If Alan Moore’s WATCHMEN was a deconstruction of superhero culture, HBO’s WATCHMEN deconstructs American culture. From its first episode, this continuation of the acclaimed graphic novel exposes aspects of America previously obscured from our psyches and the history books. Just look at how many people responded in shock to the 1921 Tusla Massacre scene? Very few people realized at first that a city lynching like that even happened.

Yet the sixth episode, “This Extraordinary Being,” kicks this cultural critique into high gear. It brutally lashes at WATCHMEN’s world for whitewashing the very idea of inspirational vigilante justice. How? By revealing Hooded Justice- the first person to put on a mask in the “real world”- as a black man. Wait until the alt-right trolls start accusing this of SJW wokeness.

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The First Superhero…. a Prop, Courtesy of HBO

Quick episodic recap of HBO’s WATCHMEN first. Protagonist Angela Abar, a Tulsa police officer with the alia Sister Night, learned that a mysterious wheelchair-bound black man killed her chief. Lynched, specifically. It’s revealed that he’s her grandfather Will Reeves, somehow alive after 100 years. The only clue to his past are a series of memory pills dubbed ‘Nostalgia,’ which literally let you relive past memories. Angela ingests all these pills before FBI agent Laurie Blake can question her about this reveal she kept from the police.

What follows is a masterful breakdown of black rage, whitewashing and racial injustice in the nature of superheroism. While Hooded Justice was always WATCHMEN’s most enigmatic Minuteman, he’s also this world’s Superman to speak. The man to put on a costume and fight crime in the real world. The one from which all heroes took inspiration from. So much so that the plot of in-universe show “American Hero Story” follows him as the protagonist. And it’s all a lie.

WATCHMEN Masks: Power or Trauma?

TV’s Hooded Justice is a white man, because American naturally assumes that. He’s interrogated by FBI agents for his romantic history with fellow Minutemen Captain Midnight and asked to unmask. Yet he still ends up Zack Snydering the Feds because, as a white man, there are certain things you can get away with.

The real story is much more tragic. Will Reeves joins the police force to be like the heroic black sheriff in his favorite movie serial. But even getting the badge doesn’t give him power. His commanding officer refuses to shake his hand at the graduation ceremony, let alone look at him. His first arrest- a racist named Fred who molotovs a delicatessen- gets let out the next day. And the racist police members lynch him the next night for doing his job.

In recent years, the discussion of how much law enforcement reinforces the systems of white supremacy has become even more mainstream. WATCHMEN shows it’s been like that as far back as the idealized “Silent Generation” years. The cops even signal each other with a white nationalist “O.K.” sign. But it’s also where Will decides to take his anger out on criminality, potentially inspired by a glance at Action Comics #1. Wearing the black hood and lynch rope as a makeshift costume, he beats up some thugs and the cops who brutalized him.

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Cops are “O.K.” Courtesy of HBO

With that, the hood becomes Will’s trauma mask, as well as a source of spectacle for the news outlets covering him. It’s a continuation of the diverged parallels between Watchmen’s universe and our world. In the real world, Superman’s breakout success encouraged the proliferation of comic books as a genre. In WATCHMEN, comics encouraged real people to put on masks and fight crime. Their biases, however, still remain.

Wearing Two Masks

It’s worth noting that, Captain Midnight aside, none of WATCHMEN’s other Minutemen are shown beyond their silhouettes. However, we know enough about them from past comics. Hollis Mason’s Owlman aside, not every character became a heroe for altruistic reasons. Dollar Bill was the mascot of a banking company, Silk Spectre an actress noting a new trend. The Comedian a sadist who enjoyed brutalizing people.

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A white mask over the black mask, Courtesy of HBO

But Captain Metropolis and Will’s wife June persuade him to put on the mask as a career. The only catch: he has to hide his blackness. The other heroes view him symbolically but, if they knew he was black, that mystique and support would be lost. Ironically, as Nelson Gardne/Metropolis puts it, he “legitimizes the whole operation.”

