I wrote a whole piece last year about “legacy” sequels generally (and HALLOWEEN 2018 specifically), pondering the compounding challenges of revisiting a character or story after a significant time gap. Every sequel has to contend with the same inherent tension, between the need to bring something new to the table in order to justify its existence as a separate entity, and the conflicting need to recreate enough of the first one's successes to justify making it an actual continuation of the same story, rather than a new thing with some loose inspiration from the original. This is tied indelibly to the central appeal of sequels or franchise storytelling in general, which is the implicit promise to hit a particular sweet spot: a single package containing the comfort of the familiar and the excitement of a new experience.
When, as has increasingly become our wont, the sequels come after 20 and 30 year gaps, the balancing act between these needs becomes even more precarious. It’s an issue you can increasingly see creators struggle with across all kinds of genres and media, and that struggle is similar whether you are resurrecting an 80’s action beefcake or a 90’s hangout sitcom. When we are reconnecting with an elder version of Han Solo, or Princess Leia or Luke Skywalker or Rocky (or Rocky, or Rocky) or John McClane or Rambo or Deckard or Michael Myers or the guy from TRON or IndianaJones or Maverick or Danny Torrance or Al Swearengen or Wolverine or Veronica Mars or Dale Cooper or Murphy Brown or Rory and Lorelai or Mad Max or GordonGekko or Shaft or Derek Zoolander or Roseanne or the Trainspotting gang or Harryand Lloyd or the Bluth Family or Johnny and Daniel-San or Will and Grace or Mulderand Scully after a span of many years, then they need to be at least recognizable as Han Solo, or Princess Leia or Luke Skywalker or Rocky or John McClane or Rambo or Deckard or Michael Myers or the guy from TRON or Indiana Jones or Maverick or Danny Torrance or Al Swearengen or Wolverine or Veronica Mars or Dale Cooper or Murphy Brown or Rory and Lorelai or Mad Max or Gordon Gekko or Shaft or Derek Zoolander or Roseanne or the Trainspotting gang or Harry and Lloyd or the Bluth Family or Johnny and Daniel-San or Will and Grace or Mulder and Scully. Or else what are we even doing here? Why even invoke the famous name if it is basically a completely different character?
|And no offense to Han Solo, or Princess Leia or Luke Skywalker or Rocky or John McClane or Rambo or Deckard or Michael Myers or the guy from TRON or Indiana Jones or Maverick or Danny Torrance or Al Swearengen or Wolverine or Veronica Mars or Dale Cooper or Murphy Brown or Rory and Lorelai or Mad Max or Gordon Gekko or Shaft or Derek Zoolander or Roseanne or the Trainspotting gang or Harry and Lloyd or the Bluth Family or Johnny and Daniel-San or Will and Grace or Mulder and Scully, but JESUS CHRIST IS IT THAT HARD TO MAKE UP A NEW CHARACTER EVERY ONCE IN A WHILE?|
At the same time, if the passage of large swathes of time are not acknowledged in some fashion and it seems like the world of the story just stopped moving entirely until we were ready to pick it back up again, everything rings immediately phony and hollow. This creates something of a trap. Act like nothing at all has changed over the intervening decades, and you can create a sense of contrivance and even unintentional sadness, that the character apparently stopped learning or growing at all half a lifetime ago. This was an issue for me with the Netflix revival seasons of ARRESTED DEVELOPMENT, where the idiotic shenanigans started to feel less farcical and more bleak as the characters’ titular lack of growth contrasted more sharply with the visible aging of the cast. And it bothered many in the GILMORE GIRLS reboot, when Rory carried over a bunch of teenage obliviousness into her 30s. To do it well, you have to allow the character to have undergone real change during the interval between installments, but this new version of the character you are (re)introducing has to follow intuitively from what we knew of them before and what we are being told has happened to them since. Some of the good examples would be the way LOGAN manages to keep Wolverine and Xavier familiar and recognizable to us, even as offscreen events have completely broken them down from where any X-MEN movie left them. Or, despite the comparatively small gap between them, the complete but entirely logical transformation of Sarah Connor between TERMINATOR and T2.
