HBO’s Watchmen is interested in a lot of subjects, but the one thing it won’t be bothered to do is hold your hand. Damon Lindelof‘s sequel/”remix” to the landmark comic book series by Alan Moore and Dave Gibbons wastes zero time throwing you into the realness, which means it also doesn’t work to catch you up on the events of the graphic novel. Fear not! We’ve got a full rundown of everything you need to know right here, but the most important bit to focus on is the Earth-shattering ending. And if the only Watchmen you know is Zack Snyder‘s 2009 film, you’ve got the wrong story. We’re gonna’ have to discuss the giant intergalactic squid monster.
But first, a brief recap: Watchmen takes place in a world with history filled with actual costumed vigilantes, notably a super-group that fought crime in the 1940s named The Minutemen, and a briefly revamped version of the team, The Crimebusters, in the 1960s. In 1977, masked heroes were outlawed under Congress’ Keene Act with two exceptions: The unpredictably violent Comedian, who acted as a mercenary for the U.S. government, and Doctor Manhattan, the world’s only actual superhuman who was given the powers of a god in a freak atomic accident. By 1985, the word is perched on the brink of nuclear war, and hero turned businessman Adrien Veidt, formerly known as Ozymandias, devises plans for a catastrophe so heinous, it would unite the Earth’s major nations toward a common threat. Veidt’s former Crimebuster buddies Dan Dreiberg (formerly Nite Owl), Laurie Jupiter (formerly Silk Spectre) and Rorschach (formerly Walter Joseph Kovacs) show up to stop him—Rorschach makes a pitstop to leave his journal at a newspaper. Remember that, it’s important—but they arrive too late. Veidt enacts his plan, millions of lives are lost, and it works. Nuclear war is averted.
Snyder and co-writers David Hayter and Alex Tse stuck pretty close to the source material for the film—some might say too close, another topic for another time—except for a pretty bold change to the ending. Snyder’s Adrien Veidt (Matthew Goode) essentially frames Doctor Manhattan (Billy Crudup), leveling several major cities with a weapon that leaves behind the same energy signature as the big blue guy. It’s a controversial choice and a fascinating pre-Batman vs. Superman look into how Snyder is interested in looking at the awesome, nuclear-level powers of superheroes under the lense of how they’d possibly use them against us. Because, of course, humanity immediately turns against Doctor Manhattan, and the threat of war is put aside in favor of this new, godlike threat to Earth.
Moore and Gibbons also leveled cities, but they did so with a massive squid-creature from another dimension…sort of. In the comics, Veidt assembles a crew of scientists and artists in a remote location, telling them he’s making a monster movie. They create a Godzilla-sized monstrosity, Veidt kills the crew to guarantee their silence, and then he drops the tentacled beast—now temporarily alive thanks to Veidt’s potent energy source—on top of New York City, where it causes utter mayhem and a death toll in the hundreds of thousands. The result is the same, with the world’s political powers tamping down war talks immediately to focus on the extraterrestrial and/or interdimensional threat that has clearly set its many eyes on Earth.
This is the reality that HBO’s Watchmen exists in, and you can imagine a society that thinks a many-limbed beast once attacked New York has a few quirks. For one, Robert Redford is now the president. That’s just a fact. Doctor Manhattan isn’t public enemy #1, but he did still decide to live out in the cosmos away from humans. Straight-up costumed vigilantism is still illegal, but the police wear masks to hide their identity in the wake of a tragic event. A white supremacist group calling themselves The Seventh Cavalry has emerged using Rorschach’s words, ideas, and iconography. It is, all things considered, a pretty tense time. Ozymandias briefly stopped the war, but he sure as heck didn’t save the world.