Watchmen is a story that tackles superhero archetypes, breaks them down to their bare bones and creates original characters from that. If Rorschach represents the street vigilante, like Batman or Daredevil, and Ozymandias represents the corporate tycoon, Dr. Manhattan is Superman. Manhattan in Snyder/Moore’s Watchmen is a highly critical look at the concept of Superman, an inspection at how such a powerful being would really interact in the setting of the story.
Manhattan is really the unique character in Watchmen’s universe, as he’s the only super-powered being and is gateway to a lot of the story’s craziest sci-fi elements. He can perceive all of time at once as mentioned, control atoms with ease; shrink, grow, fly, teleport, multiply and a myriad of other things, basically any superpower you can think of, Dr. Manhattan has.
Time is key aspect of Jon Osterman’s character. His father was a watchmaker, John’s transformation scene has a few key shots which focus on his watch before he is transformed, he builds a giant clock on Mars and of course, Dr. Manhattan can perceive all of time simultaneously — past, present and future. All at once he sees the pain of his transformation, the loss of his loves, Janey and Laurie as well as some of the future which gives him a sense of predestination. Him seeing time as one entity and all his extraordinary powers leads to a change in Jon. He sees such an exponential amount more than any person, so much so that human troubles are minute compared to what they used to be for him. Osterman loses connection with humanity slowly, with that idea fully manifesting by the end of the film. It is first seen in the scene where he is criticized on live TV, for being responsible for the deaths of many of his close friends (falsely); this scene ends with Manhattan ambiguously getting rid of everybody in the studio and it is unknown if he has killed them or not. That really doesn’t matter because the point has already been made by the end of the scene, he wants to be distant from humanity and planet Earth. With all his power, pain still is all around him. Why be apart of Earth when the whole universe can be at your command?
Love is another key trait of Osterman. Janey and Lauire are two factors in him leaving Earth. Two people who he dearly loved and ended up departing him.It takes Lauire for Dr. Manhattan to come back to Earth in the third act, because it is revealed that she is a miracle in his eyes; something which he believed to be ridiculous before finding out Laurie is the child of the Comedian and the original Silk Spectre. The fact that she was conceived from such horrible circumstance restores enough faith in his merits of humanity to come back to Earth to talk to Ozymandias, but not enough to try to save it when Vedit’s plans for restoring social order are revealed. He sees the pettiness in human troubles, the corruption and evil and decides he doesn’t need it when he can have so much more.
Manhattan’s philosophy by the end is the opposite of Rorschach’s. He leaves Earth to let it tear itself apart and create life somewhere else, essentially abandoning it and not doing anything to stop it. He has no interest in maintaining social order or justice. While Rorschach of course, will do everything and anything to try to improve humanity and society in the right way — with justice.
Jon Osterman/Dr. Manhattan is played by Billy Crudup in Snyder’s Watchmen and it’s a magnificent combination of real acting and computer generated imagery. Crudup wore a sweat suit on set which had tracking markers on it so the visual effects artists could track the actor’s movements and also 2500 blue LED lights which emitted the blue glow of the character as seen in the film. Manhattan’s physique was created using the of fitness model Greg Plitt, which his body essentially being pasted on Manhattan. Sony Imageworks did the VFX work on Manhattan and it’s terrifically realized, he really feels fully integrated with the other actors, as in there is zero dissonance between them . The sadness, melancholy, love, immense power and boiling anger of Jon Osterman are expertly crafted in the film by Crudup.
By the end of Watchmen, Dr. Manhattan is the most changed character. A man once normal, in love, who ends up being an omnipotent God who has no interest in humanity and Earth. It’s a tale of absolute power corrupting absolutely, a key villain trait in superhero fiction, which in Watchmen is applied to one its protagonists. As with all of the characters, there’s a lot more to discuss in regards to Doctor Manhattan in Watchmen and if you have anything to add, feel free to do so.