Long before HBO's Watchmen series took shape, devout fans of the original graphic novel were speculating about the identity of Hooded Justice, the man who, in the comics, started the wave of costumed crime-fighting. The general consensus was that the man under the hood was an "East German circus strongman" named Rolf Müller, found dead shortly after Hooded Justice disappeared from the public eye. That was that—until last night's installment of Watchmen.
The episode, "This Extraordinary Being," not only reveals that Hooded Justice is very much alive and well, but that he's Will Reeves (Louis Gossett Jr., in the present-day timeline), the grandfather of Angela Abar (Regina King). We also get Will’s wrenching backstory in a series of violent flashbacks, in which young Will is played by Jovan Adepo, who worked with writer Damon Lindelof and King in The Leftovers.
Once a closeted black police officer in New York City, Will is lynched early in the episode, in one of the hardest-to-watch visual sequences of the year. The scene is shot from Will's perspective: his vision perforates and blurs as he's pulled by his neck, higher and higher on a tree branch. Then, as he drops to the ground, just before losing consciousness—cut down by his smirking colleagues. Walking home, his hands still bound by rope, and the noose still around his neck, Will comes across a back-alley mugging, rips two holes in the hood the white supremacist cops pulled over his face, and unleashes his anger on the petty criminals. “You ain’t gonna get justice with a badge, Will Reeves, you’re gonna get it with that hood,” June, his wife, tells him as he puts on his official costume for the first time. “And if you want to stay a hero, townsfolk gonna need to think one of their own’s under it.”
Thus, Hooded Justice is born, and so is his iconic costume.
Along with its game-changing reveal, "This Extraordinary Being" also deals with identity, rage, and a secret underground network of Ku Klux Klan cops hellbent on using mind control to tear black communities apart. Will becomes more and more desperate, fighting the tide of racism and America's indifference.
GQ sat down with Adepo, who described the trust he has in Lindelof and the rest of the Watchmen writing team, and how the show is helping to tell a more personally resonant superhero story than anything you'll find in a movie theater.
GQ: This is your first superhero role and it's a pretty huge one. Hooded Justice isn't a marquee superhero name as an individual, but in terms of the Watchmen universe, he's probably one of the most important, if not the most important.
Jovan Adepo: Absolutely. I was introduced to him through Damon. He's the epitome of the crime-fighting hero. He's essentially the first person who decided to fight crime in a costume. This guy is before Batman, even, on the DC spectrum. There's no roadmap. This is a guy who puts on his mask and goes "Sooo..."—laughs—"How do I go about this?" To me, it's reminiscent of Batman Begins. He takes something he's afraid of and makes it his symbol. There's also a parallel with Superman. You see Will as a child escaping the Tulsa massacre, which is essentially Superman leaving Krypton. There are a lot of little cool parallel stories among the ones that connect to the actual Watchmen comics.
I was surprised by the number of people and even the number of publications that ran stories like, "Hey, the Tulsa Race Massacre was a real thing!" As if it were a fun fact.
Yes. It's a horrific moment in American history and, in it being brought to the forefront through the show, it was interesting how many people didn't know about it, and are now learning about it through a comic book show. I actually think it's kind of cool.
You mentioned Superman's origin story, which is an allegory, but Damon and the Watchmen writers used a real, painful moment in Black American history to make the same point. It's bold.
Absolutely, and that's another reason I have to compliment the team behind the show. They wanted to base this show in reality. Even when you think about the DC properties that have worked well—I think the most recent is example is Joker—so much realism is used to allow the audience to see someone going through something that's very understandable. It's easier to relate to. It's easy to be larger-than-life with the costumes and the special effects and the scale. But what I enjoy about DC and Watchmen is that everything feels real, and comes from a strong perspective, and feels like a world that could really exist.
I want to go off on a tangent, just for a second, to say I think The Leftovers is probably my favorite show of all time. What was it like reuniting with Regina King and Damon Lindelof, who I understand is not really one for reunions?
It was something that I was really excited about, because I was led to believe, based on past opportunities, that, like you said, Damon doesn't really like working with the same people again. He'll cast a specific group for a specific project and then when he moves to the next one, he'll find a new group of actors.
