Entertainment TV Watchmen, the superhero series that beats Marvel at its own game
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Watchmen, the superhero series that beats Marvel at its own game

Regina King
Regina King fights racist in a black leather nun uniform as Sister Night in Watchmen. Photo: HBO
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This year a mighty saga packing plenty of thrilling twists showed the world how superheroes should be done. And no, I’m not talking about Avengers: Endgame but HBO’s Watchmen.

The sleeper hit of the year, the series (available on Foxtel in Australia) taught Marvel a trick or two about epic storytelling. In old-school style, the nine-part series was parcelled out one episode per week instead of binge dropped.

Based on the 1986-1987 DC comic book series written by Alan Moore and drawn by artist Dave Gibbons, the show is set now but leaps backwards and forwards from 1921 on.

Showrunner Dan Damon Lindelof (Lost, The Leftovers) uses characters old and new to create something so fresh it’s revelatory.

If you’re not familiar with the original comic’s brilliant dissection of Cold War America, it posited an alternate timeline where the US government embraced costumed vigilantes.

While most were without superpowers – think Black Widow rather than Captain America – the godlike Doctor Manhattan, aka nuclear physicist Jon Osterman, was the exception.

Bestowed with reality-warping powers after a sub-atomic accident, he helped win the Vietnam War for a President Nixon whose corruption was never exposed.

It’s also revealed that Robert Redford, not Ronald Reagan, later moved into the White House.

Manhattan’s dramatic intervention lead to nuclear confrontation with Russia. Former hero Ozymandias turned duplicitous businessman Adrian Veidt saved the day, using his genius and loose morals to fake an alien invasion.

Dropping a giant squid-like creation on New York he killed millions, but forced humanity to unite against a perceived extra-terrestrial threat.

Increasingly disassociated from humanity, particularly because he perceives all time at once, Manhattan left Earth and his girlfriend Laurie Jupiter, aka Silk Spectre, behind.

Dispelling all memory of Justice League director Zack Snyder’s so-so 2009 big-screen adaptation, Lindelof sets the new series in Tulsa, 2019. But not before a flashback to 1921 and the atrocity of the real-life Tulsa race massacre, an event that sets the tone for a series which asks, ‘Where are we now, and are we any better?’

Oscar-winner Regina King, who worked with Lindelof on The Leftovers, plays gutsy ex-cop Angela Abar, who chooses to secretly fight racists in a black leather nun uniform under the moniker Sister Night.

Hunting the new KKK, dubbed the Seventh Kavalry, Abar uncovers more than she bargained for.

Jeremy Irons
Jeremy Irons looks downcast but is at his comedic best in Watchmen. Photo: HBO

Much like the puzzle box mystery of Lost’s early days and the emotional heft of The Leftovers, what’s going on is teased by Lindelof.

Sitting at 96 per cent on critic aggregator site Rotten Tomatoes, Watchmen gradually coalesces on a monumental showdown with the fate of humanity hanging in the balance, but it’s also a brilliant ensemble piece.

Fargo star Jean Smart is hilariously acidic as ex-hero Laurie, a no-nonsense FBI agent with no time for anyone’s crap, let alone caped crusaders. Bouncing brilliantly off King, she also spars with Tim Blake Nelson’s paranoid masked copper Looking Glass.

Jeremy Irons has never been funnier as a bitter Ozymandias trapped in a fairy tale castle-like prison populated with clones, and Hong Chau is also fabulous as Lady Trieu, a trillionaire inventor working on a secret project. Then there’s Louis Gossett Jr’s mysterious old man in a wheelchair, who upends everything Abar thinks she knows.

Moore infamously disowned his creation after a legal battle with DC and isn’t involved, though Gibbons is a co-creator. In a way, that’s perfect.

Lindelof’s televisual feast gloriously builds off their seminal comic book legacy but propels it into something shockingly new. A masterpiece that makes Marvel look thoroughly dull. Make sure you find it.

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