'Watchmen' Recap: The Greatest American Hero - Rolling Stone
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‘Watchmen’ Recap: The Greatest American Hero

In a staggering episode that upends the ‘Watchmen’ universe — and the wider world of superhero lore — Hooded Justice is unmasked

Cheyenne Jackson as Hooded Justice

Cheyenne Jackson as Hooded Justice from the 'Watchmen' show-within-the-show "American Hero Story."

Mark Hill/HBO

A review of this week’s Watchmen, “This Extraordinary Being,” coming up just as soon as I read Action Comics #1 for the first time…

Many of the most distinct and beloved American art forms were invented by black artists who were then quickly eclipsed in the public imagination by their white imitators. Elvis Presley borrowed liberally from Chuck Berry and Fats Domino, among many others. When they were starting out, white rappers like the Beastie Boys and Eminem often found it easier to get radio play than more established black hip-hop veterans. A large chunk of Quentin Tarantino’s Oscar-winning aesthetic was modeled on blaxploitation films whose own directors of color didn’t get nearly the same level of acclaim.

If cultural appropriation is woven into the fabric of American music, movies, and life, why not superheroics? What if the first costumed hero of them all was an African American man who inspired a wave of white heroes? What if that hero had to hide his true identity not for all the corny comic-book reasons about protecting his loved ones, but because he knew the color of his skin would get him lynched for daring to put himself above the law?

That Hooded Justice, the O.G. costumed vigilante of the Watchmen universe, was secretly black — was, in fact, Angela’s grandfather, Will Reeves — is the big idea at the center of this episode, and of the series as a whole. When I interviewed Damon Lindelof (who co-wrote “This Extraordinary Being” with Cord Jefferson) before the show premiered, he alluded to “the idea that made me want to do this take on Watchmen” as one coming up later in the season. And now it’s here. And it is, well, extraordinary.

It takes a while to get to this huge revelation, which is at the heart of a trippy, time- and mind-bending episode that evokes The Leftovers‘ “International Assassin,” Lost‘s “The Constant,” and various other sci-fi drama classic installments (say, “The Inner Light” from Star Trek: The Next Generation) where the hero finds him or herself in a place, time, and sometimes body where they do not belong.

By swallowing Will’s entire stash of Nostalgia pills, Angela’s mind is cast back to the start of his police career in 1939, and to the events that inspired him to become Hooded Justice. At first, it seems we’ll be getting a Quantum Leap-style trip through time, where the other characters see Will Reeves while we in the audience see Angela wearing his clothes and living his life. Quickly, though, the image of her is replaced by the genuine article, played as a young man by Jovan Adepo(*). Angela briefly reappears at crucial, pointed intervals — say, when Will insists that he isn’t having problems with his memory — but for the most part, we are immersed in his world just as much as she is.

(*) On The Leftovers, Adepo played Regina King’s son. Here, he’s her grandfather. Between Jack Ryan, Sorry For Your Loss, and this, he’s among the busier actors on television this fall, but I look forward to another family reunion with King down the road. 

Even before Angela’s mind slides back 80 years into the past, we are being primed for the reveal. The episode opens not with the familiar Watchmen logo, but with the same font (now in purple) spelling out Minutemen, before we dive into the latest installment of show-within-the-show American Hero Story. As two FBI agents grill Hooded Justice — played, of course, by a white actor (30 Rock‘s Cheyenne Jackson), because how could the American Hero Story producers even imagine otherwise? — about his affair with Captain Metropolis, my eyes kept being drawn to his costume. I’ve read the Watchmen comic at least a dozen times over the last three and a half decades, yet it felt like this was the first time I was really looking at Hooded Justice’s outfit. The name, the noose around the neck, and the hood to me had always evoked a royal executioner — a man who conceals his face as part of the process of meting out rough justice. Seeing it in the context of a series whose first episode opened with Klansmen slaughtering black people and ended with Judd Crawford dangling from a mighty oak tree, all I could now think of was Klan hoods and lynching. Was Hooded Justice, I wondered, just another closet white supremacist?