And as is often the case, you can look to STAR WARS for both a really good and really bad example of the same thing. THE FORCE AWAKENS clumsily mashes a reset button on the state of galactic politics and almost entirely fails to register the crushing sadness inherent in Han and Leia’s capitulation to the horror that befall their family and retreat back to the comfort zones of their youth, so eager is it to return us in the audience to our own comfort zone within the franchise. But then THE LAST JEDI follows through with a rather brave (in the context of the ultimate four-quadrant blockbuster it occupies) depiction of a Luke Skywalker that is believably ravaged by the years since we last saw him as the triumphant young hero, and finding new ways for the character to continue to grow and change.
|COURAGE is part of this complete breakfast|
And it all comes down to change, really. Change is the driving force and raw material of all drama, of all fiction. The reason storytelling is so deeply ingrained in human society and consciousness, how it defines so much of our perceptions and identities even for those that don’t read novels or watch premium cable Emmy-bait, is that stories are how our brains are able to process change. Call it a character arc or a Heroes Journey or whatever academic term you prefer, but the fundamentals of a story are “this happens, and so that happened, and that’s how we ended up with this new state of affairs at the end.” Whether scripted or otherwise, our poor lizard brains need a story to be able process how we could possibly be at Point C now when it knows we were definitely at Point A before.
So, and I swear I will relate this back to WATCHMEN in a minute, the difficulty in drafting a sequel that revisits characters after a lengthy interval is that, in order to maintain a baseline of believability, you have to allow for significant change to have occurred “offscreen”. And that is sort of anathema to the basic purpose of telling a story, which is to track and explicate change, step by step by step. When you skip important steps, the story feels incomplete, and yet that is what the legacy sequel is required to do. Which is all a very long way of getting to the point that I think WATCHMEN the show might be screwing up the character of Ozymandias.
And possibly Doctor Manhattan and Laurie too. I mentioned in passing previously that I was not enthused about the prospect of sleuthing for who could be Dr. Manhattan in disguise every week, after the idea that he could impersonate “real” people was introduced. My resistance to this idea was based less on it being beyond the blue guy’s range of powers than it requiring a major shift in his characterization. The Manhattan in the comics was a unique and fascinating creation, and that hinged entirely on how he was increasingly disinterested he was in walking amongst humans and pretending to care about their doings. He did learn a certain appreciation for the uncertainty and absurdity that human will brings into the universe at the end, but that did not stop him from leaving the galaxy for “a less complicated one” at the end. Could Lindelof’s follow-up justify a reversal of this decision, and the established characterization, such that it would adequately explain why he would suddenly care enough to not just walk among them once more, but do so in disguise? When if he just wanted to observe, he could just as easily do so from a microscopic level, or turn himself invisible? Maybe. But it is a very stark turnaround to have happen offscreen, without dramatization. Particularly for a character whose motivations are so explicitly non-human, and thus requires a bit more hand-holding for us to glean his intentions. Or perhaps the writers view that unknowability as a license to just have him do whatever the plot needs him to do, because, like, how could we understand his thought process anyway so screw it let's just have him do anything?
|....Nah, they would never...|
But that is probably getting ahead of things, and I can bitch about it for real when the show actually crosses that bridge. I think they are doing better with Laurie, although I am not sure if it is more that her characterization as a hardline anti-vigilante agent flows naturally from where the book left her off or just that I am really digging Jean Smart in that snarky, hard-bitten mold. If I were being really critical, I’d note that the book actually had her make some sort of peace with her crimefighting past, and the mother that pushed her into it (and gave her a name that wasn’t Blake). But Smart’s performance has immediately become one of, if not the, best thing about the show, so I’m cool with it.
What gives me pause is the handling of Veidt, and to a very minor extent, Rorschach. In the comic, both are complex characters, a “hero” with profoundly villainous qualities and a “villain” with genuinely altruistic motives. The contrasts and contradictions were the entire point of the characters, and I have some qualms that the show may be simplifying them into a more straightforward Bad Guy mold. With Rorschach, of course he died in the original so it is only his legacy being co-opted by the villainous racists. I’m not really put out by that because it is actually an example of the world continuing to develop on its own when we aren't looking, and as such I also find it an eminently plausible development that racist gangs would do that. Rorschach himself may even have been sympathetic to the bad guys, being something of a fascist bigot anyway. It only gives me slight pause when I look at it in conjunction with Veidt’s portrayal, and a few other minor bits such as Robert Redford being president.
