Nothing truly ends, not even Watchmen. The acclaimed 1988 DC Comics series, often considered one of the best comic book stories of all time, comes to television in a new “continuation” on HBO, from Lost and The Leftovers creator Damon Lindelof. But unlike most TV adaptations of comics, Watchmen isn’t just rehashing a familiar story. This is most evident with the absence of one of its unforgettable characters, Doctor Manhattan.
But even though Manhattan is missing, he’s very much on the minds of other characters in the show.
If you’ve forgotten the crucial details, or outright missed the original Watchmen (by the way, you should definitely read it), here’s a refresher on Doctor Manhattan and why he’s so important to Alan Moore’s neo-conceptual superhero mythos.
“The Superman is real, and he is American.”
Jonathan Osterman was born in 1929. His father was a watchmaker, and hoped his son would become one himself. But when the U.S. bombed Japan in World War II, his father became convinced watchmaking was a totally irrelevant profession. So he forced his son to abandon his dreams and pursue nuclear physics. It is through Jon’s story that Watchmen taps deeper into its most significant visual motifs involving time, space, fate, and the apocalypse.
Fast-forward to the 1950s, when Jon works as a physicist in New Jersey. He’s fallen in love with another researcher, Janey, and for awhile, things are good. But one night, Jon realizes he left Janey’s watch in his lab coat, which itself was left inside a test chamber. Jon is trapped inside just as an experiment begins. His body is brutally torn to shreds inside.
Everyone assumes, rightfully, that Jon is dead. But for months, the facility is full of reported sightings of ghostly apparitions — walking, screaming skeletons that disappear in a flash. Most of the employees believe the facility is now haunted, until the “ghost” reveals himself (in the middle of the cafeteria) to be Jon, reborn as a naked, hairless blue man radiating ultra-violet glow.
Not only is he naked and blue, he has powers. He’s invulnerable, able to reconstruct his physical form, create duplicates, fly, control atomic and subatomic particles, and able to see the past, present, and future simultaneously (remember — time), Jon is the only one in the Watchmen universe to have superpowers.
But when Jon gained powers, he lost his humanity. The transformation robbed him of warmth, empathy, and understanding towards his fellow man. While he does enter a relationship with another superhero, Silk Spectre (Laurie Blake), she eventually leaves because of his inability to truly connect with her.
Before long, Jon is placed under the employ of the United States government, who weaponize Jon into “Doctor Manhattan” — a nod to the Manhattan Project — and market him as America’s very own superhero. A news anchor in the comic tells of Manhattan’s arrival, “The Superman is real, and he is American.”
How Doctor Manhattan changed America
Watchmen exists in an alternate history where superheroes exist. And Doctor Manhattan might be the most important person in that timeline.
“Thanks” to Doctor Manhattan, the U.S. wins the Vietnam War (turning Vietnam into the 51st state), giving the U.S. an edge in the Cold War. But it’s temporary. Instead of cooling the war, Doctor Manhattan raises the stakes, as America’s enemies push the world to the brink of actual nuclear war. When Watchmen begins, the doomsday clock is set five minutes to midnight. (In our real world, as of this writing, the clock is set two minutes to midnight.)
Even worse, it’s through Doctor Manhattan that Nixon secures American victory in Vietnam, repeals the 22nd amendment, and serves five terms as President. Nixon also uses the Comedian to kill Woodward and Bernstein, keeping the secrets of the Watergate scandal forever hidden.
As a subversion of the superhero genre, Watchmen proposes a memorably realistic take on superheroes from a mainstream publisher. Rather than pack a universe full of superpowers, there is one person who has them all. And in a change from Superman, a benevolent alien immigrant raised among humans and stands for truth, justice, brotherhood, and freedom, Doctor Manhattan is a human turned god whose existence pushes civilization closer to armageddon.
“Nothing ends, Adrian. Nothing ever ends.”
At the end of Watchmen, Ozymandias achieves world peace by carrying out mass genocide in New York, via a giant alien squid that explodes and kills millions. Horrified, the world comes together, vowing to eliminate nuclear weapons. In essence, Ozymandias achieves “peace.” And Doctor Manhattan, who observes all of time at once, sees nothing wrong. Because unlike the alternative, mankind will continue.
That’s when Doctor Manhattan chooses to leave. “I’m leaving this galaxy for one less complicated,” he tells Ozymandias.
Before Manhattan leaves, Ozymandias reveals a little shred of doubt about his grand plan. “I did the right thing, didn’t I? It all worked out in the end.”
Doctor Manhattan, as if mocking Ozymandias, chillingly replies: “Nothing ends, Adrian. Nothing ever ends.” That’s when Doctor Manhattan disappears. It’s not clear where he went.
30 years later…
When the HBO series begins, it’s been decades since the events of Watchmen. Doctor Manhattan has not been seen on Earth in years. But he is occasionally found on Mars, through satellite footage captured by NASA. Exactly what he’s up to, no one is really sure. But as Manhattan said himself, nothing ever ends. We’ve definitely not seen the last of Doctor Manhattan.
Watchmen premieres October 20 on HBO at 9 p.m. Eastern.