Following the American Hero Story clip, Laurie tries to warn Angela about what the Nostalgia will do to her — how, to borrow Lindelof’s own words in our aforementioned interview, nostalgia is literally toxic. The product was developed to help Alzheimer’s patients, but quickly found a more illicit market, because, as Laurie puts it, “Who wants to live in the present when you can be in the past?” Later, the young Will tells his girlfriend June (Danielle Deadwyler) — who is a reporter, because of course a superhero has to have a reporter girlfriend — that he has moved past the horrific events that killed both of their families. “That was a long time ago,” he insists. “I don’t want to live in the past.”

Living in the past is dangerous, Watchmen argues again and again, in part because the past is never quite what we remember it as. White supremacists, whether they’re wearing Klan robes or MAGA hats, want to take us back to a version of America that never really existed — or at least never existed that way for everyone. In the case of “This Extraordinary Being,” though, the past is inverted in a different way. Racism is still rampant, especially in the corridors of power — the commissioner of the NYPD won’t even stop to look at Will at the graduation ceremony, much less shake his hand — but the episode tells the story of a black man who seized power for himself in this difficult time, and who motivated a host of white people to follow his example, even if they had no idea who was really leading the way.

Remember what Laurie said back in the third episode about heroes’ masked identities being shaped by childhood trauma? The last good memory of Will Reeves’ childhood before his world was destroyed — with the parallel to Superman and Krypton made clearer than ever when a news vendor shows Will a copy of Action Comics #1 — was of him watching Trust in the Law. He has modeled his whole life on Bass Reeves — taken on his name, even — become a cop because that’s what the real Reeves did. But while Reeves is still a U.S. Marshal in the film, he also wears a hood to conceal his identity(*).

(*) This was something the real-life Reeves did sometimes to maintain a low profile in a territory where a black lawman would attract too much attention — much of it dangerous attention. As we’ve discussed, his story was appropriated too, as he became the white Lone Ranger, whose own (very Captain Metropolis-esque) mask is less essential to protecting his life.

So when Will’s white colleagues conduct a near-fatal lynching to discourage him from looking into the activities of their secret racist organization, Cyclops, Will staggers away with the noose still around his neck and the hood they’d slipped over him in his hands. He impulsively puts it back on to conceal his identity while rescuing a white couple from a mugging(*). But in the aftermath of that event, he and June realize that he can reclaim the hood and the noose, using them against their persecutors in a manner not that far removed from the way oppressed minority groups turn slurs against them into slogans of pride. To make it work, though, June argues, Will has to conceal not just his face, but his entire racial identity, using makeup to lighten the skin around his eyes (the only part of him visible under the mask and elaborate head-to-toe costume they cook up).

(*) It’s not quite saving Bruce Wayne’s parents from being murdered (this couple doesn’t have a kid with them, and there’s more than one attacker), but the scene is evocative enough to dovetail nicely with the early Superman discussion.

It’s an inspired choice — by June and by the series. The makeup (which looks convincing enough in the episode’s black-and-white photography) allows the TV show to remain largely faithful to the comic, which kept Hooded Justice’s true identity a mystery. Who’s to say he wasn’t a black man who held himself apart from the rest of the Minutemen (other than their leader, that is) because he was afraid of having his race exposed to the world? And the makeup creates the appearance of an inversion of the Lone Ranger’s mask — and, for that matter, of the very dark makeup that Angela puts around her own eyes when she’s operating as Sister Night. Grandfather and granddaughter are both cops who dress up on the side, but under very different circumstances. He’s operating wholly outside the law, while she is mostly trying to operate within it. He has to keep his race hidden; she wears hers proudly, in open defiance of the Seventh Kavalry.

But whatever the reason and the context, Watchmen — both comic and TV series — repeatedly insists that wearing a mask is as unhealthy as nostalgia. Will wears his as a way to channel his rage at a racist world — and perhaps at the world that forces him to keep his sexuality as secret as his skin color — but over time, it only makes him angrier. Nelson Gardner wears the Captain Metropolis mask less out of a desire to battle injustice than a more adolescent wish for adventure, mixed in with it being a kink. (Like Agent Petey, he likes to wear it in bed.) The episode doesn’t even get into the pathologies of the other Minutemen — they’re blurs in the background of the group photo we see being taken — but we know that Laurie’s father was an attempted rapist. The longer that Will wears his interlocking masks (the hood and the makeup), and the clearer it becomes that his lover Nelson won’t do anything to help fight Cyclops, the more the fires of his rage are stoked. After discovering that Cyclops is using subliminal images and other forms of mesmerism to trick black people into hurting themselves, he decides to attack the group’s headquarters on his own, wearing both his NYPD uniform and his superhero hood. Like his granddaughter, he is playing cop and vigilante at the same time, and it has long since ceased to be fun and games (if it ever was for him). He’s just shooting racists in the head, and then, once the bullets in his service revolver run out, strangling the last one and lighting all the bodies on fire.