|Who the fuck would ever vote for this shmuck?|
The very end of the books made an offhand reference to Redford considering a presidential run, and of course the most memorable bit of alternate-reality worldbuilding from it was that Nixon had passed an amendment allowing him to serve 5 terms of office thanks to the popularity boost he got from a Dr. Manhattan-assisted victory in the Vietnam War. So this has a direct basis in the source, I'm just not particularly impressed with taking it exactly one step further and letting that dictate the status quo 35 years down the line. It may serve a purpose (beyond a fun cameo from the man himself down the line), but it is not winning any points for creativity in my books. It is actually one of the few things in the show that reminds me of Zach Snyder’s beautiful, utterly lunkheaded film adaptation from 2009, which had a way of taking these subtle notes from the book and rendering them in the most obvious manner possible. Rorschach speculates that Ozymandias may be gay in the book, so Snyder inserts a file titled “BOYS” on his desktop when they are hacking it; the Comedian makes a joke about not asking him where he was when JFK was shot, so he actually shows him committing the assassination; the Silhouette is murdered after being outed as a lesbian and excommunicated from her superhero team, so Snyder of course has to actually stage the tableau of she and her lover’s murdered corpses lying in bed with “LESBIAN WHORES” scrawled on the wall in their blood just in case someone might have missed the point. WATCHMEN the show is certainly thoughtful and creative enough in the vast majority of its worldbuilding to give it a pass on some of these minor points. Except the characterization of Veidt is not really a minor issue.
I actually have been enjoying the Veidt scenes for the wackadoo interludes that they are (and, on a purely shallow level, because Ms. Crookshanks is cute as goddamn button). But as they have gone on, he has been acting more and more overtly crazy and dastardly. Which is fun because Jeremy Irons does a world-class dastard, and its arguably “believable” that being trapped in some sort of time-space prison with only idiot simulacra to interact with for years on end could easily drive anyone nutso, even the World’s Smartest Man. But this portrayal also runs entirely counter to what made Ozymandias such a fascinating character, which is that he truly was not the “Republic serial villain”, despite executing a convoluted master plan involving tachyon rays and an interdimensional space squid. He was more interesting because he did the most monstrous things for sincerely altruistic reasons, because his warmth and friendly demeanor was rather genuine, because his superhuman intelligence was matched with superhuman patience, and he was precisely not the type to throw murderous hissy fits or be overtly cruel to his underlings or exhibit any of these types of superfluous venalities that comic books typically use to mark villains as entirely worthy of scorn.
Again, this all could work quite well just because Jeremy Irons as a supervillain is, y’know, pretty great. But it does seem to be eschewing the shades of gray that the source material trafficked in, and that is a fine line that I am eyeing closely as the show develops. Also a fine line is the metacommentary where Lady Trieu rolls her eyes about the purposefully obtuse trail of breadcrumbs William is leaving for his granddaughter to follow. Maybe this is just me, but if you have to hang a lampshade on a character’s motivations not making much sense by having another character call them out on it, then maybe you should just rethink that character’s motivation?
Oh, and there was a bunch of other plot stuff going on with trillionaire and nu-Veidt Lady Trieu pawning genetically engineered babies and cloning her own offspring and apparently feeding them intravenous memories of Vietnam War atrocities and building a giant clock with vague time travel implications. I am actually digging all this stuff, but I’m fairly content to just take it as it comes for now and see where it all ends up in a few weeks. So now, Bullet Points.
- Lady Trieu has one of the most striking character introductions ever, but pssht, whatever, she is totally overshadowed by the main event, the grand debut of LUBE MAN!!!! Lube Man may not be the hero we need, but he is most definitely what we deserve. And he deserves a better name. There is a comment section below to register your vote for which alternate moniker should be used for him in the future: Kaptain KY, the Astroglidist, the Spectacular Slipperman, Lubric-Antman, the Slimefighter, Ghost Slider, Captain PAMerica.
- Or I guess we could just call him Agent Petey. If his identity was supposed to be a mystery, they probably should have introduced at least one other person on the show with a vaguely similar physique.
- Angela’s face with the ancestree hologram reflecting on it looks like she is wearing an inverted Rorschach mask, which…okay, looks kind of cool but am not sure what it is really supposed to signify.
- I want to be on your side, Angela, but there are less dirty ways to pick a fight than dropping classic literature spoiler bombs in the living room. But Okonkwo hanging himself in the end continues the hanging imagery that surrounds Judd’s death and Hooded Justice.
- Jeremy Irons repeatedly launches dead bodies into a void in space with a medieval catapult in this episode. I know I was mostly critical of the handling of Ozymandias above, but I think we all need to just appreciate that one of the most expensive television productions of the decade featured Jeremy Irons repeatedly launching dead bodies into a void in space with a medieval catapult in this episode.