It’s certainly not unusual for critics and the general public to have differing opinions about TV shows and movies. But it’s a whole other thing when a series like Watchmen gets near-uniform critical praise, with some going so far as to call it “one of the best pilots ever,” and earns a 98 percent fresh score from professional critics on Rotten Tomatoes, yet the site’s audience score comes in at less than half that, at 45 percent rotten.
It appears that Watchmen is the latest target of something called “review bombing,” in which trolls and agenda-driven users flood a forum like Rotten Tomatoes or IMDb with one-star reviews in order to drain its ratings score and create the illusion that it’s hated or unpopular.
(The starkest, most recent example of this was Batwoman, which was review bombed before the series even premiered by trolls angry that the CW’s version of the character, played by Ruby Rose, is a lesbian, which they ruled a liberal-tinged affront to their precious Gotham canon. Proof that outsized outrage can come from both sides, the series was also the target of a left-wing harassment campaign over LGBT identity politics.)
What’s notable about the Watchmen campaign, or the anti-Watchmen campaign, rather, is that it appears to be fueled by seemingly passionate fans of writer Alan Moore and artist Dave Gibbons’ 1987 graphic novel who have misinterpreted the story’s themes and character motivations.
These people have called episode one of the series, which premiered last Sunday, “nothing more than divisive propaganda,” “a near utopia of today’s woke left,” and “statist propaganda” as “Watchmen goes SJW [social justice warrior].” Reads one iMDB review: “They took everything that was good about Watchmen and Rorschach, then defectated [sic] all over it Last Jedi style. This isn’t Watchmen, it’s Wokemen, sorry, Wokepersons.”
The series’ treatment of Rorschach is a particularly triggering catalyst in this campaign. The events of creator Damon Lindelof’s series take place in the modern day, decades after the graphic novel concludes. In this present day alt-history, the character of Rorschach, who dies near the end of the comic, has become a symbol of white supremacy, with racist, anti-police vigilantes sporting versions of his ink-blot mask to conceal their faces.
This upset a legion of the comic’s fans who view Rorschach as a hero, not a fetish object of the alt-right. This is despite the fact that, in the source material, Rorschach is “outwardly (checks list) racist, homophobic, sexist, and a total and complete fascist,” as Princess Weekes points out in The Mary Sue, reminding us that Moore wrote him to “make fun of The Question, Mr. A, and a bunch of other Steve Ditko comic characters that the artist/writer used to promote his Ayn Randian ideals.”
That Rorschach would be lionized by some fans of the comics even disturbed Moore, who has explicitly stated that he didn’t intend for him to be considered a hero.
“I wanted to make this like, ‘Yeah, this is what Batman would be in the real world,’” he said in a 2008 interview. “But I had forgotten that actually to a lot of comic fans that smelling, not having girlfriend—these are actually kind of heroic. So actually, sort of, Rorschach became the most popular character in Watchmen. I meant him to be a bad example, but I have people come up to me in the street saying, ‘I am Rorschach! That is my story!’ And I’ll be thinking, ‘Yeah, great, can you just keep away from me and never come anywhere near me again as long as I live?’”
Dave Gibbons, the artist who worked with Moore on Watchmen, has said something similar about Rorschach. In 2008, he told Digital Spy, “I put him in the same kind of bag as Hitler and Margaret Thatcher—you might not like them but you can’t deny that there’s something very attractive about someone who has no grey areas.”
So on the one hand, those posting memes claiming that “Rorschach is a hero and not a symbol for white supremacy” and blasting Lindelof for destroying Moore’s legacy aren’t exactly correct.
But other fans of the source material defend Lindelof’s imagining of how Watchmen’s alternative history would have progressed into the present day. They argue that the idea that Rorschach and his legacy would have been embraced by white supremacist groups and the alt-right is very much in line with Moore’s universe and Watchmen’s themes. (Moore pointedly refused any involvement with the HBO series.)
Take two of the major race-related elements of Sunday’s series premiere. The show opens with a dramatization of the 1921 Tulsa massacre in which as many as 300 black Americans were killed, an event that history books have ignored so egregiously, many viewers had no idea it was real. (Without spoiling anything, rest assured that the massacre continues to figure into the Watchmen plot in future episodes.) There has also been the introduction of reparations for black Americans, nicknamed “Redfordations” after Robert Redford, who has become president in the show.
“Watchmen has always been about taking the idea of superheroes to its natural conclusion with the events in world history,” writes Weekes in that Mary Sue piece. In that context, reparations makes sense in the series.
“With the presidency something you can do for unlimited terms in the world of Watchmen, a president, especially a popular one, could tackle that kind of legislation,” she writes. “In a place like Tulsa, which has always had a racial divide and dark history of white inhabitants being antagonistic when their Black counterparts make it, this just seems like the natural conclusion—especially when Rorschach’s journals were shared with the equivalent of Breitbart News. These white supremacists are the logical conclusion to his rhetoric.”
Logical and reasoned or not, that hasn’t quelled the vitriolic reaction to the show.
The Reddit forum “r/Fuckthealtright” has curated some of the iMDB reactions. One reads, “If you want to make a racial/political show, create your own universe don’t pollute Watchmen. Another example of a liberal woke show with no real substance.” Another review titled “More PC globalist propaganda” complains, “The agenda was evident in even in the trailer [sic]. Why do they feel the need to make all the white characters protagonists and the black characters saviours.”
YouTuber “Weaponized Nerd Rage” is among those who have taken to that site to vent, in this case in an 11-minute video titled “SJW Watchmen Trailer Looks Like Straight Garbage” that has amassed over 70,000 views. Based on the show’s trailer alone, the video condemns “the typical schlock that we hear from the SJW entertainment industry.” The 1,700 comments on the video are about what you would imagine: “Surprised they haven’t demanded for it to be called Watchwomen yet.” “Looks like ‘Antifa Propaganda’ to me.” And, “The SJWs are ruining everything. But, it will pass. After a few years there won't be anything left for them to ruin. Then society and pop culture can get back to normal.”
It is of course neither accurate nor fair to equate anyone who has a criticism of the new Watchmen series, or disagrees with its political perspective, or who thought of Rorschach as a hero as a white supremacist themselves. But the correlation is certainly present, and predictable.