Even that action doesn’t burn the rage from his soul, and instead he winds up taking it out on his poor son (Angela’s father), whom he finds putting on the white makeup — a little boy just trying to imitate the dad he loves and respects so much. He chases his wife and son away in the process, and while there was little healthy about the relationship — which began with Will literally caring for June when she was the crying baby in the field outside Tulsa — it leaves Will once again alone, unable to get back to the only family he knows. From here, the Nostalgia trip leaps ahead to 2019, so that Angela can witness the murder of Judd — who hangs himself, with some coaxing from the Cyclops device that Will hung onto — which means we don’t know what he’s been doing over the decades in between. But based on the look on his face as he clutches that old noose to his midsection while waiting for Judd, it doesn’t seem to have been a happy life for him. After the unexplained glimpse of an old woman promising to take someone — Will? Angela? — home with her, Angela finally wakes up as herself in one of Lady Trieu’s labs, perhaps not far away from the man whose life she just got to know with great, horrifying intimacy.

Thematically, it’s easy to understand why Lindelof was so excited by the idea of the first superhero being black. It recontextualizes a lot of what’s in the comic book without unfairly altering any of it, and it ties in beautifully to the ideas percolating in the show’s vision of 2019 America. Given that Hooded Justice’s sexuality is now public knowledge, 7K probably doesn’t have much use for him as an icon; their own inspiration, Rorschach, was an avowed homophobe. But it would still probably rock their worldview to find out that it was a black man who inspired Rorschach, and, by proxy, them to don masks in pursuit of their own interpretation of the law(*). They’re concealing their identities in indirect tribute to him, even as they’re continuing the vile traditions of all the people Hooded Justice put on his own masks to fight. It transforms everything we’ve seen (and, for some of us, read) before in this world, and unlocks a deeper meaning to the whole series. Now it’s not just incidental that there’s a superhero race war in the show’s 2019; it’s history painfully repeating itself again and again, just as it has in our America.

(*) Or maybe they’d just compartmentalize? The whole thing conjures up memories of that great scene in Do the Right Thing where Mookie points out to his racist coworker Pino that all of Pino’s favorite celebrities are black, forcing Pino to contort himself to explain why Magic Johnson, Eddie Murphy, and Prince are “more than black.”  Never underestimate human beings’ capacity for cognitive dissonance.

Beyond a thematic stroke of brilliance, the episode — directed by Lost and Leftovers vet Stephen Williams — is a technical marvel. The black-and-white photography (by Greg Middleton) and big band soundtrack neatly take us back to the late Thirties, even as other production choices keep reminding us that this is a memory and not a time machine. As a tribute to Steven Spielberg’s use of the girl in the red coat in Schindler’s List Pale Horse, there are occasional splashes of color, particularly whenever Will’s mother is seen playing the movie theater piano. Certain aspects of the production design, like the precinct doors, are presented as completely false stage sets, as further evidence of the artificiality of Angela’s presence here. When June asks Will to again tell her the plot of Trust in the Law, the movie irises open on the wall behind them. The transitions between Adepo and King appear seamless, I’m told, because they were: As the camera spun around the other actor in those scenes, Adepo quickly stepped out and King in (or vice versa). It’s a special effects technique almost as old as Trust in the Law. And though she’s not in the episode a lot, Regina King does amazing physical work at evoking both Adepo and then Lou Gossett Jr. in the scene with Judd; the way her posture mimics Gossett’s in the wheelchair left my jaw on the floor.

