Watchmen Episode Six Is the Greatest Superhero Origin Story of All Time
There was a recurring sketch on MadTV (yes, MadTV) that I’ve never forgotten. It featured Jordan Peele and Nicole Parker as a pair of happily-married hippies who hosted a public access show about life as a mixed-race couple. The joke was that, somehow unbeknownst to both of them, Parker’s character was deeply, deeply racist. “We want the world to realize that the color of skin doesn’t matter, whether it’s black—” said Peele in one bit, “—or normal,” finished Parker. It was territory that Peele would go onto explore in much more depth in his 2017 film Get Out.
But the sketch is memorable as one of the relatively rare examples of mainstream pop culture acknowledging that a willingness to be close with people of different races—through friendship, romance, or even marriage—is not synonymous with anti-racism. This is not a particularly reassuring idea. Green Book’s suggestion that road trips can cure racism is much more palatable, and seemed to help the film win Best Picture.
So when Nelson Gardner, AKA Captain Metropolis, first touched Will Reeves’ hand in Watchmen’s sixth episode, I feared that the show’s track record of unvarnished frankness about American racism could turn soft. The show could go the Green Book route: Gardner would prove a staunch white ally, the two would fall in love, and Nelson would help Will, who was revealed in the episode to be Hooded Justice, become the best hero he could be. The show would hold up their relationship as a beacon of hope amid the rest of its darker musings on our nation’s history of racial violence.
Thankfully, Watchmen didn’t let me down. Nelson and Will have an affair, yes, but their sexual relationship isn’t accompanied by any real love, or a lack of racism on Nelson’s part. Captain Metropolis, who in his buff blonde certainty of his own righteousness seems something of a proto-Adrian Veidt, is nearly as racist as the Klansmen Will fights. He insists that Will continue to paint his face to pretend that Hooded Justice is a white man, partners with advertisers to create racist ads, and refuses to help Will take down Cyclops, the police-infiltrated arm of the Klan that are his biggest enemies.
In a show that has rightfully been very concerned with illustrating the brutal physical violence that racism can cause, Captain Metropolis' more subtle bigotry serves as reminder of the hate that can live even in those who would, as Nelson does, describe themselves as being “tolerant.” It also added a deeply sad element to Will’s already tragic origin story.
More than 30 years ago, Alan Moore and Dave Gibbons' Watchmen comics introduced Hooded Justice. In the original source material, Hooded Justice was a mythical, mysterious figure—a man who kicked off the trend of masked vigilantes who fought crime. His identity was never fully confirmed, even though convincing rumors swirled for decades in the Watchmen universe and among fans. The most popular theory that the comics posit was that Hooded Justice was a white bodybuilder from Eastern Germany named Rolf Muller. But this was never actually confirmed, and Hooded Justice was presumed dead, when the masked vigilante stopped fighting crime in the '50s.
An origin story is the first thing you get in any superhero narrative. It's the thing that defines the hero's moral code, their reason for fighting crime, the thematic basis for the story to take place. But, for the last 30 years, masked vigilantism and the reason for fighting crime within the Watchmen universe remained a mystery—until this episode. This isn't only a reveal of Hooded Justice's identity, this is a complete rewiring of the intent behind the man who inspired crime fighting to begin with. Will Reeves fought crime because the heroes in uniforms were corrupt, evil, and ineffective. Will Reeves became the first superhero because institutional justice did not care about men like him. Will Reeves kicked off the trend of people putting on masks and beating up criminals because he was angry, because he had no other choice, because no one else would.
Even before the episode’s big reveal, as seen through Will’s granddaughter Angela’s Nostalgia-induced stupor, the show telegraphed that he was Hooded Justice, the original masked crusader. We knew that Will was a New York City cop in the '40s, which put him in the right time and place to be the hero, and gave him a related field of work. And his early escape from Tulsa—smuggled out of his burning community by loving parents who saved him just before their own deaths—had obvious echoes of Superman’s origins. (And in case anyone missed this, it was all spelled out with the help of a flashback this episode. Using flashbacks to hammer home an otherwise more subtle point seems to be among the show’s newer habits, and one I could do without.)
After being attacked and nearly lynched by his fellow cops for trying to arrest against a local businessman who’s in deep with both the KKK and racist New York police officers, Will channels his rage into preventing a robbery he chances upon in the wake of his attack. With the noose still around his neck, he pulls back on the hood the officers placed over his head, and quickly takes down the would-be thieves. Where these impressive fighting skills were hiding when he was nearly killed literally minutes earlier, I don’t know, but Will turns the mask that was intended to dehumanize and terrorize him into a tool that allows him to pursue justice and work out his rage.
Now married to the woman he rescued as a child fleeing Tulsa, Will joins Nelson’s Minutemen and continues his pursuit of Cyclops. He discovers that the group has created a projection-based mind control technology, and are using it to insight black people to violence against each other. He wipes out the terrorist cell, but keeps its technology. Around 70 years later, the now elderly and infirm Will uses it to force Police Chief Judd Crawford to hang himself.
In the Watchmen comics, Rorschach draws a distinction between the moment he first donned his mask and when he truly became the Rorschach persona. For him, it was the brutal murder of a child that truly destroyed the last of his faith in humanity, turning him into a remorseless, brutal vigilante. For Will, it seems like Nelson’s bigotry and refusal to help him fight Cyclops may have been the turning point. Will is long familiar with the racial violence of the Tulsa massacre and that of his corrupt colleagues. But it's Nelson's more passive bigotry, the sort of racism that washes away after a few hours of bonding in movies like Green Book and Best of Enemies, that leaves him truly isolated. Will and Nelson are both masked heroes and lovers. His betrayal is one that cuts deep, and one that Will would likely find throughout white America. He could escape burning Black Wall Street, but he can't escape the slow-moving horror of "tolerant" racism. Rorschach felt he could become his true self when he donned his mask, but Will isn’t even allowed this respite. He can fight racism as Hooded Justice, but he’s still pretending to be a white man, painting his face in pale makeup as Angela paints hers ink black.
After Nelson refuses to help him fight Cyclops, Will executes the terrorists alone, and goes home to find that his wife, horrified by the depths of his fury, is taking their son and leaving him. Whatever chance he had at recovering from his early trauma and living a normal life evaporates. And decades later, he’s just as singleminded in his pursuit of violent justice. That's the thing about this country's racism: it's evolved, and many ways its virulence has lessened. But it's not going anywhere—so Will Reeves can't stop fighting.
This story originally appeared on Esquire.com. Minor edits have been made by the Esquiremag.ph editors.