'Watchmen' Explained: Who is Doctor Manhattan?

The original comic's iconic superhero hasn't officially appeared in the HBO series yet, but his shadow looms large.

Doctor Manhattan
DC Comics

At first glance, the world of Watchmen seems tired of superheroes. The new HBO series takes place 35 years after the events of the 1980s comic series on which it’s based. The original Watchmen, written by Alan Moore, tells the story of an alternate American timeline, in which mass numbers of masked vigilantes fought crime before they were outlawed in 1977.

In Watchmen‘s alternate 2019, Richard Nixon is now on Mount Rushmore, squids occasionally rain from the sky, and superhero activity is still very much illegal. Yet, there’s one super-human figure who casts a shadow over the series, even though he hasn’t officially appeared yet: Doctor Manhattan.

The character is briefly introduced in the show’s pilot episode, “It’s Summer and We’re Running Out of Ice,” when the camera pans to a live news feed with a headline reading, “Dr. Manhattan on Mars!” On the screen, a grainy satellite video shows a glowing blue figure demolishing a giant sand structure simply by raising his arms.

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Doctor Manhattan on Mars.

Doctor Manhattan was a major part of the original comics, and the only one of Watchmen’s vigilantes to have actual superpowers. But who is he?

The character was first introduced as the mild-mannered Jon Osterman. When he was a teenager, Jon was shaken up after witnessing the Hiroshima bombing and so he decided to become a nuclear physicist. In 1959, he was accidentally caught in a radioactive particle test at the lab where he was working. Although he was initially vaporized and declared dead, parts of the scientist’s consciousness began to take a new material form. Three months after the initial accident, he reappeared as a giant, naked man with blue skin, and Doctor Manhattan was born.

His new form came with a huge array of special abilities. He could see his future and past from a third-person perspective and also had powers including telekinesis, teleportation, and flight. He could also replicate his being into sentient copies. Soon, Jon became a pawn of the United States government and was given the code name “Doctor Manhattan” in reference to the Manhattan Project, the research operation that developed the atomic bomb.

His involvement with the government is the main reason why the world of Watchmen is so fundamentally different to our own. Doctor Manhattan’s capacity to see through time, combined with his ability to alter materials, led to a fictional 1985 that was much more technologically advanced than the real world at that time. At President Nixon’s request, he also used his abilities to help America win the Vietnam War in only three months.

Despite working for the government, Doctor Manhattan associated with many costumed vigilantes of the time. He began dating Laurie Juspeczyk, who moonlighted as the vigilante Silk Spectre, and he worked closely with billionaire Adrian Veidt, aka Ozymandias, who was widely considered to be the “smartest man alive.” Veidt’s intellect made him the only human who truly fascinated Doctor Manhattan, but the man came to see his superhuman friend as a threat to international stability. At one point in the comics, he even exposed Doctor Manhattan’s associates to radiation that gave them terminal cancer in an effort to blame their conditions on Manhattan and discredit his powers.

Veidt’s fears were eventually realized, as international tensions rose over America having its own secret weapon and leaving other countries at a disadvantage. Things grew so dire that nuclear war seemed likely. Because Doctor Manhattan had left Earth out of guilt over his friends’ cancer, Veidt was able to enact his plan staging an alien invasion to stop the impending war. After Veidt succeeded, killing three million people and forcing the world’s terrified governments to reconcile, Doctor Manhattan and the other heroes agreed to keep his secret to maintain the peace. Dejected over his failure to stop Veidt, though, Doctor Manhattan kills a former friend and leaves to start life in a new galaxy.

So, if we’re to believe that the HBO series is a continuation of that story, why did Doctor Manhattan end up moving to nearby Mars? That much hasn’t been revealed yet, but the show’s first three episodes provide clues as to what role he’ll play.

Doctor Manhattan’s presence on the show becomes more pronounced in Watchmen‘s second episode, “Martial Feats of Comanche Horsemanship,” which retells a demented version of his origin story. In the show, Veidt (Jeremy Irons) is now confined to a large estate, possibly because a third party is aware of his alien invasion scheme. To pass the time, he forces his household staff to perform a play he’s written about Osterman’s transformation into Doctor Manhattan.

The servant (Tom Mison) playing Osterman is literally burned alive inside the house before an exact replica of him appears nude and painted blue to represent Doctor Manhattan — oh, did we mention that Veidt employs a staff of clones now?

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Adrian Veidt’s (Jeremy Irons) servant posing as Doctor Manhattan.

Futuristic doubles aside, the idea that multiple versions of Doctor Manhattan exist within the show was also raised in the second episode. In an early scene, Watchmen‘s protagonist — undercover cop Angela Abar (Regina King) — interrogates Will (Louis Gossett Jr.), an old man who claims that he murdered her boss Judd (Don Johnson). When Angela pushes Will about his identity, he slyly asks, “What If I’m Doctor Manhattan?”

Angela scoffs at the idea, noting that the superhuman can’t make himself look like normal people. But Will immediately rebuffs her. “[Doctor Manhattan] can make copies of himself. He can be in two places at the same time,” he points out. “Why can’t he be like us?”

In episode three, “She Was Killed By Space Junk,” Doctor Manhattan is incorporated even further via the introduction of yet another original Watchmen character: Laurie Juspeczyk (Jean Smart), who has changed her last name (now it’s Blake) and no longer assumes the Silk Spectre alias. She and Doctor Manhattan dated for 20 years before eventually parting ways. These days, Laurie works on the FBI’s Anti-Vigilante Task Force, arresting masked crusaders rather than working as one herself.

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Laurie Blake (Jean Smart) in ‘Watchmen.’

But Laurie hasn’t moved on from her past as much as she clearly wants people to believe, as we see in a scene in which she removes a large, true-to-scale Doctor Manhattan vibrator from a case. Then there’s the fact that she keeps stealing away to blue phone booths to call him.

Laurie is the first original Watchmen character to interact with the show’s new main characters, many of whom work at a police department in Tulsa, Oklahoma. She’s called in to investigate Judd’s murder, and quickly butts heads with Angela over who his killer could be. Given Laurie’s connection to Doctor Manhattan and the other comic characters, her inclusion in the show’s main storyline could serve as a bridge for her ex-lover and other superheroes to join the fray.

At the end of the episode, Laurie admits that her calls to Doctor Manhattan are probably one-sided, especially since he cut off contact with everyone on Earth 30 years ago. “The assholes down here still think you give a shit about them,” she continues. “But we’re not really worth giving a shit about anyway, are we?”

Seemingly in answer, a car that was stolen from Angela in the previous episode falls from above in front of her, and an orange blip appears in the sky. Regardless of what Doctor Manhattan’s future in Watchmen turns out to be, it seems he’s been listening after all. 

(Intern)

Culture journalist and Vox Magazine writer who hasn't been adopted by Paul Thomas Anderson and Maya Rudolph (yet).