So Will covers his eyes with makeup to look “white,” thus placing a second mask below his hood. That, to borrow the Comedian’s rhetoric, is the joke. The first superman is black, yet he must pass as white for public acceptance.

This revisionist comic story isn’t new. Besides WATCHMEN, Marvel’s TRUTH: RED WHITE AND BLACK introduced Isaiah Bradley, a black test subject who received an early version of Steve Rogers’ super-soldier serum. This experiments saw dehumanizing treatment from both the U.S. government and the Nazis Bradley fought against. Yet history forgot his existence while Captain America became the symbol of U.S. morality.

Being forced to hide not just his identity and sexuality, but his race from the world does not temper Will Reeves’ rage. It only enhances it, because this reveals America’s hypocritical culture. His trauma doesn’t go away and the praise Will receives isn’t that which he saw in his favorite movie. Not so long as he’s fighting crime in a racist society.

Beware the Cyclops

After Will gets his badge, he’s warned by the only other black officer on the force to “beware the Cyclops.” Cyclops’ reveal, however, is narratively comic booky but rooted in historical media. A camera that subliminally encourages black Americans to kill one another, it’s basically mind control. But any cinema history lesson will show that white supremacist narratives began as far back as BIRTH OF A NATION. In context, this media manipulation isn’t all too different.

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Burning down racism, Courtesy of HBO

And Will’s alone in caring about this. Compared to the other Minutemen, he wears his mask(s) for protection, while they do it for status or excitement. Despite their admiration for Hooded Justice, he’s more accessory than hero, unable to get Metropolis remotely invested in Cyclops. An honest to god comic book conspiracy, and no one bats an eye. It’s not exactly protecting white neighborhoods, so where’s the publicity in that?

This, for the second time, causes Will to snap. After shooting Fred in the head, he goes to his warehouse, shoots everyone, and strangles the video speaker when he’s out of bullets. Black rage unleashed. But this rage ultimately causes June to leave Will, taking her son to Tulsa and cutting him out from their life. She wanted Will to use that hood to get justice, but it only made him even more embittered.

This idea of legacy is crucial to America, for better and for worse. When present-day Will lures Chief Judd to his hanging spot, he presses him on the Klansman outfit. Judd replied it was his grandfather’s and he’s just keeping it. It’s his legacy after all. A legacy born from unabashed racism and violence, but an American legacy nonetheless.

WATCHMEN: Truth and Hooded Justice

The parallels between Hooded Justice’s revamped origin and American history are obvious. Whether it’s Music, food, or cinema, black culture is repeatedly assimilated by white artists who erase their contribution from history. WATCHMEN further attributes this to superheroism, making its first hero a black man who, without the mask, the country would never praise. White America even commercializes his rage and costume.

Legacy continues in 2019, Courtesy of HBO

Will Reeves’ parents were murdered in the Tulsa Massacre, along with his entire town. Gaining a police badge meant nothing to fellow officers and citizens who viewed him with racist intent. Even his affair partner refused to believe his evidence of a racist secret society and left him to deal with it on his own. WATCHMEN reveals the country he protects as one willing to hurt its black citizens and then feign denial about its obvious guilt. So of course a black superhero/vigilante is needed to deliver justice where the law failed.

Fast forward to 2019 America (the real world) and white supremacist ideology is on the rise again. Cruel legislation designed to oppress minority groups are justified by the flimsy “protecting borders” excuse. Police shootings deflect blame onto victims rather than the shooter. Yet critiques of the system are met with frenzied responses about how everyone is too damn sensitive. Better to pretend the problem is an anomaly rather than a historical pattern.

Legacy and guilt are central to WATCHMEN’s larger story. In episode 2, ‘American Hero Story’ re-contextualizes Hooded Justice’s first appearance as one of stylized, altruistic motive. The kind of story America could use to showcase its innate goodness. In reality, it was a black man lashing out against the system failed him. A story rarely told, because it doesn’t fit the American narrative.

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