Watchmen is a world where superheroes have existed for decades, so it stands to reason that the history of comic book superheroes there is pretty different. But according to this week’s installment of Peteypedia, HBO’s in-world info dump, there’s at least one way in which Watchmen’s superhero cinema lines up with our own: Batman still got a movie.
We already knew that superhero comics were created in Watchmen — in fact, Action Comics #1 inspired costumed vigilantes in both the comic and show — but in the world of the comic, the characters never really took off. People were more interested in reading about real costumed vigilantes than fictional ones, and superhero comics especially suffered when real costumed vigilantes fell out of favor with the public.
So instead, other genres of story flourished in the American comics industry, most notably — wait for it — pirate stories. One such pirate story with a decided horror tinge, is threaded throughout the Watchmen graphic novel, much in the way that the fictional American Hero Story is threaded throughout HBO’s Watchmen series.
Another way that HBO’s Watchmen continues the trappings of the comic is exposition through in-world documents. In the comic, they were added to the end of each issue, and in the show, all those pieces of paperwork are collected on Peteypedia, which is like Wikipedia, but even more pedantic.
This week, while talking about the origins of Sister Night, the fictional blacksploitation vigilante film that inspired Angela Abar’s costumed persona, Peteypedia delivered a tiny window into superhero cinema in Watchmen’s world. It turns out, just like superhero comics, there are superhero movies in Watchmen — but they’re very different.
“Sister Night belonged to a subgenre called ‘Black Mask’ movies,” Agent Dale Petey writes, “responses or parodies of masked vigilantes. Some were very specific; The Black Superman, for example, was an on-the-nose spoof of Dr. Manhattan. Others, like Sister Night, Tarantula, and Batman, were expressions of archetypes forged by the likes of Silhouette, Mothman, or Nite Owl. They all provided wish fulfillment fantasy that doubled as social commentary. Their implicit critique [was] that masked vigilantes were a largely white phenomenon, and a problematic one at that.”
It seems that Batman, at least, was still memorable enough to get his own film sometime in the 1970s or 1980s — but it probably wasn’t the up and up hero story we’re used to. When Polygon talked to Cord Jefferson, the writer behind one of the Watchmen show’s most revelatory episodes yet, he described Batman’s core concept as ridiculous.
“The idea of a straight, white, billionaire man not being able to get justice through traditional means and needing to put on a costume,” Jefferson said, “that’s absurd, because rich, straight, white men will get justice however they want it. They can buy courts, they can buy police forces, they can buy presidencies. The idea that a billionaire white man is going to be stuck seeking justice on the street because he can’t obtain it elsewhere is absurd.”
Certainly it’s absurd in the more realistically drawn world of Watchmen, and it would have been absurd to the audience of “Black Mask” movies, which Petey described as African Americans who migrated to Vietnam to “escape the institutional racism of the Nixon era and seek new opportunities in the new frontier.”
But just imagine that mysterious Batman movie: A critique of Bruce Wayne’s rich, white status, with the shoestring budget of the 1966 Batman TV series, but the grit and operatic flair of exploitation film. I’d watch it!