Watchmen on HBO just drastically improved the character of Hooded Justice with one of the best retcons of all time. Before we discuss that, the question posed in our review of the series premiere, if this series is “worthy” of the name Watchmen, has been answered. The sixth episode, titled “This Extraordinary Being,” surpasses the source material in a big way. In less than 60 minutes, Stephen Jackson, Cord Jefferson, and Damon Lindelof told as powerful a story as the original 12 issues. It offered a commentary on the American superhero mythology, and one that is not very favorable. In this regard, it tells the story of the original Watchmen graphic novel more efficiently. (And with one fewer naked blue gods.) Yet, it also deepens that critique by adding the perspective of race that Alan Moore alone, for all his gifts, could never capture.
The way Watchmen on HBO retcons Hooded Justice doesn’t openly conflict with the graphic novel, mind you. Moore smartly left the character who wears a noose around his neck very mysterious. The first “costumed adventurer,” he’s the Minuteman we know the least about. (There is one line that causes a bit of trouble with the retcon, but we’ll talk about that below. We will get into spoilers territory. So, if you’re not watching the Watchmen, bookmark this and binge it now. Then come back and let’s process this incredible television series that advances the genre of live-action comic book stories and is just one of the best damn series ever put on TV.
Spoilers for “This Extraordinary Being” follow.
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How Watchmen on HBO Retcons the Origin of Hooded Justice
The episode opens with Jean Smart’s Laurie Blake (one of the best characters on the show) talking to Regina King’s Angela Abar. It suffices to say, that she took some sci-fi pills that will allow her to experience the memories of her grandfather, Will Reeves. In this episode he’s played by child actor Danny Boyd Jr., Jovan Adepo, and the inimitable Lou Gossett Jr. In a mostly black-and-white surrealist film noir style, we see Reeves become a police officer. He tries to arrest a man for burning down a Jewish deli. The man skips the charges and three white police officers almost lynch Reeves for doing his job. A dazed and confused Reeves makes his way to his girlfriend June’s house. (She’s played by Danielle Deadwyler.)
On the way, he spies a well-dressed white couple being attacked by a trio of men. Still wearing rope around his wrists and neck, he rips two holes in the black hood he carries. His fellow officers put it over his head before they strung him up. Filled with a righteous rage, he dives in and beats the asses of the would-be muggers. The fight choreography is rawer than we saw earlier in the series. It also has an equal-but-different level of viciousness.
That first fight, however, was a scene from the show-within-the-show (much like Tales of the Black Freighter was the comic-within-the-comic) about the Minutemen. In a fun joke, American Hero Story’s Hooded Justice was played by Cheyenne Jackson, a frequent player in American Horror Story. The real fight is less confident but nonetheless devastating. And Hooded Justice is born. It’s June’s idea to paint Will’s eyes with makeup, so that other people think he’s white. Thus, the only Watchmen hero who had a true secret identity has been unmasked.
How Does How HBO Retcons Hooded Justice Fit With the Watchmen Comic?
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Because Alan Moore kept Hooded Justice mysterious, the way in which Lindelof and company handled the retcon on Watchmen on HBO doesn’t really contradict the comic. One of the most defining details of the character is there. Despite being married to June, Will Reeves has an affair with Captain Metropolis, real name Nelson Gardner, played by Jake McDorman. Hooded Justice inspired the Minutemen, and so he joins them because he needs help to crack a case. A crew of white supremacists, known as “The Cyclops,” are developing an appropriately horrific and sci-fi plot we won’t spoil here. So, Reeves expects his new team to help him stop them. However, they don’t. So, it’s up to Reeves to stop them all on his own. The only thing it costs him is his family.
One detail they don’t show in the episode is the role Hooded Justice played in stopping the sexual assault by Laurie’s father on her mother. In fact, we don’t even know if that was the real Hooded Justice. One thing fans can debate about this episode is whether or not Reeves continued to be in the Minutemen or went his own way. It’s possible that the “German strongman” who ended up dead in a river did wear the costume (and possibly have sex with Nelson) after Reeves abandoned them. Or, perhaps Reeves stuck around? Those details aren’t really important to the story. However, there is one detail about Hooded Justice that doesn’t really fit into the retcon Watchmen HBO created for the character.
