HBO’s Watchmen: The Alien Godhood of Doctor Manhattan
WARNING: Contains spoilers for Watchmen
Does Watchmen’s Doctor Manhattan have free will?
It’s a question that both the graphic novel and HBO’s sequel series — which just finished a run as one of the most compelling shows on television — lend themselves. Jon Osterman, aka Doctor Manhattan, is a blue-skinned god who is omnipotent and omniscient — he knows all and sees all. He is also utterly alien.
Comic books and their screen adaptations have no shortage of gods. In many ways, the entire genre started with the godlike character of Superman. Superman was soon joined by Wonder Woman. Within a couple of decades the DC comic book universe looked like a pantheon of Greek gods. Marvel attempted to make their own creations less powerful and more human, but even they couldn’t resist characters like Thor (an actual Norse god).
All of these characters are treated as human beings with superpowers. Their perspective of the world was one that any normal person (or, more importantly, reader) could understand. They might be immortal, invulnerable, or capable of calling lightning from the heavens, but if you stripped away their powers what was left was an ordinary person.
But Dr. Manhattan is different. Dr. Manhattan is so transformed by his accident at Gila Flats that there is almost nothing human left. With his godhood he loses his ability to connect with ordinary people. The cause of this comes down to his relationship to time.
In a stroke of brilliance, Alan Moore and Dave Gibbons realized that an omniscient being would not just be aware of everything happening around them in the present, but also in the past and future. We see this play out in chapter IV of the Watchmen graphic novel and episode 8 of the HBO series. From his perspective, Dr. Manhattan experiences every moment of his life at the same time. This means that as he takes an action he is also experiencing the short and long-term consequences of that action. He can — and does — have two conversations taking place a decade apart at the same time (creating a stable time loop as relaying a question to Angela’s grandfather in the past creates the very situation that gave rise to that question). He knows that Angela Abar’s attempts to save him from the Seventh Kavalry will fail at the same time as he sits down to meet her for the first time (from her perspective).
This perspective of time renders Dr. Manhattan’s life a massive time travel conundrum. He must undertake the actions he does because he undertakes them — any attempt to make a different decision or change the course of events creates a paradox. There is nothing stopping him from preventing the Seventh Kavalry from capturing him — his foreknowledge of the event should make him impossible to capture — but he experiences being captured, and if he doesn’t allow himself to be captured he can’t have experienced it. By all appearances, part of the price Dr. Manhattan paid for his godhood was his free will.
HBO’s Watchmen series develops this a step further. Doctor Manhattan not only takes on the physical appearance of a human being, but using a device created by Adrian Veidt/Ozymandias, strips himself of his memories of being a god. This allows him to experience time the way that everybody else does, and become a facsimile of a mortal human being. Doctor Manhattan in his godlike form cannot see the ten years he spends as a human — only that Angela Abar is present at the beginning and the end of it. It is only as he is dying — returning to the mortal condition that most defines humanity — that Doctor Manhattan is able to remember his life as a human being with Angela alongside his existence as a god.
Does Dr. Manhattan have free will? He certainly seemed to in the human form of Calvin Abar. As a god, he seemed to be following the script that his life had become. But this is a question we can never really answer. We do not know if Doctor Manhattan ever deviated from the script he experienced and created a new one — we only ever saw the final result of the script he did follow. Even attempting to talk about his omniscience is difficult. Try as we may, we cannot ever understand what it is to see and experience every moment of our existence at the same time.
We are, after all, just human beings. It is not ours to ever understand what it is to be a god.