Doctor Manhattan is famously the only character in Watchmen with actual superpowers, allowing the venerable comic series to maintain the fan-awarded label of a “realistic superhero story.” His abilities have a profound effect on Watchmen’s alternate history of the United States, and frame the bounds of its plot.
In episode 8 of HBO’s Watchmen, Doctor Manhattan’s abilities came into sharp focus after he’s revealed to be Calvin, the husband of the main character Angela. But even watching the super human navigate time and space doesn’t make understanding Doctor Manhattan any easier. What are his powers? Can he be killed? When and where is he at any given moment? Good questions, and we have answers.
[Ed. note: This piece contains spoilers for Watchmen’s eighth episode, “A God Walks Into Abar.”]
Doctor Manhattan can manipulate matter
There are a lot of things that Doctor Manhattan does in the Watchmen comic. He creates glass clockwork castles on Mars, he teleports organic and inorganic matter, and he blasts members of the Viet Cong with lasers from his hands. And while it might be different for other superheroes, all of that stuff works the same way for Doctor Manhattan: He can manipulate matter at the subatomic level.
Doctor Manhattan got his powers in a scientific accident at the Gila Flats Test Base in Arizona, which was studying the “intrinsic field” of matter (not a real thing, in case you were wondering).
“It’s like, what if there’s some field holdin’ stuff together, apart from gravity?” explains Wally Weaver, an assistant at Gila Flats.
The being known as Doctor Manhattan was born when Jon Osterman stepped inside Gila Flats’ test vault to retrieve his watch and was trapped there while it automatically carried out a planned experiment. The test chamber removed his intrinsic field, disassembling him at the atomic level. In exchange, it seems to have given him the ability to manipulate the intrinsic field of any matter with a thought.
His first use of that ability was to build himself a new body; it took him three months to manifest in the middle of Gila Flats’ employee cafeteria. From there he was quickly roped into the American war machine. The American propaganda machine subsequently dubbed him “Doctor Manhattan,” an association with the unrelated power of the atomic bomb that was intended to sow fear in the hearts of America’s enemies.
Doctor Manhattan can take guns apart with his mind, manufacture lithium from nothing, and make duplicates of himself. But his other truly out-there ability has to do with his perception of time.
Doctor Manhattan does not experience time as we know it
From the moment of his accident, Jon Osterman ceased to experience time as a linear progression. He experiences his own past, present, and future simultaneously. He first describes this to his then-girlfriend, Janey Slater, after the assassination of President John Kennedy. As he does it, he’s gazing at Dali’s “The Persistence of Memory” which is a little on the nose.
Doctor Manhattan can appear to others to be a person who knows what is coming and goes blithely along with it, making no choices. But just because he’s aware of the future, doesn’t mean that he can change it.
“Everything is preordained. Even my responses,” he tells Laurie Blake in the Watchmen comic.
“And you just go through the motions, acting them out?” she responds, “Is that what you are? The most powerful thing in the universe and you’re just a puppet following a script?”
“We’re all puppets, Laurie,” he says, “I’m just a puppet who can see the strings.”
You see, he’s not predicting the future. He’s currently experiencing it. To him, all of the experiences and actions of his life — even his acknowledgements of future events to himself and other characters — have already happened. And are currently happening. To him, there’s no difference between the past, present, and future.
When his powers are neutralized, however, he experiences time linearly. The effect also ripples back through linear time, making it impossible for him to “see” the times when his powers are gone until he “gets” to them. In the Watchmen graphic novel, Ozymandias neutralizes Doctor Manhattan’s powers by enveloping his Antarctic retreat in a shower of tachyons, preventing Manhattan from knowing that he would one day discover Ozymandias’ plan until he actually discovered it.
In the comic, when Jon realizes that something was clouding his “vision” of the night of Nov. 2, 1985, he exclaims: “I’d almost forgotten the excitement of not knowing, the delights of uncertainty...”
It was the first time he’d been unaware of what was going to happen next in over 25 years. Yes, there are even times when Doctor Manhattan isn’t watching the Watchmen.