Watchmen: The Real History of Hooded Justice
HBO's Watchmen moves away from the work of Alan Moore and Dave Gibbons with the real story of Hooded Justice.
This article contains major Watchmen spoilers.
The first episode of Watchmen focused primarily on establishing the 2019 of its world, and making certain new characters got sufficient introductions, and as unencumbered by the legacy elements of the comic as they could possibly be. But with each episode that follows, the larger history of this universe starts to get explored, whether it’s by the introduction of legacy characters like FBI Agent Laurie Blake or Adrian “Ozymandias” Veidt, or the redefinition of a foundational character from the book like Hooded Justice in the context of his relationship to a new character like Angela “Sister Night” Abar.
American Hero Story: Minutemen (which, according to HBO’s official supplemental materials, is the second season of the American Hero Story show, by the way) puts the spotlight on Hooded Justice, who is canonically the first officially recognized masked vigilante adventurer in the Watchmen universe and a founding member (alongside the original incarnations of Nite Owl and Silk Spectre, Captain Metropolis, a young Edward “The Comedian” Blake, and others) of the Minutemen, the first superhero team. Of course, it was pretty clear from the outset that American Hero Story: Minutemen was a ridiculous, exaggerated portrayal of historical events, but Watchmen episode 6, “This Extraordinary Being” points out just how wrong they actually are. And in the process it retcons an important piece of the book, as well.
Of course, Watchmen episode 6 reveals that none of the events of AHS is anywhere close to the truth. Instead, it turns out that Angela Abar’s grandfather Will Reeves was the man under the hood and tights of Hooded Justice, adopting the identity to mask his investigations into a vast, white supremacist conspiracy in New York City that had even infected the police department. The general look was inspired by Trust in the Law, the movie about Bass Reeves we see the young Will watching in the opening moments of episode one, with the addition of the hood and noose after Will is the victim of a racist attack by his NYPD colleagues. The episode dramatizes key moments in the career of Hooded Justice, from his two earliest adventures (which deviate from how they’re described in Under the Hood), to his joining of the Minutemen (and his relationship with Captain Metropolis), to the moment he uncovers the true plan of the Ku Klux Klan’s mysterious “Cyclops” subset to incite violence among the black community via hypnotic suggestion.
So let’s try and resolve the events of Hooded Justice’s life as seen in this episode with what we know of him from the comics. Every change made to Hooded Justice on screen lines up with something that can be verified from the book, which remains the only “official canon” that this show draws from. Hooded Justice did indeed become active in 1938, and his first public act was stopping a mugging in Queens, described in Under the Hood in much the same way as what we see in the episode.
“A man and his girlfriend, walking home afer a night at the theater, had been set upon by a gang of three men armed with guns. After relieving the couple of their valuables, the gang had started to beat and physically abuse the young man while threatening to indecently assault his girlfriend. At this point, the crime had been interrupted by a figure ‘Who dropped into the alleyway from above with something over his face’ and proceeded to disarm the attackers before beating them with such severity that all three required hospital treatment and that one subsequently lost the use of both legs as a result of a spinal injury.”
That lines up exactly with the events of “This Extraordinary Being” with one exception, Will Reeves ran into the alley, and didn’t “drop” into it “from above.” But even this is explained in Under the Hood by pointing out that “the witnesses’ recounting of the event was confused and contradictory,” a nod to how tricky eyewitness accounts of traumatic events can be.
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But it’s the next event where things deviate from the accepted story in the text. In his first fully costumed outing, Hooded Justice tracks the members of the KKK’s Order of the Cyclops to the stockroom of a grocery store, confronts/beats the absolute crap out of them in the back, before the fight spills out into the store itself. After getting shot at by the proprietor (who was allowing the KKK to operate out of the back room), he escapes by crashing through the shop window. But here’s how it’s described in Under the Hood…
“A supermarket stickup had been prevented thanks to the intervention of ‘A tall man, built like a wrestler, who wore a black hood and cape and also wore a noose around his neck.’ This extraordinary being had crashed in through the window of the supermarket while the robbery was in progress and attacked the man responsible with such intensity and savagery that those not disabled immediately were only too willing to drop their guns and surrender.”
That’s certainly the version of events we saw in the American Hero Story segment glimpsed back in episode 2. The most likely scenario here is that since so many of those involved in this fracas were police officers, it was easy to change the official story by the time it made it to the press. And there’s no reason that Hollis Mason would ever know any details about this that weren’t in the papers, unless Hooded Justice confided in him during a Minutemen meeting. As of now, there’s no evidence of that, especially considering that Mason also chose to amplify the theory that Rolf Muller was Hooded Justice. Unless, of course, Mason knew the truth about Hooded Justice and Will Reeves and used his book to help throw suspicion off his teammate and fellow police officer, but that may be something of a stretch.
“This Extraordinary Being” takes place over the span of nearly a decade, from 1938 to approximately 1947. Not depicted in the episode is the beating Hooded Justice administered to the Comedian after he sexually assaulted Silk Spectre. A note in the book from Sally Jupiter’s husband (and Minutemen publicist) Laurence Schexnayder dated Feb. 3, 1948 indicates that Hooded Justice and Captain Metropolis were still romantically involved, albeit as we see in the episode, their relationship had been on the rocks for some time.
