The First Episode of ‘Watchmen’ Adapted ‘Action Comics’ #1, Not Watchmen
The following post contains SPOILERS for the first episode of Watchmen.
HBO’s new series is called Watchmen, but almost none of the characters from the book by Alan Moore and Dave Gibbons or the film adaptation by Zack Snyder are in it. Dr. Manhattan is shown, briefly, on a television screen. Jeremy Irons is supposedly playing Ozymandias, but he only appears in a single, surreal scene as the lord of a bizarre country estate. There are references to the original graphic novel, like an appearance by Nite Owl’s flying Owlship and the recurring motif of watches and clocks, but this is not an adaptation of Watchmen. It’s a new story.
One of the most surprising aspects of the first episode of Watchmen, created and written by Damon Lindelof, is that it does adapt another comic, albeit in a sneaky way that some viewers might miss. The first 10 minutes of “It’s Summer and We’re Running Out of Ice” is essentially a re-imagination of the origin of Superman, first told in his original appearance, in 1938’s Action Comics #1.
While Watchmen’s events are not set on an alien planet like Krypton, we’ll eventually discover this is not our world, either. The show opens in Tulsa, Oklahoma in 1921, with a young boy watching a silent film, which depicts a man clad all in black revealing to the parishioners of a small church that their local sheriff is, in fact, the “scoundrel” who’s been stealing their cattle. The man in black is “Bass Reeves, The Black Marshal of Oklahoma.”
Later, we’ll realize the film — right down to the threat of a lynching — mirrors the final scene of this episode. For now, the movie is interrupted by what sounds like a bombing. The boy and his parents leave the theater and flee through the chaos outside, which turns out to be the 1921 Tulsa race riot — a real event in our nation’s history. Stores are destroyed. Men, women, and children are shot. A man runs through the streets while set on fire. It looks like the end of the world, and it only gets more apocalyptic after a plane drops some kind of bomb from the air onto the wealthy black neighborhood known as “Black Wall Street.”
Before the explosion, the boy’s parents are able to put him on a wagon that’s leaving town — but there is only room on board for him, so they must stay behind. The mother promises they will be right behind him; it’s obvious they’re sacrificing their lives to save his. The wagon narrowly escapes the explosion — but the flying debris and shrapnel send it tumbling into a field, where the boy awakens to find the adults who were driving the horses dead. He hears their crying baby, wraps it in its American flag blanket, says “You’re okay,” and carries it away.
Just about every element of this story is drawn from Superman’s origin. We don’t see Tulsa prior to the riot in this pilot, but the idea of a prosperous black community’s destruction recalls the collapse of Superman’s utopian home planet of Krypton. That’s where his parents tucked him into a tiny rocket ship — too small to fit them as well, so they stay behind — and sent him on his way to Earth. And like the boy in Watchmen, the ship crashes into a field in the Midwest. That’s where Lindelof adds the only major wrinkle to the story. Instead of being rescued by a kindly couple of farmers, the boy remains alone — and even has to care for the orphaned baby. (The baby’s red, white, and blue swaddle does recall Superman’s costume, which was made by Ma Kent out of the blankets he was wrapped in when he arrive on Earth from Krypton.)
The exact identity of this baby remains to be seen. The rest of the episode introduces us to Watchmen’s main cast, who live in the Tulsa of 2019 — albeit one that has been shaped by the events of the Moore and Gibbons’ Watchmen comics, which took place some 30 years earlier. So it’s not clear how the Tulsa riot escape shaped the lives of these two survivors. What is clear is that the racism and white supremacy that fueled the riot hasn’t gone away a century later, with a white supremacist group called the Seventh Calvary striking out at Tulsa police officers.
“It’s Summer and We’re Running Out of Ice” — the title is a lyric from the song “"Pore Jud Is Daid" from the musical Oklahoma, which plays a role in the episode — ends with what seems to be the elderly version of the boy from the riot. Played by Louis Gossett Jr., he sits in a wheelchair beneath the dead body of the Chief of Police, Judd Crawford. At the very least, Gossett’s character has the letter that was shoved in the boy’s pocket by his father before he got on the wagon, which reads “Watch Over This Boy.”
If this is the Superman of Lindelof’s Watchmen, he is an unconventional one. While the modern characters in Watchmen are fascinating — particularly Regina King’s masked cop Sister Night — I’m most interested in learning about him in future episodes. Has he spent the last century fighting for truth, justice, and the American Way. And in the context of Watchmen and its broken world: What precisely is “The American Way”?
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