When it comes to comic books, you can’t get more celebrated than Watchmen, an undisputed classic of the genre that is still as resonant in today’s world as it was in the 1980s. A trailblazing, cerebral, highly political work that redefined the entire concept of superheroes, Watchmen has been analyzed, discussed, and dissected more than almost any comic book ever written. And while that inkblot-faced guy may tend to hog the spotlight, the true center of the Watchmen universe is not Rorschach, but instead the shimmering blue god among men known as Doctor Manhattan.
Other than a series of prequels a few years back, the Watchmen characters have largely remained untouched in the decades since the book’s release… until this year, when Doctor Manhattan’s radioactive blue glow made its first appearance within the mainstream DC Universe. Soon, Jonathon Osterman may be crossing paths with Superman, Batman, Wonder Woman, and the entire Justice League — or maybe he already has. While it might be a little while before we understand exactly what role Doctor Manhattan will play in DC’s post-Rebirth future, read this list to get the early scoop on 15 Things You Didn’t Know About Doctor Manhattan.
15. He was inspired by Captain Atom
Charlton Comics was a publishing company purchased by DC Comics in the 1980s, at which point its most famous characters became part of the DC Universe. In the decades since, heroes like the Question, Blue Beetle, and Nightshade have gone on to become major players in DC, but in the beginning there was a question of how to properly integrate them into their new home. This was where Watchmen was born. Originally, Alan Moore’s dystopian epic was going to feature all of the Charlton Comics heroes in new, more realistic, and dingier forms. When it was decided that such a story would make it impossible for other writers to feature the Charlton heroes afterward, the decision was made to instead fill Watchmen with new characters inspired by the Charlton cast.
Thus, Doctor Manhattan was created as the counterpart to Charlton’s hero Captain Atom. Though the DC revival of Captain Atom changed a lot of character details, the original Charlton character was Allen Adam, a technician who in a scientific accident is completely atomized. Later on, he reforms as Captain Atom, a hero with nuclear abilities that make him the Charlton universe’s resident powerhouse.
14. He’s Immortal
One of the most interesting things about Doctor Manhattan is that he’s a far more realistic depiction of what would happen to a human being if they were suddenly given the powers of a god. Having knowledge of past and future events, being able to create matter from nothing, and all of these other abilities would certainly distance a person from what it traditionally means to be human.
One of the more subtle features of Doctor Manhattan’s powers is that, due to the fact that he can control mass and energy, his appearance is actually a façade. He demonstrates this when he carves his own symbol into his forehead. Jonathan Osterman is no longer a flesh and blood entity, but rather a form of energy that chooses to present himself as somewhat human when he interacts with others, in order to put them at ease.
And as such, he’s also, as far as we can tell, immortal. Since his accident in 1959, he hasn’t aged a day. He has no need for sustenance or sleep. His mind already perceives everything past, present, and future– to the point where he knows everything that will happen to him, and is thus incapable of learning new things or “aging” in any relatable a sense.
13. He Caused the New 52
DC Comics and multiverse-wide reboot buttons go together like peanut butter and jelly. By the time you’ve gotten used to the sixty-seventh variation of Superman’s origin, wherein this time the planet Krypton is populated by human/dinosaur hybrids and Doomsday is Superman’s grandfather, the Anti-Monitor rolls around and wipes everything away again.
This time, though, it’s different. The revelations of DC Rebirth, and the reintroduction of Wally West, have only given us glimpses of a bigger plot unfolding behind the scenes… but what we do know is that Doctor Manhattan is the key figure. The New 52 reboot, which repopulated DC comics with a younger, edgier cast of characters, was the work of Doctor Manhattan. Somehow, for reasons still mysterious to us, his cosmic blue touch interfered in the DC Universe, and removed an entire decade from the timeline, resulting in all of the characters becoming younger, relationships being wiped from history, and the other drastic timeline changes that defined the post-New 52 universe.
Why? We don’t know yet, and given Doctor Manhattan’s distant outlook on humanity, it’s hard to guess. At the end of Watchmen, he did say he was going to try to create life. Why not experiment with an entire universe, as well? Well, about that…
12. He’s Been Messing with Entire Universes Since “Before Watchmen”
That casual line about “trying to create some life” at the end of Watchmen, of course, is the beginning of the thread that leads us to Rebirth, but there have been a couple of additional hints along the way. The most significant of these is in the prequel comic Before Watchmen: Doctor Manhattan by J. Michael Straczynski and Adam Hughes, which plays a lot with the notion of alternate realities and Osterman’s ability not only to simultaneously perceive them, but also to pinpoint where realities diverge from one another and are created.
The key scene is in the fourth issue, depicted above. Here, Doctor Manhattan seems to create a universe in his hands — “Just a little energy to accelerate evolution… combine protein and knit DNA into symphonies of elegance and potentiality…” — there are some theories that this event may in fact be the creation of the New 52 DC universe. It’s hard to say, since it’s still somewhat unclear whether Osterman actually birthed the New 52, or whether he simply “created” it by removing 10 years from the timeline, but we’ll find out soon.
