Dr. Manhattan isn't just the most powerful superhero in the Watchmen story, he may be the most powerful superhero ever. Alan Moore and Dave Gibbons's Watchmen comic has inspired countless other comics ever since its release in 1986. A critical and mature dissection of what it means to be a superhero (and what it means to be protected by them), front and center stands the most powerful member: Dr. Manhattan. Created by a nuclear accident, the apathetic hero is one of the most interesting creations from the original series. A being so powerful he's almost capable of creating universes and destroying them.
So just who is this mysterious, glowing, and infinitely-powerful 'Watchman'? As millions of fans step into the world of Watchmen thanks to the HBO series, let's take a look at the most powerful--and most complicated--character in the entire story.
Dr. Manhattan's Comic Origins
The apathetic and god-like presence known as Dr. Manhattan was once a simple Nuclear physicist named Jon Osterman. He and his team at Gila Flats Labs conduct experiments regarding quantum physics and intrinsic fields. When dealing with such high level experiments any mistake can be quite costly, as Osterman would find out. Before activating a test one day, Osterman realized he had left his watch in the test chamber. Academic scholar and genius that he is, he decided to run in after it. Of course, when the test began... horrible tragedy occurred. Osterman disintegrated to the horror and grief of his on-looking co-workers. Absolutely grotesque, but it's also one of the most iconic comic images of all time.
Over the course of the next few months, workers at Gila Flats would see blue-colored apparitions and body parts floating around their lab. Jon Osterman had essentially been transformed into a being of pure energy, and was slowly learning to put himself back together. One day, the fully-formed Dr. Manhattan appeared before all in the Labs' lunch room, changing the Watchmen universe forever. As some may know, Watchmen spawned out of DC's refusal to let Alan Moore tell an incredibly violent tale with the typical Justice League team. So instead, he created his own set of characters (which DC is now slowly introducing into the actual DC Universe). The newly-created superhero that used to be Jon Osterman was so powerful, he began to embody both a stand-in for Captain Atom, and the rise of nuclear weapons and anxiety in general. And his perception of time, space, reality, and faith are all just symptoms of how powerful he truly is.
Dr. Manhattan's Comic Powers
As one of the most powerful fictional characters ever created, Dr. Manhattan's powers are magnificent to match. At first, the creature formerly known as Jon Osterman appears to consist of pure energy, acting as a force capable of manipulating and destroying matter with nothing more than a thought. Over the course of the original Watchmen story, Dr. Manhattan demonstrates more powers than arguably any superhero to ever grace a comic book. He is invulnerable to pain or damage. If his body is destroyed, he can rebuild it in an instant. Dr. Manhattan can create multiple versions of himself, and make his physical body larger or smaller. The god-like being can even see into the past or future, and can travel anywhere in the known universe without much detectable effort.
In Watchmen, the United States Army uses Manhattan to not only win the Vietnam War singlehandedly, but act as a nuclear deterrent against the Soviet Union in the Cold War which followed. Since he's capable of stopping numerous warheads while simultaneously launching attacks of nuclear-level power, he effectively renders all military weaponry obsolete. Who needs a missile program when one man can destroy nations, or even entire worlds, with a flick of his wrist? Thankfully not all of Manhattan's powers are destructive. He can create massive and intricate structures based on nothing more than a brief thought. Given all these reality-altering abilities, it makes sense for his emergence to be described with foreboding in the original comic:
God exists and he’s American. If that statement starts to chill you after a couple of moments’ consideration, then don’t be alarmed. A feeling of intense and crushing religious terror at the concept indicates only that you are still sane.
Dr. Manhattan's Connection to Watchmen
Much like the Justice Society and the Justice League, the superheroes of the Watchmen story inspire the generation to follow. The first team (already relegated to the past when Watchmen begins) were known as The Minutemen, with the second team dubbing themselves as the Crimebusters. The Comedian and Dr. Manhattan are the only returning heroes, but ans shouldn't let this 'team' idea give the wrong impression of Dr. Manhattan. He has no friends, nor any desire for them. Despite dating the 'Silk Spectre' Laurie Juspeczyk, the fact of Jon's immortality and virtually limitless power leads him to feel increasingly isolated. Over time, Dr. Manhattan becomes increasingly indifferent and apathetic with humanity as a whole.
After reappearing towards the end of the Watchmen story, he does see the value in human life, due largely to Laurie's newfound love with Nite Owl Dan Dreiberg, a fellow former Crimebuster. But his indifference also allows him to see the logic in the masterfully deceptive (and murderous) plan of Adrian Veidt a.k.a. Ozymandias. By manipulating the world into believing an inter-dimensional creature murdered millions in New York, Ozymandias believed world wars would end. When Rorschach threatened to expose that secret, Dr. Manhattan destroyed him. But the fate of Manhattan is much, much less obvious.
Now, it looks like HBO has decided to continue the tale with their own interpretation in the upcoming series. There are already hints of Dr. Manhattan playing a role on Earth, even though he seems to have left the planet behind. Hopefully, the eagerly-awaited sequel series can live up to its legendary source material when it comes to Watchmen's true super man.