The Minutemen disbanded in 1949, and various costumed adventurers were called by notorious historical scumbag Senator Joseph McCarthy and his odious House Un-American Activities Committee to unmask so that they could be investigated more thoroughly. Hooded Justice declined their invitation “on the grounds that he was not prepared to reveal his true identity to anyone. When pressed, he simply vanished.” according to Under the Hood. It’s easy to see why a black man who had barely escaped the Tulsa Race Massacre with his life as a boy and who by this point had devoted the last 15 years of his life vainly trying to draw attention to a white supremacist conspiracy that stretched into high levels of public life, wouldn’t want to unmask before a biased and bloodthirsty committee like the HUAC.
In other words, nothing presented on screen in Watchmen episode 6 conflicts directly with verified accounts of Hooded Justice’s life in the book. It’s only where the book (specifically the Under the Hood chapters) veers into speculation that you can spot inconsistencies. In the book, it was heavily implied that Rolf Müller, a circus strongman with ties to Germany, was secretly Hooded Justice. A decomposed body presumed to be Müller’s, that had been shot execution style, washed up on the shores of Boston Harbor roughly a year after Hooded Justice stopped appearing in public and Müller had disappeared (an event dramatized, inaccurately, by American Hero Story). While never stated outright in the book, the implication certainly seems to be that Müller was Hooded Justice. Apparently, that connection was drawn by right wing publication New Frontiersman in a 1956 article, paraphrased in Under the Hood, reproduced here:
“The author mentioned the disappearance of a well known circus strongman of the day named Rolf Müller, who had quit his job at the height of the Senate Subcommittee hearings. Three months later, a badly decomposed body that was tentatively identified as Müller’s was pulled from the sea after being washed up on the coast of Boston…The inference of the article was that Müller, whose family was East German, had gone on the run for fear of being uncovered by while the Communist witch hunts were at their most feverish. The piece also implied that Müller had probably been executed by his own Red superiors.”
The New Frontiersman was roughly the Watchmen universe’s equivalent of reactionary quackery like InfoWars or any given evening program on Fox News, so it’s understandable why they could draw the wrong conclusion here. However, there’s evidence to support the idea that Watchmen co-creator Alan Moore did indeed intend for Rolf Müller to be the true identity of Hooded Justice, specifically in the form of two Watchmen “adventure modules” that were supplements for the DC Heroes roleplaying game shortly after the release of the book.
The supplements are by Dan Greenberg and Ray Winninger, but were created with Alan Moore’s knowledge and approval. One of those, an adventure called “Taking Out the Trash” is a wealth of information about the Watchmen universe, from bios (complete with birth dates) of various heroes to a timeline that fleshes out the world from the turn of the 20th century through the events of the book. In there, it’s revealed that not only was Rolf MüllerHooded Justice, but that he was murdered by the Edward “The Comedian” Blake as revenge for the beating HJ had administered after the Comedian sexually assaulted Sally Jupiter at Minutemen headquarters.
If you take DC’s Before Watchmen: Minutemen prequel into account (note: this writer does not, and it seems that neither does the HBO series), yet another story emerges. In it, Hooded Justice (whose identity is still never revealed) is killed by the original Nite Owl, Hollis Mason, believing him to be responsible for the deaths of several children, while the actual perpetrator of those murders was Rolf Müller, a Nazi on the run who was ultimately killed by the Comedian (who had helped engineer the case of mistaken identity in the first place as revenge on Hooded Justice). DC’s Before Watchmen prequels are generally regrettable exercises, though, and even the legendary Darwyn Cooke couldn’t really make the convoluted story presented in that Minutemen story work.
Regardless of that, the only “official canon” this show acknowledges is what is in the original book, and with that in mind, none of the CONFIRMED facts about Hooded Justice as presented in the Watchmen comic conflict with the revelation that Will Reeves was the man in the tights. With one exception. Under the Hood paints an unflattering picture of political views that Hooded Justice held. “Before Pearl Harbor, I heard Hooded Justice openly expressing approval for the activities of Hitler’s Third Reich.”
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It’s difficult to imagine a black man in 1940, especially one who had witnessed the atrocities that young Will had, and who was devoting his life by this point to fighting institutionalized racism in New York City, could approve of Hitler. One scenario is that Mason misheard Will stating a version of claims from the propaganda leaflet his father had picked up in World War I and which Will carried for much of the rest of his life, and conflated that with “approval” of Hitler and Nazi Germany. But Damon Lindelof told Decider that making questionable statements like that would just be one more way for Hooded Justice to throw people off the trail of his real identity.
This is the sole loose end remaining in lining up Will Reeves’ story with the Hooded Justice of the book. In a further bit of coincidence, that pamphlet was shown to be written by a “fraulein Mueller,” a call back to the Rolf Müller identity that had long been considered the truth of Hooded Justice’s identity. Instead, it may have just been a red herring to keep audiences off of Will’s trail a little longer. But in any case, there’s still lots more of Will’s story to uncover, and Watchmen has three more episodes to reveal it all. Still, there’s little to indicate that Watchmen writer and executive producer Damon Lindelof would allow anything this accidental to slip by.
Mike Cecchini is the Editor in Chief of Den of Geek. You can read more of his work here. Follow him on Twitter @wayoutstuff.