11. He is a Half-Jewish German Refugee
In the narrative of Watchmen itself, we see very little of the human Jonathon Osterman’s beginnings. Though we do learn that his father was a watchmaker, and we discover what motivated Osterman to become a scientist, the reader is never given any reason to believe that Osterman himself is anything but a natural born American citizen. Nor is there any information about where his family might come from.
The prequel Before Watchmen: Dr. Manhattan fills in this backstory by revealing that Osterman is actually a refugee from Germany, born to a Jewish mother. In 1939, his family runs away from the Nazis before they can take in his mother. Though Jon and his father successfully make it to New York, his mother is killed during the escape. This knowledge gives the reader an intriguing and painful perspective on a being who is constantly re-experiencing his own past. Of all the things to have to relive…
10. The Science Checks Out
Okay, so there aren’t any real life glowing blue men walking around in our world — well, other than the Blue Man Group — but compared to most superheroes, the relative realism used in depicting Doctor Manhattan’s omnipotent, omniscient, omnipresent, omni-everything abilities has been noted and praised by real life academics, scientists, and philosophers.
According to James Kakalios, a noted physics professor who worked as the scientific consultant for the movie adaptation of Watchmen, the intrinsic field generator that first gives Osterman his powers — and even his powers themselves —have a basis in reality. The intrinsic field is powered by electromagnetic forces, as well as strong and weak forces, which Kakalios claims would be necessary for a person or device to be able to manipulate matter in the way that Doctor Manhattan does. Additionally, his teleportation abilities could be explained through quantum tunneling. Despite the wide array of powers that he exhibits, all of them are fairly believable within the realm of physics.
9. He was named after the Manhattan Project
The rebirth of Jon Osterman is the fuse that lights the Watchmen universe. Immediately upon his resurrection as a blue demigod, he is picked up and employed as a tool/weapon by the United States government. With Doctor Manhattan on their side, the US easily wins the war in Vietnam, and he becomes a symbol of their power. Like any symbol, this new Osterman needs a name, and the government gives him one: Doctor Manhattan.
But the name “Doctor Manhattan” is not a tribute to one of the United States’s biggest cities. Rather, it’s a direct reference to the Manhattan Project, the WWII development project that produced the first atomic bombs. This name is chosen so that Doctor Manhattan’s presence will strike fear in the hearts of their enemies, specifically the Soviet Union, and signify that the United
States has control over the most powerful force in the world. Or so they think.
8. There’s a Band Named After Him
But hey, regardless of where the moniker comes from, Doctor Manhattan is a memorable name for a memorable character in a memorable comic book, so tributes to him have been abundant over the years. One of those tributes is the Illinois alternative/indie rock band “Dr. Manhattan,” formed in the early 2000s. Shortly after reaching public awareness, Dr. Manhattan signed with Vagrant Records, and they played Warped Tour two years running (2007-2008). Though the band broke up years ago, and played their “final” show in 2010, they’ve reunited multiple times, with their most recent performance being as opening act for The Front Bottoms in 2014.
Though the band’s name is certainly derived from Alan Moore’s comic, their stage performances don’t involve them getting painted blue and performing naked. Their first album was self-titled, but their promotional EP was called Are You Bald? Listen guys, there’s no need to rub it in. It’s hard to keep your hair when you’ve been disintergrated and reassembled.
7. He’s So Powerful That He Can’t Do Anything
Compared to other, more traditional super powered beings on his level, Doctor Manhattan has seemingly no weaknesses. No Kryptonite, no problems with the color yellow, nothing like that. But he does have a weakness, albeit a complex one. Because of his omniscience — because he knows everything that that has happened or will happen to him– he is unable to really do anything of his own free will… or so he says, when he tells Laurie that he’s still a puppet — he’s just a puppet who can “see the strings.”
Doctor Manhattan embodies deterministic philosophies, as he experiences time in a predetermined fashion, as if everything that will happen already has been decided beforehand. This is what leads him to becoming the apathetic being that we meet by the time of Watchmen, since his enormous knowledge of time and space has led him to see human concerns as largely pointless.
6. He’s the Most Important Character in Watchmen
Okay, so Rorschach might be crazy, but he’s basically the protagonist of the story. The Comedian’s death launches everything off. Dan and Laurie are the most human characters. Veidt, of course, is the character who pushes the story toward its dramatic conclusion. But when it comes down to it, the entire world of Watchmen is formed around the existence of Doctor Manhattan, and how his arrival changes a world similar to ours into something altogether more tangled and dangerous.
Doctor Manhattan is the only actual superhero in the story. He wins the Vietnam war, resulting in Nixon being celebrated and then reelected over and over again. Everything revolves around Manhattan and his actions. The movie’s ending, which has Veidt frame Osterman for the devastation instead of faking an alien attack, is a change from the source material, but it’s one that ties in closely with how important Osterman is to the story.
5. His Murder of Rorschach was a Mercy Killing, According to Alan Moore
One of the darkest, most emotional scenes of Watchmen is during the climax. New York has been attacked and Rorschach becomes desperately intent on making sure the world knows what actually happens. The objectivist vigilante storms out into the snowy wilderness, where he is stopped by Doctor Manhattan. After Rorschach erupts in a passionate moment of rage and grief, Doctor Manhattan incinerates him into nothingness.
