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How the HBO Show Deconstructs the Superhero Genre


Watchmen is easily one of (if not the most) influential graphic novels of all time, and has been adapted into various mediums throughout the years. Most recently, HBO created a spin-off miniseries in 2019 starring Regina King set in the same universe as the comic. The Watchmen series, much like the graphic novel it’s based off of, tackles social and political themes and offers commentary on the nature of government, racism, and morality.

One of the best original HBO shows, Watchmen expands upon ideas explored in the 1986 graphic novel and translates them to a modern context. Referencing a range of issues, from Black Lives Matter to the NSA to de-funding the police, the series touches on these issues while also commenting on the nature of the popular superhero genre in general. As a whole, the Watchmen series deconstructs the superhero genre in these key ways throughout. Let’s examine the ways HBO’s Watchmen subverts the superhero genre.

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Watchmen Blurs the Line Between Heroes and Villains

The idea of exploring morality was a big theme in the 1986 graphic novel and is explored in the miniseries as well. HBO’s Watchmen raises questions on whether vigilantism is justified and if our heroes’ methods are any better than those they’re fighting against. The series explores the legacy of Rorschach and how his actions inadvertently inspire a group of militant terrorists, a theme which adds to the complexity of the character.

Related: Watchmen Creator Alan Moore Thinks Superhero Movies Are a Blight to Cinema

Other narratives such as Laurie Blake becoming an FBI agent, rounding up vigilantes, adds a fascinating layer to her character and further underlines the ambiguity of its protagonists. It takes some characters from the original graphic novel and blurs their lines further, and introduces great new ones which are always morally ambiguous. Watchmen is noteworthy for its exploration of murky ethics, and the HBO series thankfully maintains that.

The Watchmen graphic novel was notably praised for tackling current social issues and integrating them within the larger storyline. HBO’s Watchmen incorporates the Tulsa riots from history along with civil rights, the Patriot Act, and as the backdrop for some of its narrative. By having a historical angle, the series manages to resonate with current events creating a genuine dramatic impact. Much like how the graphic novel, the miniseries is a commentary on the nature of society and the corruption that exists within it. Touching upon more topical issues, HBO’s Watchmen manages to stay relevant and connect to our current times.

Watchmen Heroes Are Human

In many superhero films and shows, our protagonists appear as adept problem-solvers capable of handling any situation. In HBO’s Watchmen, however, our lead characters are much more vulnerable and flawed; most don’t even have superpowers. Regina King’s character Angela Abar (aka Sister Night) is a mother trying to uphold her family while also grappling with the impact of pursuing vigilantism.

Even original graphic novel character Hooded Justice gets a new spin here, as he’s revealed to be an African-American police officer who dons the persona to help combat injustice. The motivations our characters harbor feel grounded and allow us to connect with them on a deeper emotional level. They’re not superhuman; they’re all too human. With the return of fan favorites such as Ozymandias and Dr, Manhattan, even their arcs reveal their humanity and feel deeply existential. The raw and complex nature of Watchmen‘s characters truly elevate its storytelling.

No Easy Resolutions

While the majority of superhero tales typically end in our hero’s favor, Watchmen doesn’t provide answers or resolutions quite as easily. In the miniseries, there are some happy conclusions, but there are also some lingering questions and a sense that our protagonist’s obstacles aren’t completely behind them. Famously, the 1986 graphic novel ended on a rather bleak note; while the miniseries isn’t quite as dire (lynchings, racism, and eugenics aside), it does assess that, despite our hero’s victories, there’s still no easy way out.

Related: Watchmen HBO TV Show Creator Damon Lindelof Reexamines Season 1 Ending

The stakes here are noticeably high, and none of our protagonists are untouchable, giving the narrative a true sense of urgency. If you like your superhero narratives with a neat wrap up and optimism, then Watchmen might not be for you. But those who appreciate a challenging and incendiary, timely narrative will certainly find much to admire here.

Watchmen is Uncompromising

HBO is known for narratives that don’t pull punches, and Watchmen is no different. While other comic book tales may hold back, that’s not the case here. Watchmen isn’t afraid to tackle risky subjects or themes and manages to do so in an artful manner. The miniseries examines race, politics, and identity, refusing to scale back its dramatic impact for the viewer’s comfort. With its bold nature, Watchmen also allows its subject to go places most comic book films and shows wouldn’t.

By allowing for a gritty and realistic approach, the miniseries manages to bend the conventions and norms to tremendous effect. In the vein of its source material, Watchmen ventures into complex territory and manages to delve deeper as a result. With the advent of more mature and complex comic book properties, HBO’s Watchmen is a strong showcase for ambitious and no-holds-barred storytelling and filmmaking that honors superhero stories while transcending them.



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