The Problem with Hooded Justice and Fascism
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What we know about Hooded Justice in the comics comes from another character, Hollis Mason. Known as Nite Owl, he said that Hooded Justice expressed approval of the Third Reich. He’s also seen saying he doesn’t want to get political. There is also an implication from both him and Blake’s father that, because he was sexually attracted to Gardner, he was also a sadomasochist. The HBO Watchmen retcon does away with the theory. Hooded Justice’s rage and violence are an expression of anger about surviving the Tulsa Massacre of 1921. Frankly, it’s a much better story than the one Moore gave us for him. (Though, to his credit, Moore clearly makes Hollis an unreliable narrator.)
Lindelof is aware of this and described the steps they took to try to justify that line. They knew that Watchmen purists would object to this (as well as racists, but they deserve to be disappointed). There are two theories they put forth. The first is that Reeves said these things to hide who he was from his teammates. However, the better version is that he was simply being sarcastic and mocking Nelson. Considering the treatment of black and brown people in America at the time, one can easily understand how Reeves could see his teammates as hypocrites.
“There are probably about seven pages of writers’ rooms notes struggling with exactly that question,” Lindelof told Decider. “There’s a number of things that Hooded Justice says in Watchmen — not just attributed to him in Under the Hood, but in the panels — that he doesn’t want to get involved in ‘razzle dazzle’ or that he doesn’t want to get political. We tried on a number of ideas, all of which felt like a level of retcon too deep”
“Part of Will Reeves’s camouflage in terms of hiding his true identity required making statements like that in the presence of the other Minutemen so as to throw off the scent of who he truly was…. I imagine some of the things he said were actually digs at Nelson. We had a whole scene where Nelson and Will get into a fight about the Bund Rally that took place in Madison Square Garden. And Will wanted to go with the Minutemen and knock some heads around and Nelson made a comment about how we don’t want to get involved in that political razzle dazzle,” Lindelof said. “So the idea is that Hooded Justice was quoting him in the way we dig at people we get in fights with, we throw their own words back at them in a slightly catty way.”
With the Retcon of Hooded Justice Watchmen on HBO Surpasses the Source Material
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Even if audiences can’t reconcile the conflict in Hooded Justice’s depiction in the comics to his depiction on the series, it doesn’t matter. This Hooded Justice is infinitely more interesting, more tragic, and more heroic than the man Moore envisioned. In the comics, Hooded Justice is a violent man with a strict sense of right and wrong. He imposes that morality on the world through his fists. He hides his identity so he doesn’t have to be held accountable. This foundation is important because the entire story is meant to paint costumed heroes as cynical villains or dumb-dumbs playing dress up. Yet, in this story, Hooded Justice really is a hero, of a sort. He stops an insidiously evil plot and saves countless lives.
Yet, he is still flawed and, ultimately, a violent man with a strict sense of right and wrong who imposes that morality on the world through his fists. He kills people. He, arguably, subjects his son to some light abuse. It’s the same sort of critique on the superhero mythos as Moore offered. Only instead of it being about hurting people, Hooded Justice struggles to deal with the hurt he feels. He has to find an enemy to punish, and he only ends up feeling worse.
This is one of the best episodes of television ever. It offers a bold and tragic story about an antihero we can sympathize with. It’s a masterpiece of writing, filmmaking, and acting.
What did you think of the Hooded Justice retcon on Watchmen on HBO? Share your thoughts, reactions, and theories in the comments below.
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Joshua M. Patton is a father, veteran, and writer living in Pittsburgh, PA. The first books he read on his own were comics, and he's loved the medium ever since. He is the greatest star-pilot in the galaxy, a cunning warrior, and a good friend. His book "What I Learned: Stories, Essays, and More" is available in print from Amazon and from all electronic booksellers.