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Thursday, July 16, 2020

July 16, 2020: AmericanStudying Watchmen: Dr. Manhattan

[Along with Bosch, another acclaimed show I’ve finally had a chance to check out during lockdown is HBO’s Watchmen, and it lived up to the hype. Among its many strengths, I’d emphasize in particular its remarkable depth when it comes to American history, and this week will focus on five sides to those themes and threads. Leading up to a special weekend post sharing student perspectives on both the show and its graphic novel source material!]
[NB. SPOILERS will abound all week—go check the show out and then come back to read these posts and share your thoughts!]
On two ways the HBO show humanizes the graphic novel’s most (literally) fantastic character.
I taught Watchmen (the graphic novel) in my Intro to Science Fiction & Fantasy class this past semester (such as it was), and as has been the case each time I’ve taught the book, we spent a fair amount of time talking (well, in this case writing in shared Google Docs) about how we would define its genre. Partly that’s because we read Watchmen last, so by that time we’ve spent a dozen weeks talking about science fiction, fantasy, weird tales, and other related genres. But partly it’s because Watchmen defies easy genre characterizations: it’s clearly a superhero comic in some key ways (even published by DC Comics); but it also has numerous elements of alternate history, or perhaps a dystopian science fiction story that has emerged out of an alternate history. And speaking of science fiction, then there all the elements that the character of Jon Osterman/Dr. Manhattan adds into the mix—not just the supernatural powers caused by his nuclear accident (a somewhat typical superhero trope, of course), but also the related elements like time travel and telepathy that his situation brings with it. In truth, Manhattan has always seemed to me to exist outside of the rest of Watchmen in not only genre but in those other ways as well, and I’ve found it somewhat difficult to frame him within the novel.
If you’re going to have Dr. Manhattan in your story (and the HBO show, like the Snyder film before it, does so), then you’re going to have to deal with those elements and effects (and, yes, with the infamous giant blue phallus, which is not a phrase I ever expected to write on this blog but here we are). But HBO’s Watchmen finds a couple smart and compelling ways to add humanity to Manhattan’s role and identity, transforming this fantastic character into part of its world and story much more fully in the process. One of them, considering the continued aftermath of Manhattan’s supernatural victory for the US forces during the Vietnam War, is perhaps an inevitable effect of making the show a temporal sequel to the graphic novel, but is nonetheless handled with nuance and depth (more so, I’d say, than in the novel, which is also set some years after the conclusion of the war). On a broad level, that means for example the decision to make Vietnam a U.S. state, and to make one of the show’s central new characters a Vietnamese American woman (about whom I will say no more, even in a spoilerific series). But it also means creating plot threads that depict continued conflicts within Vietnam, ones caused specifically by both the US victory and its ongoing presence. Dr. Manhattan might have decided that knowing everything that will happen means nothing matters, that is, but the show’s depiction of Vietnam reminds us that for everyone else that’s far from the truth.
And in fact, the show’s other central choice related to Manhattan works very effectively to change that omniscient, all-powerful side to the character as well. The show’s 8th episode, “A God Walks into Abar” (serious SPOILERS in both that great Sepinwall piece and the rest of this paragraph), dives into the story of how Dr. Manhattan met and fell in love with Angela Abar, and how through that relationship he was convinced to give up his omniscience and powers in exchange for the possibility of a genuinely shared human love. That plotline works as an interesting counter to Manhattan’s story in the graphic novel, where we only see his human relationship with fellow scientist Janey Slater in flashback and where his romance with Laurie Juspeczyk/Silt Spectre is consistently overshadowed by his supernatural powers. HBO’s Watchmen imagines instead how a profoundly human love might be powerful enough to overshadow the supernatural, and what might result, for this fantastic character, his lover, and the entire world, from that shift.
Last WatchmenStudying tomorrow,
PS. What do you think? Other takes on the show you’d share?

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