But there is one point in Alan Moore and Dave Gibbons’ story that he quietly and cleverly exhibits one of the most fundamental superheroic powers. And in the final episode of HBO’s Watchmen, he does it again.
[Ed. note: This piece contains spoilers for Watchmen on HBO.]
Early on in “See How They Fly,” Adrian attempts to escape from the utopian prison of Europa by way of Lady Trieu’s spaceship. The Game Warden cuts him off at the pass, and after repeatedly telling “Master” to stop, and after his Master repeatedly brushes off the warning, the Warden fires on him.
Adrian collapses, seemingly dead, only to deliver a powerful kick to the Warden when he draws close. Ozymandias’ secret is revealed: He caught the bullet in his hand.
Why Adrian Veidt can catch bullets
This was not an illusion: Veidt can pluck a bullet out of the air. Or at least he can in a pinch. He reveals this particular talent in the final issue of Watchmen. After Veidt explains to his fellow costumed heroes that he’s dropped a psychic squid on New York City, Nite Owl is caught up in disbelief, grasping at straws. Veidt couldn’t be the man behind the murder of the Comedian, Rorschach’s arrest, and Doctor Manhattan’s disappearance, the bird-themed vigilante insists. He was targeted for assassination a well!
“You couldn’t have planned it!” Nite Owl says, “What if [the hired assassin had] shot you first instead of your secretary?”
Veidt answers with his typical ... assholishness.
Only a few scenes later, Veidt puts his considerable money where his even more considerable mouth is, when he actually catches a pistol bullet, fired mere feet away from him by the Silk Spectre. As in the show, he collapses to the ground, but the bullet is revealed to be in his bloody hand, and he fells his opponent with a swift surprise kick.
Wait, so how does he do it?
In a nutshell: comic book logic.
Though stage magicians have been performing variations on the bullet catch trick for 400 years, it’s just a trick. The performer doesn’t rely on actually catching a bullet, but in obfuscating the firing of a fake bullet and the secreting of a look-a-like bullet on their own person for reveal at the end.
But, the bullet catch still looms large in the imagination, particularly in the comic book genre, where one of the most iconic abilities of its founding character — Superman — is that he can shrug off bullets like rainwater. Watchmen’s costumed crime-fighters are sordidly mundane, and famously so. Doctor Manhattan is considered the exception that proves the rule.
But a focus on Jon can obfuscate the fact that Ozymandias also has an absurdly superheroic origin. He’s a mythical self-made man, who gave up his inherited fortune to retrace the steps of Alexander the Great in a search for enlightenment, and to travel “through China and Tibet, gathering martial wisdom as I went.” In Watchmen, he describes the moment in which he realized his personal philosophy, and resolved to become a costumed crime fighter, as occurring when he wandered naked in the Egyptian desert after eating a ball of hashish.
And yes, this all sounds like an epic post-college trip, but it’s also a deeply entrenched cliché in Western adventure fiction. It’s reflected in the origins of Batman, Green Arrow, Doctor Strange, the Shadow, and even as far back as The Count of Monte Cristo. These are all characters that journeyed to the far east and came back with mystical secrets and mysterious skills.
Moore and Gibbons’ point of inspiration for Ozymandias — a Charlton Comics character known as “Peter Canon, Thunderbolt,” — also fit into this trope, having acquired ancient knowledge that allowed him to unlock his full physical and mental potential, far beyond that of other men. Adrian’s “Veidt Method” self-improvement brand, as shown in the Watchmen comic, leaned heavily on similar, New Age ideas that a person can control their mental and physical health by the mere application of their own individual will.
In other words, Ozymandias can catch bullets because he’s exactly the kind of character who’d have studied an ancient mental technique to allow him to, in a pinch, catch a bullet. It’s comic book logic. Moore and Gibbons didn’t actually think it was possible to catch a bullet.