‘Watchmen’ - both the comic and the TV show - is still a story that is firmly set in the real world. Its protagonists don’t operate out of a Gotham or Metropolis, and its stories are tied to specific instances of world history. One of the most fascinating aspects of the world the comic sets up is how historic paths have diverged with the introduction of superheroes. HBO’s ‘Watchmen’ has extended that path towards the current day, and history has continued to diverge in some fairly significant ways. How does the world of Watchmen differ from our own?
Superheroes - powered and otherwise
The first and most obvious difference is that superheroes exist in this world. Masked heroes go back centuries, but their heyday came about in the 1950s, with the Minutemen. A team of American heroes dedicated to keeping the world safe, most superheroes lacked metahuman abilities. Some, like Nite-Owl or Ozymandias, used a mastery of technology to enable their superheroics. The most powerful of them all, of course, was Doctor Manhattan, whose powerset made him nearly godlike.
The Keene Act of 1977 outlawed vigilantes, which mostly ended the superheroic era. A later act, the Defence of Police act, introduced by another Keene would allow policemen to operate masked, to protect their identities.
Vietnam War, and its fallout
With Doctor Manhattan on America’s side, America won the Vietnam war with ease. The fallout of this event was significant. Vietnam was made the 51st State of America, and it’s not the only outside colony of the States - the American flag of the ‘Watchmen’ has more than 50 stars.
More significantly, the White House was able to repeal the 22nd amendment that limited how long a president could stay in office, and Nixon was in the White House for three terms. Following him was the election of actor Robert Redford as president. The removal of term limits meant that Redford has been the president for seven terms - almost 28 years.
America having access to someone as powerful as Doctor Manhattan also accelerated the Cold War, bringing the world that much closer to nuclear annihilation.
Dimensional Incursion Event
To prevent the Cold War, Adrian Veidt secretly engineered and dropped a giant psychic squid on New York, killing half its population. This united the world against what they believed an extra-dimensional threat, ending the Cold War and ushering in a new era of peace.
The event traumatized the States in a variety of ways. People are still afraid to return to New York, in case the event happens again. Many people suffer from extra-dimensional anxiety. Veidt had engineered the squid to periodically fall from the skies, just to remind people to be afraid. The world has come to accept squidfall as a natural occurrence at this point.
Reign of Redford
A president in the White House for almost 28 years has its own changes. Obviously, this means no George Bush, senior or Junior, Bill Clinton, Obama - a whole line of people who never occupied the White House. The liberal policies of Redford has radicalized racists, leading to the rise of the Seventh Kavalry - a group particularly upset with what they call “Redfordations” - reparations to the black community for violence committed in the Tulsa Race Massacre of 1921.
Technology - one step forward, two steps back
Adrian Veidt ushered America into a new age of technology, which was further boosted by energy efficiency devices Doctor Manhattan created. However, after the events of the ‘Watchmen’ comic, much of this technology was abandoned. Partly because it was believed Doctor Manhattan-related products caused cancer, and partly because of the belief that new technology was responsible for the dimensional incursion.
As a result, technology is both more and less advanced than it is on our world. There are no cell phones, or internet, but the show features energy-efficient car engines, and holograms. Veidt’s company, and Lady Trieu’s after that, continued to provide the world with technological advances, leading to scientific breakthroughs with cloning and the ability to store memories in pills. There are also government-sponsored phone booths that ostensibly reach Mars, where Doctor Manhattan is rumored to be living.
Superheroes have had a strong influence on American pop culture. Semi-fictional documentaries such as ‘American Hero Story’ or old black-and-white films like ‘Trust in the Law’ are as popular as superheroes are in our world, only they’re historical instead of completely made up.
The dimensional incursion event inspired Steven Speilberg to create a movie called ‘Pale Horse’ instead of ‘Schindler’s List’, named for the band that was playing in New York when the squid hit. Another rock band inspired by Pale Horse also rose, calling themselves ‘Sons of Pale Horse’, who have recently released an album entitled ‘The Book of Rorschach.’ The band supports the “conspiracy” theory that the dimensional incursion event was a hoax perpetuated by the Government.
The world of ‘Watchmen’ is in some ways, a bizarrely different place. However, enough parallels exist between their world and ours for its version of America to hold a twisted mirror up to its history.
The next episode of ‘Watchmen’ releases November 24, on HBO