SAN FRANCISCO, CA – OCTOBER 29: Tirhakah Love (L) and Regina King attend the San Francisco premiere … [+]
FilmMagic for HBO
Watchmen, both in its comic book and its streaming media incarnations, is one of the rare projects that not only lived up to the hype and expectations, but exceeded them. In both cases, the creative masterminds behind the project – Alan Moore and Damon Lindelof, respectively – decided to quit while they were ahead, walking away from the possibility of sequels, prequels and side stories that could embellish, or diminish, the wholeness of what they completed.
In the world of art and literature, no one questions this kind of decision. When J.D. Salinger chose to stop writing, his publisher didn’t assign another writer to pen a sequel to Catcher in the Rye just because it would sell like crazy. But would they have been so scrupulous if the publisher, rather than the creator, controlled the rights? Can any business with a fiduciary duty to its shareholders genuinely respect the ideals of creative integrity when money is on the table and the company owns the property?
Yesterday, USA Today reported that HBO will not move forward with a second season of its wildly successful series because Lindelof has opted out – a conclusion that Forbes contributor Paul Tassi suggests might be premature. If USA Today’s reporting is correct, it will certainly put that question of art vs. commerce to the test.
We know how Moore’s story turned out. After several decades honoring a handshake agreement to keep Watchmen inviolate, WarnerMedia (then Time Warner) subsidiary DC Comics greenlit a series of prequels called Before Watchmen in 2012, over Moore’s strenuous objections. Then in 2017, the company moved to bring the characters into mainstream DC continuity in a 12-issue series called Doomsday Clock, which just wrapped up last month. Both were huge sales successes in a market where DC needs all the wins it can get against rival Marvel. Misgivings about plundering a sacred tomb tend to vanish when the dollars start flying.
The announcement that Lindelof was developing Watchmen into a streaming series generated the same combination of dread and anticipation from Watchmen’s legion of fans and admirers, perhaps moreso because of the mixed reaction generated by Zack Snyder’s slavishly-faithful movie version from 2008.
And yet, HBO’s Watchmen delivered the goods. It was as narratively rich and intriguing as the original comic – no small feat. It evoked the atmosphere of the original without aping Moore’s unique voice and sensibility. It reflected an understanding of what made the characters and story work so well, and wove those characters organically into a world that felt like a natural extension of the Watchmen universe. It captured the sense of heated anticipation for the next episode that those of us who were around in 1986 remember from when the comic came out monthly, before it was collected into a best-selling trade edition. Most of all, it felt as relevant and contemporary to the anxieties of 2019 as the comic felt during the height of the Cold War.
Considering the vast number of ways that Watchmen could have failed, its creative and commercial success was astonishing, and is a huge feather in the caps of Lindelof, his writers, and the show’s great cast.
After the series ran its course, Lindelof decided to walk away, giving his blessings to whoever dared pick up the project for an encore. Yesterday, USA Today told viewers “Don’t look for a second season of the drama, which wrapped up its nine-episode run last month, largely because creator Damon Lindelof isn’t interested in doing it,” and quoted HBO programming chief Casey Bloys as saying, “it would be hard to imagine doing it without Damon involved in some way.”
HBO does a lot of great work. Maybe it doesn’t need Watchmen and doesn’t want to roll the dice and risk running the reputation of the show into the rocks with a lackluster followup. This is the network that gave us True Detective and Game of Thrones, after all. They understand the costs of pressing an advantage too far better than most.
But Watchmen is one of DC’s crown jewel IPs, along with Batman (already fully exploited) and Neil Gaiman’s Sandman, under development at rival Netflix. The show is a genuinely fresh, buzzy and relevant take on superheroes that landed with a massive shockwave into politically and racially polarized America.
As the streaming wars heat up with the high-stakes launch of HBO MAX later this year, and WarnerMedia’s debt-ridden owner, AT&T, drumming its fingers in the background, how long can the company hold out against a money-grab, no matter how much they respect Lindelof’s vision?
It’s ten minutes to midnight and the clock is ticking.