But why? According to an old interview with Alan Moore, Manhattan’s killing of Rorschach is not because Manhattan’s philosophy is aligned with Veidt’s, but rather, a mercy killing: he doesn’t believe that Rorschach will make it back to society alive, and a painless incineration spares him the agony of slowly freezing to death.
But why does he lie about it later on, never admitting that he’s the one who killed Rorschach? To this, Moore said that it’s in order to make the situation less painful for Laurie and Dan. Since both of them already must go through the rest of their lives knowing the truth about a catastrophic incident that they can never tell anyone about, Doctor Manhattan lies so that they can be spared the feeling of being implicated in Rorschach’s murder, on top of everything else.
4. It’s Not Billy Crudup’s Body in the Movie
Of course, the actor who will forever be identified with Doctor Manhattan is Billy Crudup, who portrayed him in the movie. Though Doctor Manhattan is a computer generated character, his voice, facial expressions, and mannerisms all belong to Crudup. In addition, Crudup’s motion capture suit was equipped head to toe with 2500 LED lights in order to render his blue glow in the real world.
But one thing that didn’t belong to Billy Crudup was Doctor Manhattan’s crazily jacked blue body, which is naked for the majority of the film, revealing… well, everything. According to Crudup, none of Doctor Manhattan’s body is actually him. The character design for Doctor Manhattan’s body was based on the physique of fitness model and sometimes actor Greg Plitt. Crudup’s head was later “frankensteined” onto the CG model constructed by animators. These elements of CGI only add to the eerie, post-human presences impression Doctor Manhattan creates.
3. He Has a Regular Human Voice
One of the more surprising elements of the movie’s portrayal of Doctor Manhattan was the total normalcy of the character’s voice. No reverberations, no echo, no weird amplification effects; just a regular voice, a meek voice, the same voice he had as Jon Osterman. This seems to be in contrast to the comic, where his voice is presented in blue dialogue bubbles instead of white ones.
But really, this stylistic choice is a logical one. According to Crudup, when he and director Zack Snyder were discussing what approach to take for the voice of a real life Greek god, they decided to go with something ungodlike, because there’s no reason that Osterman would want to present himself that way. Since Doctor Manhattan’s physical form is merely a representation of his energies that Osterman uses around other people, his “voice” would be whatever he wanted it to be. Thus, he wouldn’t choose a powerful or menacing voice that might scare people, and would instead adopt a tone that puts people at ease with his presence as much as possible. Makes sense.
2. He Was Almost Played by Arnold Schwarzenegger
In an alternate reality that will never be glimpsed by anyone except Doctor Manhattan himself, a Watchmen movie would have been made back in the early to mid 1990s, produced by Joel Silver and directed by Terry Gilliam, of Brazil fame. When it came to portraying the part of Doctor Manhattan, Silver wanted to cast bodybuilder-turned-superstar Arnold Schwarzenegger. This made a lot of sense at the time, since Watchmen didn’t have the widespread awareness of a character like Batman, and this was in the era of big movie stars. Arnold, of course, would have been coming off the massive success of Terminator 2.
But before we ever got the chance to see Arnold play a nuclear physicist or wax philosophical about the nature of time, the film fell apart. The closest we’ll ever get is Arnold’s bald head and blue face in Batman & Robin, though that definitely wasn’t his most celebrated performance.
For what it’s worth, Arnold wasn’t the only big star at one point rumored for Doctor Manhattan. Keanu Reeves was also almost cast during Watchmen‘s long, tangled, decades-long journey to the big screen. But speaking of the complicated years of development Watchmen went through on its way to the multiplex…
1. In Earlier Drafts of the Movie, the Ending Would’ve Been… Really Weird
To fans, Watchmen is the gospel of comic books, so any changes that the movie made were endlessly analyzed and shouted over. The relatively minor change in the movie’s ending, which still preserved the central message of the graphic novel, was a point of discussion in many circles. But if the movie were made back in the 1990s, the changes to the comic would have been a lot more severe.
Many screenwriters struggled to condense Watchmen‘s complex story into a feature-length screenplay. Among these was Sam Hamm, the writer of Tim Burton’s Batman movie. Hamm’s treatment, along with including such strange touches as an action-packed opening scene at the Statue of Liberty, completely changed the ending.
In Hamm’s script, Veidt’s master plan is to go back in time and kill Jon Osterman before he becomes Doctor Manhattan, thus preventing the events of the movie from ever occurring and avoiding nuclear war with the Soviet Union. Watchmen‘s heroes fight to stop Veidt, and he is actually vaporized by his own time travel machine, but Doctor Manhattan goes ahead and finishes Veidt’s plan anyway, sacrificing himself. This is all strange enough, but then the movie ends with the readjusted timeline in place: a world much like ours, where Watchmen is just a comic. Suddenly, Rorschach, Silk Spectre, and Nite Owl wake up in 1980s New York, where they are arrested by the police in a clear setup for a hypothetical sequel.
Needless to say, Zack Snyder’s adaptation ended up being a lot closer to the comic.
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