Brow Beat

The Trailer for HBO’s Watchmen Takes Rorschach Too Seriously

A man in a ski mask with a Rorschach blot drawn on it.
Fearful symmetry.

HBO released a trailer for its upcoming Watchmen series at San Diego Comic-Con on Saturday, revealing one of the main things the prestige television network is going to add to its prestige television spin-off of the prestigious comic book series: in-world prestige television! The trailer’s opening shots of a 1940s grocery-store stickup look like they’re from HBO’s Watchmen, but they’re actually from American Hero Story: Minutemen, a fictional television show enjoyed by some of the characters on HBO’s Watchmen. That’s all to the good, because American Hero Story: Minutemen has hokey dialogue like, “Who am I? If I knew the answer to that, I wouldn’t be wearing a mask.” Watchmen has characters who find that hokey dialogue psychologically insightful, but those characters also eat baked beans right out of a tin can while watching television, which I think we can all agree is a valuable psychological insight into the sort of person who watches American Hero Story: Minutemen. (There is always the possibility, of course, that we are characters in a prestige television show that offers its audience deep psychological insights into the types of people who enjoy watching trailers for HBO’s Watchmen, but it’s important not to think about this for too long.) Here’s the trailer:

The original Watchmen comics were self-referential about their medium in a similar way: They featured an entire comic-within-a-comic, an EC-style pirate story that seems to have arrived in HBO’s Watchmen series as another in-world prestige cable show. Watchmen also included excerpts from other in-world texts: a character’s unpublished autobiography, an issue of a right-wing fringe newspaper, even an article from a bird-watching journal. But this kind of metatextual goofing around—letting heroes and villains have their say in their own words—can be a magnet for bad fans, and it’s not clear from the trailer if Watchmen will have the kind of tonal control necessary to pull the trick off. Take the opening lines of the comic, which reappear in the trailer in a slightly different form. As originally written, they’re clearly the product of a character who has grievously misunderstood Taxi Driver:

Rorschach’s journal. October 12, 1985: Dog carcass in alley this morning, tire tread on burst stomach. This city is afraid of me. I have seen its true face. The streets are extended gutters and the gutters are full of blood and when the drains finally scab over all the vermin will drown. The accumulated filth of all their sex and murder will foam up about their waists and all the whores and politicians will look up and shout, “Save us!” … and I’ll look down and whisper “No.”

As text, that is more than half parody—the character who wrote the diary is a fascist lunatic, and boy does it show—but it’s unreasonable to expect an audience to recognize the sadly proud gesture of refusal as an adolescent fantasy while simultaneously trying to attract an audience of adolescents. So when the line shows up at the very end of the trailer for Zack Snyder’s feature adaptation—with the prose considerably toned down—it’s not a joke, it’s a selling point:

The trailer for HBO’s Watchmen gives a version of Rorschach’s line to a masked terrorist with red-rimmed eyes peeking out from a ski mask, which is a considerably less aspirational figure than Snyder’s gravel-voiced Batman-surrogate. But the message is delivered in a video sent to the police department of Tulsa, Oklahoma, and they also wear masks—a hedge against anti-police violence, apparently—so Watchmen could either smartly question the conventions of the superhero genre the way its source material did, delight bad fans with Bioshock: Infinite-style both-sides-ism, or both. We’ll find out in October, when HBO will give us all the chance to watch the Watchmen.