Many a superhero origin story involves exposure to a volatile substance — something dangerous, radioactive, caustic — that can be powerful if mastered, ruinous if uncontrolled.
In HBO’s “Watchmen,” beginning Sunday, that fissile storytelling material is history: specifically, America’s legacy of white supremacy. The first episode begins with the 1921 riot in Tulsa, Okla., in which white mobs rampaged in the prosperous “Black Wall Street,” massacring African-Americans in the street and strafing them from above with airplanes. A small boy’s parents pack him onto a car that’s fleeing the mayhem, like Kal-El being sent from Krypton. But there is no Superman flying to the rescue.
With that opening, Damon Lindelof (“Lost,” “The Leftovers”) reframes the universe that the writer Alan Moore and the artist Dave Gibbons created in the 1980s comics series. Where Moore wrote an alternative history of Cold War America — a pre-apocalyptic dystopia in which masked vigilantes have been outlawed — Lindelof reaches back and forward in time to root his caped-crusaders story in a brutal American tragedy.
The choice invests this breathtaking spectacle with urgency. “Watchmen” is a first-class entertainment out of the box, immediately creating a sad and wondrous retro-futuristic world. It takes longer, though, to get a handle on the complicated and all-too-real material it uses as its nuclear fuel.
In 2019, Robert Redford (yes, that one) has been president nearly three decades, succeeding Richard Nixon, who’s now on Mt. Rushmore. Redford’s liberal administration has instituted reparations, or “Redfordations,” as disgruntled racists call them.
The police hide their faces — in superhero garb or yellow masks — to shield their identities from white-power terrorists, who favor the inkblot mask of Rorschach, the reactionary nihilist of the original “Watchmen.” (In real life, the character has been mistaken for a hero by Senator Ted Cruz among others.) These villains are like the ultimate misguided fanboys, their splotchy masks a kind of meme-trolling made concrete.
HBO’s “Watchmen” isn’t a remake; Moore has disavowed it, as he did the 2009 film. (The first episode, interestingly, involves an all-black production of “Oklahoma!” — another pop-culture landmark lately reinterpreted in a new production.) The series expresses both reverence for its source and some anxiety of influence; it presents the back story of the original superheroes through a farcical, Ryan Murphy-esque show-within-a-show, “American Hero Story.”
But “Watchmen” takes place in a world where all the graphic novel’s events happened. The omnipotent Dr. Manhattan — the sole superpowered being in this world — won the war in Vietnam, which is now the 51st state; the Cold War ended after the messianic villain Adrian Veidt detonated a psychic giant squid in Manhattan, killing millions but uniting the world against a fictitious alien threat.
“Watchmen” explains much of that history eventually, but at first Lindelof dumps newbies into this strange ocean like so many squidlings. It may not matter, though, because it moves with such brio, carried by Regina King’s confident star performance as Angela Abar, a Tulsa policewoman who moonlights as Sister Night, in a supercool ninja-nun long coat and cowl.
The racist terror attacks pull in her police colleagues, including Chief Judd Crawford (Don Johnson, chewing the role like a fat cheekful of terbacky) and Looking Glass (Tim Blake Nelson, his head ensheathed in what looks like a reflective party balloon). It eventually pulls in a Vietnamese trillionaire (Hong Chau); Laurie Blake (Jean Smart), a figure from the original comics now working for the F.B.I.; and a mysterious elderly man in a wheelchair (Louis Gossett Jr.).
But back to those masked men and women. It’s unsettling, at minimum, to see police as the progressive foes of racists when today’s headlines are full of white-on-black shootings by officers. “Watchmen” doesn’t delve much into how this alternative world could have become so reverse-polarized, other than the election of what sounds like a P.C. administration out of an alt-right persecution fantasy.
The show’s image of the Redford era (guns are heavily regulated, even for the police) doesn’t seem like a political statement so much as a device, a means of script-flipping. “Watchmen” works hard to hammer home that racism is bad, but doesn’t look deeply into how it works. Its early hours substitute for this by tossing out a lot of explosive signifiers — hoods and nooses, alongside the franchise’s trademark watches and smiley faces. You could read anything into this Rorschach.
It’s as if Lindelof, who dared the wrath of the internet with the “Lost” finale and pushed his adaptation of “The Leftovers” into surreal transcendence, wasn’t content merely with the risk of disappointing a landmark comic’s fervid fan base — he had to throw in America’s stain of racism as well. He’s a free-solo climber of pop entertainment, unsatisfied unless he’s staring down the possibility of a thousand-foot plummet.
Is his “Watchmen” thrilling? Abundantly. Funny? Riotously. Inventive and surprising? Like a magician with a thousand hats and rabbits. (Try to resist the action set-piece in the pilot, directed by Nicole Kassell, involving flying machines and a firefight in a cattle field.)
Lindelof’s superpowers get put to full use here: the disorienting cold open, the clever and poignant twist, the pop-culture hyperliteracy. His world is like a superhero “Leftovers,” in which characters are left to muddle ahead after staggering events. (Dr. Manhattan has decamped to Mars, meaning, essentially, that people know that God is real and that he no longer cares.)
Some of the most delightful moments are the droll, creepy interludes with the dotty Veidt (Jeremy Irons), isolated on a country estate where he experiments with and on his retainers. (The show’s publicity has cheekily treated his identity as a spoiler. It is not.) Two-thirds into the nine-episode season, I still don’t know how he fits in this new story. Nor do I care. His scenes do something more important, which is to convince you that this is a mystifying world you want to spend time in.
In the first five episodes, “Watchmen” feels more loose and comfortable the farther it gets from the racial-history marker it sets down in its opening minutes. It doesn’t deeply reckon with the implications of the Tulsa massacre until the sixth, written by Lindelof and Cord Jefferson.
But that hour (the last screened for critics) is a wallop, synthesizing past and alt-present in a stylistic tour de force. It reframes the mythology and symbolism of Moore’s “Watchmen” unsettlingly — but not, I think, flippantly — into racial commentary, in such a way that you might think that the original story was intended to grow into this all along.
I’m still not sure Lindelof is wholly in control of the subject. But he earns the chance to show that he has a thought-through long game, that he’s working with something more than magic dust and good intentions.
“Watchmen” is a big, audacious swing. It asks, Which is more outlandish and dystopian: an America in which the Tulsa atrocity is being paid for and fought over nearly a century later? Or the one we live in, where it is barely remembered and taught?
If the series can sustain and deepen its commitment to this idea, it can be not just a great entertainment but also one invested with great power. But as someone from another comic-book universe once said, with great power comes great responsibility.