The Final Verdict on Doctor Manhattan

How do you think you would handle being given overwhelming powers? You might imagine that you would have the self-discipline to do the right thing moving forward. But imagine that you are the only person in the world that has powers. And the nature of your powers is so great and mind-bending that your very perception of life and human nature comes into question. There is a very good chance you’ll find yourself lost, in multiple meanings of the word. In Watchmen, we get this very kind of scenario with Jon Osterman, a regular man who grew into a scientist with no aspirations of becoming a superhero. But when the very experiment he has been working on kills him, he somehow manages to come back with powers that make him akin to a god. Both his actions and decisions to not do anything have been criticized. But how much can truly be blamed on him? Is he a hero or a villain? Allow me to tell you the story of Doctor Manhattan, then you’ll be able to properly judge him.

When we are first introduced to the good doctor himself, we see his admittedly cold reaction to hearing one of his superhero colleagues has been murdered. Not that he hated him, but rather he is reacting with a purely scientific mindset with no emotion attached. This kind of reaction is the result of spending decades with his kind of powers. We are talking about immortality, creation, and manipulating matter, as well as witnessing multiple events in history simultaneously. It is no wonder that back in Vietnam, The Comedian notes how access to this kind of power has dulled his emotions. After all, if you can do and witness the kind of things that Manhattan can, even the horror of warfare will fail to make you flinch.

There is one important that needs to be understood. Jon was born to the son of a watchmaker and he spent a lot of time as a kid repairing and studying watches. When World War 2 came along, his father pushed him to become a scientist. But despite Jon’s father putting him on the path of a scientist, the nature of being a watchmaker has been instilled in him. When Jon was vaporized by his own experiment, his consciousness somehow survived and he focused all of his energy on bringing himself back to life. It was a grueling process that lasted several months, with other people at the facility seeing the horrific images of a body trying to pull itself back together. Yet Jon marched on because he approached the problem as if he were repairing a broken mechanical device. This cold and logical approach is what ultimately saved him from death.

When he first comes back, he is understandably changed by the experience. No one batted an eye in the early days. But it has become clear that the detachment Jon created between himself and his emotions has only grown.

It is very easy to say that he has lost all emotion since his epic rebirth. But we are overlooking the details. We take the observations and claims of Manhattan being emotionless and cold as absolute fact at this point in his existence. And yet, despite the claim by Edward Blake earlier about how he had stopped caring about his ex-wife Janey long ago, we get a scene that shows Manhattan shocked at the implication that he might have given Janey Cancer. Quickly followed by him angrily yelling out as he is bombarded by questions.

These scenes can be admittedly interpreted as him being caught off guard. But then we follow him into the desert to an old bar that he and Janey used to visit early in their relationship. Take a look at his face. That is the face and look of someone who clearly still cares for a woman he is no longer with. Almost as if she was the one that got away.

The scenes and quotes we most popularly associate with Doctor Manhattan are the ones that are associated with isolation and nihilism. And there is still plenty of that in the original story. But we should take into consideration that there is more at play than just Manhattan losing sight of what is important. It is also combined with him feeling like he is losing control over everything he once held dear. But then towards the end of the story, just when Manhattan seems to be truly lost and separated from the human race…his perception of what is important once again changes. During his conversation with Laurie on Mars, there are a couple of things to note. First of all, even though he tells her she is going to tell him about her sleeping with Dan, he is still genuinely surprised when she does say it herself moments later. This shows that despite witnessing everything at once, that doesn’t always dull his emotional instincts. But more importantly, his genuine surprise at also realizing that The Comedian is Laurie’s father convinces Manhattan that Laurie’s life isn’t meaningless, nor is the existence of mankind itself.

While Manhattan failed to stop Ozymandias, he does hold onto his newfound appreciation for life. He takes it and carries it with him when he leaves his own universe. And this my friends, is where the events of Doomsday Clock have to be examined.



This story goes to great lengths to make Doctor Manhattan the villain. And there is no doubt that his actions have had an enormous negative impact on the main DC universe. I’m not going to deny that. But I want to take a moment to focus on that phrase he uses - everything ends. It comes up several times in the story. However, we should go back and see the very first time Manhattan says it. Admittedly, the first panel below is from later on in the story. But the 2nd and 3rd panels are from when Manhattan properly shows up in the story and is talking to Ozymandias.

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We will learn that Carver Colman, an actor from the 1940s in the DCU, is the first human that Manhattan encountered on this new Earth. He would end up having regular visits with Colman as he explores this new universe and enacts his grand experiment. The fact that the phrase “everything ends” and his talk of hope dying immediately follow his mentioning of Colman’s death is very telling. There is more at play than simple curiosity. Manhattan isn’t messing with the DCU because of that.