I remember him saying that he broke that "rule" to work with Regina King.
Yeah! That's what I'm saying. I never thought I'd be included in that kind of conversation. Not that I thought Damon didn't like me. Even after Leftovers was done, we kept in touch a lot. It felt like a family, so everyone kept in touch, but we talked a lot. But even with all that, I wasn't really thinking about working with him again. And then I had just finished an independent film and I got a call from Damon. I thought "Oh, maybe he's just checking up because he does that sometimes," and he's like, "Hey, I've got something I want you to come in and read for." I was like, "Definitely." This was before I knew about Hooded Justice, and before I knew it was Watchmen. I knew that's what he was working on, but I didn't want to jump the gun. Before he could even explain it, I was like, "I'm there, I'm in." Then I find out it's this huge, central reveal episode and I'd be working in tandem with Regina the entire time. I was just like, "This is going to be great.” It's such a trippy thing that in two of Damon's stories that she was the elder and now I'm the elder, in a way. I'm so grateful we worked on The Leftovers together because, day one, we were ready to go. Obviously, it's Regina. She's a pro. One of the greats, so she's always ready on day one.
And it was. The way they shot it was to make it feel like a standalone. We shot it, as much as we could, as one continuous take. That took a lot of rehearsal. I knew when people saw it that it would feel like a very special episode of television.
I don't think many people were expecting "Watchmen by Damon Lindelof" to explore race in modern-day America as much as it has. The episode is directed by Stephen Williams and co-written with Cord Jefferson. There has to be a lot of mutual respect between everyone on set when you're telling such a potentially thorny story, right? Even before you get into the fact that you're updating and adapting one of the most famous graphic novels ever written.
Damon has always been that kind of person. He's always wanted to collaborate. His first priority is authenticity and sincerity. When it comes to other voices—other opinions that can contribute in an authentic way—he'll push that. If there's a cultural or lifestyle experience that he wants to make sure is respected and shared with care and tact, he's always looking for input that makes his stories stronger. Makes them sound. When he called me about this, there was no hesitation on my part. I knew what I was getting into, and I knew the kind of creative group Damon likes to work with. Honestly, the work was done and it was done well. All I had to do was show up.
Can you tell me about Will's and Hooded Justice's emotional journey in this episode, from your perspective?
He had to raise himself, basically. We see him wanting a little more structure in his life, so he becomes a police officer—one of the first black officers on the force. But he doesn't really know who he is on an intimate level. He's always grown up with a temper. There aren't many people who are close to him. So he's exploring his sexuality, too. If you can only imagine—this isn't 2019—you have to be concerned for your own life not only as a black man in the early 1900s in a major city, but a black man who, in those times, was considered "not normal" because he's sexually attracted to men. There's turmoil even as he tries to find that stability because as a cop he's surrounded by people who stand against who he is. Eventually, in his mind, the only way to serve justice is by not being himself, in a way.
Even right at the beginning of the episode, someone tells Will very quickly, “Keep your head down. Don't bring attention to yourself.” That's a mask, too.
Absolutely, and that still happens. In any career. And it's painful for Will. He's trying to live his life and do his work with strong morals and he's basically being told to skate by. That can stay with you in a deeply negative way. It's like, what are you supposed to value if you can't value the law? And that goes back to Episode One. Justice is very important to Will, even at a young age, watching the first black sheriff of Oklahoma.
I'm trying to phrase this in a way that doesn't give anything away—even for myself, because I want to see how this all plays out. But do you think there's still hope for Will in some way? Or has that "thing inside him," as June calls it, taken over?
I've thought about that a bit. I'm not a writer; I'm not Damon. I hope he was able to find some happiness after that final scene. I don't know if he gets that, or if we see it. But I hope there's some understanding he came to where he could get through the day and not be fucking angry and miserable. I've always valued Damon's writing in that he gives us just enough to draw our own conclusions. Nothing's in black and white. So in that way, I can tell Will's story to myself.
This interview has been edited and condensed.
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Originally Appeared on GQ