The cast and showrunners of HBO's Watchmen series debuted the first episode for a massive audience at New York Comic Con on Friday, as well as clips from future episodes. Showrunner Damon Lindelof introduced the pilot, relaying a story about how his father gave him the Watchmen comics when he was young, and the story changed his life. He referred to the HBO series as "an expensive bit of fan-fiction."
Watchmen, Alan Moore and Dave Gibbons' iconic 1986 comic series, was an alternative-history tale that saw a retired superhero stage an alien attack that left half of New York's residents dead. In the HBO series, Americans still don't know the truth about the attack. The surviving Watchmen are scattered (Dr. Manhattan indeed appears to be on Mars), and vigilante crime is on the rise, thanks to a brotherhood of white supremacists called the Seventh Cavalry who wear Rorschach masks and kill cops, who themselves wear masks to protect their identities.
"We had to be aware that we were appropriating Watchmen, that it was not ours," Lindelof said during a panel discussion that included cast members Regina King, Jeremy Irons, Jean Smart, Louis Gossett Jr., and more, as well as Gibbons himself as a surprise guest. "We felt like on a meta, pretentious level, it would be really interesting if within the show, the characters would do the same thing to Rorschach." The original character, of course, was not a white supremacist, but the group in the series has adopted his manifesto and interpreted it to suit their own views. "The Seventh Cavalry has appropriated Rorschach," Lindelof explained.
On the frontline in law enforcement's fight against the Seventh Cavalry is King's character, Sister Night, a masked fighter who works hand-in-hand with the police. King, who also starred in Lindelof's mystery drama The Leftovers, said that when Lindelof sent her the script, it included an envelope that she was not supposed to open until she reached the part where her Sister Nnight debuts. In the envelope was an artist's rendering of King in character.
"I'd never read anything like this," King said during the panel. "I've never seen this world. I've never seen his woman before. She's so complex. She blew me out of the water."
Other cast members at the panel credited Lindelof in their decisions to join the show.
"Damon took me to lunch, and talked for an hour and a half, very quickly and with enormous enthusiasm," said Irons, who plays a character that HBO has been identifying only as "probably who you think he is." (Most fans presume it's Adrian Veidt, aka Ozymandias, the person responsible for the attack in the original comic.) After reading the script, which Irons said "amused me hugely," he said he thought to himself, "That man I just had lunch with has such energy and enthusiasm. I don't know what he's going to do and what he's going to make, but if he thinks I'm going to be of some help in this story, then I'm on board."
The sentiment was echoed by Gibbons, whose own opinions differ from his co-creator's notorious staunch refusal to participate in, endorse, or even watch any adaptations of the original comic.
"[Lindelof] talked nonstop for what seemed like at least an hour and a half, and I discovered that Damon had a huge knowledge of Watchmen and had a huge respect for what Alan and I have done," Gibbons said. "If anyone was going to do a TV series of Watchmen, this was the person for the job. ... What particularly attracted to me to this was that what Damon had in mind wasn't necessarily a prequel or a sequel, but was kind of an extrapolation."
Gibbons emphasized that nothing in the TV series contradicts the graphic novel. "It is an amplification of it rather than a dilution."
"We held [the original comic] with such reverence, but at the same time, we realized that we'd have to take a couple of risks to make it work," Lindelof said.
The panel and the extremely violent first episode were well-received by fans, who cheered and gasped audibly throughout the screening. They were also treated to a sneak peek at several scenes from later episodes, including one featuring Smart, who plays Laurie Blake, who now works for the FBI to put masked vigilantes behind bars, and another scene with Hong Chau as Lady Trieu, an entirely new character.
Media was asked to refrain from describing plot points, but many fans in attendance tweeted their reactions to the episode:
HBO's #Watchmen (or at least the first episode) is going hard into its racial politics. Opens with the Tulsa Race Massacre that torched Black Wall Street. The episode lynches a white guy. It's ~choices~ #NYCC19— Jacob Oller @ NYCC (@JacobOller) October 4, 2019
I am still very mixed about doing any kind of continuation of Watchmen but what they showed at #NYCC just blew me away. Enthralling.— Eric Francisco @ NYCC (@RedMaskEric) October 4, 2019