Let’s start with a simple question. Why did Manhattan come to the DCU? I mean, yeah we know the real-world reason. But I’m talking about the reasoning in the story itself. What was it that brought the good doctor to a world full of superheroes?

Manhattan makes observations of the main DCU and how it influences the rest of the multiverse. It is evident that whatever happens on this Earth, has influences on other realities in a variety of unknown ways. Keeping this in mind, there is a very real possibility that Manhattan became subtly aware of the DCU once he decided to leave his own universe behind. If you are to ask Ozymandias, the real reason becomes clear as to why Manhattan found himself drawn to a reality torn between Hope and Despair.

The idea that Manhattan wants to feel at home in the DCU starts making a lot of sense. He’s spent so much of his existence in a world where he was the only superhuman. Where everyone looked to him for guidance and assistance. But Manhattan himself never wanted this kind of life. It is very likely the real reason he experimented with this world - with Superman specifically - is because he himself needed guidance on how to deal with what he has. And the only way to do that is to bring these heroes closer to what he is familiar with, thinking it would be the best way for him to connect.


Connection is what helps Manhattan focus his mind and his powers. Back in his universe, Laurie was his connection. He admits it as much when he says that once she left him, he left Earth for Mars. And we see in this story that the element of connection is as important as it has ever been. He uses Colman as the thing he focuses on when he adjusts his powers to this new universe. He even admits that Colman is his anchor in this reality in the final issue. But the first sign of that confirmation comes a little bit earlier when he starts comprehending the true extent of his meddling in the DCU and his reaction…is to go to the man that Manhattan will later admit is his friend.

We’ve touched on a few examples of how Manhattan has a subconscious that still reacts on emotional instinct. It’s why he keeps unknowingly leaving photographs of him with his ex-wife wherever he goes. But in his eyes, it’s too late. Everything is already in motion and things can only end in one of two ways, both leading to total annihilation.

That is…until he finally meets Superman. It is that fateful meeting in the final issue that everything becomes clear. The answer he has been looking for is presented. Manhattan has been ruled by a philosophy of pre-determinism. Going back to the moment that his own father decided what profession Jon should follow. But Superman points out to Manhattan that while certain things may seem to be inevitable, we always have a choice. We can always choose what to do. It doesn’t have to end in a certain way if you don’t want it to. I know that seems like such a simple lesson. But for a man like Manhattan who has felt overwhelmed and lost for so long, it meant everything to him. Sometimes all it takes is a simple act of kindness to change the world.

As we finally come to a close, I want to focus on this one image from the final issue of Watchmen.


When I first read this story, I initially had a slightly pessimistic interpretation of this scene. I saw this as Manhattan viewing them as not friends but rather…beloved pets. He still cared for them and wished them well, but he was too far gone in his process of detachment to ever be truly human. Looking back on it now, however, I don’t hold that same perception. He is genuinely happy for them and what they found in each other. It reminded him of what he once had. And the positivity he recaptured on Mars possibly created hope that he could find that same level of emotional connection again. I have that perception now because Doomsday Clock is a reminder that no one is truly beyond saving.

Finally, that brings us to the ultimate question. Is Doctor Manhattan a hero or a villain? His world certainly wanted him to be a hero. And his final act back on his world when he got rid of all nuclear weapons was certainly a noble and inspirational one. But truth be told, Manhattan’s story was never meant to be one where he plays either the hero or the villain. He was human - one that had his fair share of mistakes to be certain, but human nonetheless. With that, the saga of Doctor Manhattan comes to a close.


He is a sucky villain


Your free to believe that. He has certainly done things that paint him one


During the Watchmen WAL, I made the comment that Jon might be autistic or at least is somewhere on the spectrum. I think the idea goes back to a bit of dialogue about Captain Atom (a version who took a lot of inspiration from Jon) from Grant Morrison’s Pax Americana. The more I think about it, though, the more I see it.

Jon has difficulty connecting with or reading the emotions of others. He doesn’t understand social cues. His behavior towards his scientific work is obsessive. When confronted with a discussion about the death of a colleague, the best he can do is repeat a fact he knows that’s connected with the concept of death. He has that very anxious, angry, irrational reaction to being crowded by the press after the revelation that he may be causing cancer. All of this may indicate that Jon is autistic and his symptoms may be in part due to or exaggerated by his godlike abilities.

That’s why I think a lot of people struggle with Jon. People want to see a kind of empathy and humanity in their heroes that they can relate with. This is harder to see in Jon who just does not process emotions or the world around him in a way that most people do. This does not mean he’s bad or incapable of altruistic behavior. He’s just different and needs different paths to conclusions that most people take for granted.


While I’m not sure I get the autistic interpretation of the character, it is still a valid perspective. And it doesn’t go against what I’ve laid out


He does terrible things without remorse. If you have to group him into a category, he’s definitely a villain.