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Screen Themes: Watchmen vs Batwoman

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Screen Themes: Watchmen vs Batwoman

It’s time for some small-screen action, as entertainment editor John Turnbull checks out two of the most hotly-awaited TV series in years.

Watchmen

Created by Damon Lindelof, Alan Moore and Dave Gibbons

Within the first two minutes of the first episode, Watchmen marked itself as something different from the usual crop of comic book adaptations. The opening scene depicts a series of increasingly violent acts against the African-American citizens of Tulsa in 1921. Shown from the perspective of a young boy as he narrowly escapes the massacre, this event is significant because it really happened. The Tulsa Race Massacre, as the event came to be known, was perpetrated against the wealthy and successful residents of an area known as "Black Wall Street" by White supremacist groups, resulting in the destruction of over 35 blocks and over 800 injuries.

Race and racial politics play a vital role in Watchmen, focusing on the divide between a police force largely made up of minorities and a White supremacist group known as the Seventh Kavalry. The police have taken to wearing masks to hide their identities, following a mass attack on officers and their families, and the Kavalry disguise themselves with Rorschach masks. The first episode is punctuated by bursts of savage violence and there’s a Game of Thrones-esque attitude to the survival of main characters.

Set 30 years after the events of the Watchmen limited series created by Alan Moore and Dave Gibbons, the protagonist of the series is Angela Abar, a detective turned state-sponsored vigilante played by a never-better Regina King. Donning a mask and cape as Sister Night, Angela takes the fight to the Seventh Kavalry, supported by fellow masked detectives Red Scare (Andrew Howard) and Looking Glass (a super-creepy Tim Blake Nelson), under the leadership of Don Johnson’s loose-cannon police chief Judd Crawford.

If you haven’t read the comic, some elements of the series are going to be rather mystifying – like the rain of tiny squid or the collapsing sand castle on Mars – but I’m willing to bet that there will be more than enough to sustain your interest. If you are a fan of the comic, however, you will find layers of nuance that reward multiple episode viewings, including tantalising hints of what may be to come.

Batwoman

Created by Caroline Dries and Greg Rucka

From a creative standpoint, Warner/DC entertainment are an interesting beast. They own some of the most famous superhero characters in the world, such as Batman and Superman, but most of their live-action movies are borderline unwatchable — with the exception of Wonder Woman and Shazam. By contrast, DC animated movies are often excellent, capturing the spirit of the comic books while telling genuinely entertaining stories. Standout examples include Justice League Dark, The Flashpoint Paradox and The New Frontier, based on the iconic comic by Darwyn Cooke.

The DC TV universe (often referred to as the Berlantiverse, after producer Greg Berlanti) sits somewhere in the middle. Kicking off with Green Arrow back in 2012 and spawning a plethora of interconnected shows, including Flash, Legends of Tomorrow and Supergirl, shows from the Berlantiverse have a lot in common: aspirational yet flawed heroes, witty supporting characters and a range of B-list villains to whom Batman or Superman wouldn’t give a second thought.

For better or worse, Batwoman follows the template laid out by prior DC TV shows, in that it’s occasionally awesome, but it takes a long time to get there. Featuring Australian Ruby Rose in the title role, the series chronicles the early days of Kate Kane’s Batwoman, picking up the pieces in a Gotham City abandoned by Batman years earlier. 

Facing a bunch of minor-league villains like Magpie (who likes to steal shiny things) and Alice (Kate’s estranged sister, previously thought dead) Batwoman is supported by Luke Fox (Camrus Johnson), the sarcastic, put-upon son of Batman’s tech guy Lucius Fox.

While it’s refreshing to see an openly gay superhero represented on TV, Batwoman faces the same issues as most serialised superhero TV shows — too little story stretched out across too many episodes. After notable performances in Orange is the New Black and the John Wick franchise, Ruby Rose is the best thing about the show, but still struggles not to look ridiculous when dressed in the Batwoman costume. As the niece of a billionaire, could she not afford a better wig?

The Verdict

If there is a challenge with Watchmen, it’s that the subject matter is too dense and the central themes too opaque for a mass audience to be interested. This is not a series for casual or distracted viewers, but those who are willing to put in the time will be rewarded with one of the most nuanced TV dramas currently being produced.

Batwoman is more of a conundrum. If you enjoy superhero TV shows that focus on character development, because they don’t have enough money to fill a 22 episode season with wall-to-wall action, then you’ll definitely find something to like. Ruby Rose has a lot of charisma and the production team knows how to produce compelling weekly TV, but there is definitely a feeling  the series is holding back from unveiling some villains who will provide a genuine challenge to this new Dark Knight.  

Watchmen: 9/10

Batwoman: 7/10

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