The edits feel more purposeful — like the cut from June (who appears to have some suspicions about her man’s sexuality) telling Will “No!” about joining the Minutemen, followed immediately by Nelson screaming “YES!” while in bed with Will — as does the absence of them in certain spots. The fight in the American Hero Story clip again looks like a Zack Snyder parody, but most of the real Hooded Justice fight scenes are presented as continuous takes, with Will a relentless whirling dervish who nonetheless does only things within the realm of what’s physically possible for an ordinary (if very strong and angry) man. We get an inversion of the American Hero Story clip from episode two, where instead of Hooded Justice crashing into a store to save the shopkeeper from some dastardly robbers, he is instead leaping out of the window because the shopkeeper himself is the criminal. (It’s only as he smashes through the glass that the Snyder/bullet-time effects come back, but as a way to illustrate Laurie and Cal’s failed attempt to pull Angela out of this dangerous trip.)

Even for a series that is already a huge departure from the source material, “This Extraordinary Being” is an enormous gamble. It barely features any of the regular cast. It largely makes do without that hypnotic Reznor/Ross score (which comes roaring back as old man Will prepares to deal with Judd), and is told in a completely different visual language from the previous five chapters. And it completely recontextualizes all that’s happened before.

But it’s a gamble that pays off spectacularly, in one of the best hours of television that Damon Lindelof’s ever been involved in. When you consider the peaks of Lost and The Leftovers, that is a very extraordinary being, indeed.

Some other thoughts, several of them comic book-related:

* With most of the regular cast on the bench or limited to cameos, we got a bunch of familiar guest stars besides Jackson as the TV version of Hooded Justice, including ER alum Erik Palladino as one of the two homophobic FBI agents from the American Hero Story scene, TV’s Jake McDorman (recently seen as Murphy Brown’s son in the short-lived revival) as Captain Metropolis, and ubiquitous HBO player Glenn Fleshler (Boardwalk Empire, True Detective, Barry) as Fred the racist shopkeeper.

* A Veidt interlude would have felt even more out of place here than it did in last week’s Looking Glass spotlight, where at least he was connected to the plot down on Earth. So we don’t bother going to Europa at all. But Will arranging the Cyclops corpses in a tableau before lighting them on fire very much evokes what Veidt did last week with all the clones — which in turn was was an homage to the scene in the pirate comic within the original comic, where the hero has to build a raft out of the bodies of his dead comrades. (Like Veidt, he chose to use corpses to escape exile.)

* The episode’s title comes from a line in Under the Hood, the memoir of the original Nite Owl, Hollis Mason, that ran as bonus material at the end of the comic book’s first few issues. It’s part of Mason’s description of Hooded Justice, who inspired Mason — himself a member of the NYPD — to put on tights and a mask. Mason is interesting as an outlier to the psychological dysfunction of almost every other costumed character in the comic (and now in the show). He’s just a well-adjusted, morally upright guy who adopts a costumed identity because he sees how effective Hooded Justice is and wants to help people in the same way.

* That group photo, by the way? It’s one of the more famous images from the comic, where both Mason and Laurie’s mother Sally have framed copies in their homes. (And it literally accompanies the Snyder film’s title.) It’s also an important plot point, because Edward Blake’s attempted rape of Sally happens a few minutes after the photo is taken.

* Beyond largely sidelining the usual synth pieces of Reznor and Ross’ score, the episode’s soundtrack naturally leans on vintage songs, even if some of them are anachronistic. The Eartha Kitt cover of “Smoke Gets In Your Eyes” that plays over Will’s assault on the warehouse, for instance, was recorded in 1952 — in the same session where she sang the version of “Santa Baby” that played during the White Night flashback from Episode Two, further linking Will to Angela. (And linking both of them to one of the performers who famously played Catwoman.) There’s also an original song, “Used to Be,” with music and lyrics by Reznor and Ross, that plays as the cops abduct Will and hang him from the tree, and reprises as the older Will makes Judd hang himself.

* Finally, this isn’t exactly Watchmen-related, but Hooded Justice’s new origin story reminded me of perhaps my favorite DC Comic since Watchmen came out: New Frontier, written and drawn by the late, great Darwyn Cooke. Set mostly in the 1950s as Green Lantern, Flash, Martian Manhunter, and more battle the paranoia of the era as much as they do aliens and supervillains, the miniseries also includes a new hero named John Henry. Inspired by the steel-driving African American folk hero of the same name, both his origin and his costume have several things in common with Hooded Justice. This is a coincidence — Lindelof had never heard of New Frontier until I mentioned it to him — but anyone who liked this episode might want to give it a read.

 

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