hopeful that this fresh, progressive spin on the material will attract and engage an audience beyond the franchise’s existing fanbase, those responsible for HBO’s version are acutely aware that the series is a leap of faith, one that risks turning off both “Watchmen” devotees and potential newcomers who might feel the show is trivializing racism’s painful legacy.
Damon Lindelof, who created the nine-episode series, was determined to explore the long history of — and current furor over — racial tensions in America in “Watchmen,” a direction he admits was a scary choice.
“That scared the [expletive] out of me,” he said. “But everybody I talked to thought it was a potentially exciting idea. It would need to be handed delicately and [responsibly]. Simultaneously, the show is about to drop and I’m still thinking, ‘Should we have done it?’ ” He smiled while adding, “Even though I’m well-intentioned, I’m probably going to step in it a bunch of times.”
Lindelof, who co-created the series “Lost” and HBO’s “The Leftovers,” was sitting on a restaurant patio at a West Los Angeles hotel the morning after “Watchmen” received a rapturous response at its premiere in the Cinerama Dome. He was moved by the reception, not least because, he said, reading “Watchmen” when he was a 12-year-old in the 1980s had an “immense impact” on him. Sitting with him were Emmy- and Oscar-winning actress Regina King — who plays Sister Night and her alter-ego, Angela Abar, a Tulsa Police detective who protects her identity by posing as a baker — and fellow executive producer Nicole Kassell, who directed the first two episodes.
Though King said she understood Lindelof’s concern, she feels that viewers will ultimately be receptive to his approach of mashing the imaginary universe of “Watchmen” with thorny race-related observations. She referenced her work on shows such as “Southland” and “American Crime,” which dealt bluntly with race and class. While those series were critically acclaimed, they did not attract large audiences.
“There are shows I’ve done in the past where I feel like a lot of people that watched who aren’t black had a hard time dealing with their guilt,” said King. “With ‘American Crime,’ some people couldn’t finish it. This setting will evoke a different feeling that won’t be about feeling guilty. You can finish it because it’s a gumbo of genres. And everyone loves gumbo.”
Added Kassell, “I was always saying to Damon, ‘You have to do this. You have the microphone.’ It’s so radical in cinema, in TV and media, but it’s not radical to my everyday existence. What’s important to me is to see these people on screen. Because that’s America.”
This version of “Watchmen” takes place 30 years after the conclusion of the original. Although there are references to figures from the comics (and the movie, which follows it relatively faithfully), most of the characters and the Tulsa setting are new. Among the most striking details? The actor Robert Redford has been president for 30 years, and his liberal agenda includes reparations — or “Redford-ations” — for blacks, a policy that has encountered backlash from angry whites. (The actor does not appear in the series and has no connection to the franchise.)
There’s also a Victims of Racial Violence Act and the Greenwood Center for Cultural Heritage, in which holograms of African Americans from the past tell their painful experiences.
Sister Night goes into action after a black officer is attacked and almost murdered by a member of the Seventh Kavalry , a white terrorist group whose members hide their faces with masks patterned after the antihero Rorschach, one of the key figures in the original “Watchmen.”
For years, Lindelof had resisted offers to adapt “Watchmen” for television. The only option, if he were to honor the source material while taking it in a new direction, was clear: “If we’re going to do a modern retelling in 2019, we have to ask, ‘What is it like to be an American right now?’ ” he said. “What is the social anxiety? At the time I was asking that question, and even more so today, it felt that the answer was race — a reckoning of the camouflaged history of America.”
Lindelof was inspired by the writings of African American author Ta-Nehisi Coates (“Between the World and Me”), a frequent chronicler of black identity and white supremacy, where he learned for the first time about the Tulsa riot.
“I consider myself a student of U.S. history and I thought, ‘How did this slip through the cracks?’ I felt incredible shame and guilt. I could have taken that shame and guilt and internalized it. Instead, I said, ‘I’m going to put that in ‘Watchmen.’ ”
He also thought about the presence of multiculturalism in some of his past projects, including the films “Prometheus” and “World War Z.” “I keep driving by these billboards with all these white people on them,” he said. “I then realized all the billboards that I’ve been responsible for have white people on them. So I can feel shame and guilt, or I can try to do something about it.”
Determined to be as conscientious as possible, Lindelof assembled a diverse writer’s room. Of the 12 writers, four were white men; the rest, women and/or people of color. In addition to Kassell, who has directed episodes of “American Crime” and “Claws,” the executive producing team includes Stephen Williams (“Lost,” “Undercovers”), who is black.
“The key to being responsible is to have collaborators who don’t look like you,” Lindelof said. “The responsibility is all about process. We’re constantly asking ourselves, ‘Should we be doing this? Are we doing this in a responsible way?’ Am I concerned? Of course I am. I worry about this all the time. What we came up with is certainly imperfect, but it’s entering a real interesting space.”
He recalled an exchange with Harold Perrineau, who played one of the few black characters on “Lost,” Lindelof’s series about the survivors of a plane crash stranded on a mysterious island. “Harold would say, ‘If I were the only black man on this island, I would be subject to a lot more racism.’ I told him, ‘That’s not what "Lost” is about. We’re not doing that.’ And he said, ‘You’ve got polar bears running out of the jungle. You can do this.’ And I would say, ‘I don’t feel comfortable doing that. I feel like I might mess it up.’ And Harold would say, ‘Mess it up. It’s OK if you’re feeling uncomfortable.’ ”
Still, mishandling the subject of race in America, even if the setting is an alternate timeline, can provoke a serious backlash. Just ask ... HBO.
Executives at the premium network announced in 2017 that David Benioff and D.B. Weiss, the creators of the blockbuster “Game of Thrones,” would set their next project, “Confederate,” in an alternate reality in which the South won the Civil War. The announcement sparked controversy from advocates and others who said it was inappropriate and insensitive. The series subsequently disappeared from view; Vulture reported this summer that Benioff and Weiss’ new development deal at Netflix had effectively killed “Confederate” for good.
It’s not the only adverse reaction from viewers “Watchmen” may face.
As a self-proclaimed “fanboy,” Lindelof is aware that he may alienate some die-hards with his vision. Legions of white fans have previously been resistant — and, in some instances, hostile — to changes to their favorite comic books and movies when it comes to racial and gender diversity. Outrage erupted on social media when it was revealed that the white Marvel Comics character Nick Fury would be played in the “Iron Man” films by Samuel L. Jackson. Another outcry arose with the announcement that Michael B. Jordan would be The Human Torch in the 2015 reboot of “The Fantastic Four.”
“If every time you have an idea and then say, ‘I’ve got to get this person to like it or that person to like it,’ it will die on the vine,” Lindelof said. “You will be paralyzed.”
King is hopeful that those who are uncomfortable with “Watchmen,” for whatever reason, will give it a chance. “At the end of these nine episodes, I hope we are left with people owning their feelings and feel true to express them. It’s not easy. But because [of] this world that Damon has created that is putting a mirror up to our country right now, it will help ease that discomfort so that people can express what they feel. If you don’t like it, share why. What came up for you? If you like it, what came up for you? If that happens, then we’ve succeeded.”