In his Antarctic fortress, Adrian Veidt voice-records a complex observation about changing perceptions and technological development. He watches Rorschach and Daniel ride toward him on his wall of screens. Daniel wonders why someone like Veidt—who never killed a single person—should want to destroy the world. Rorschach thinks it must be “insanity.” Veidt walks with Bubastis, saying that he has something to resolve before the heroes arrive. He grabs a microphone and calls his staff to meet with him in his glass vivarium for celebratory drinks.
Veidt’s voice-recording demonstrates his considerable intellect and insight into human behavior. Especially combined with Daniel’s inability to understand why someone like Adrian Veidt should want to destroy the world, it suggests that there is a deeper and more complex conspiracy at hand than anyone realizes.
On the street corner, the news vendor complains about young people partying before the world ends. Joey’s girlfriend Aline arrives, looking for her, but the news vendor hasn’t seen her. He tells Aline to let Joey know that the new issue of Hustler will be in soon. Aline runs away, upset. In the pirate comic, the survivor rushes into his home and bludgeons the pirate he finds sleeping on the floor. It lets out a high scream. He looks up to see his own children, staring at him, terrified. He looks down and sees his wife lying beneath him, limp. The pirates never came. The survivor realizes what he’s done and runs away, out the door and down the road, feeling as if he’s lost all sanity.
Hustler is a pornographic magazine, so it upsets Aline that her partner buys it. The pirate comic’s survivor makes a horrific mistake and murders his own wife, believing that he is taking righteous vengeance on the pirates. His tragedy again foreshadows Veidt’s own ethical dilemma—particularly Veidt’s uncertainty after the conspiracy is completed—of whether he has committed the greatest good or gone insane and committed the worst possible evil. It’s also notable that in the survivor’s case, the danger was only ever in his head, which casts doubt on the entire prospect of the war and suggests that human thought is really what creates even such enormous conflicts.
Veidt, dressed as Ozymandias, meets with his staff in the vivarium. He tells them about his childhood, how he was born to average parents. He is “exceptionally bright” from the beginning, though he does not know why. Veidt’s parents die when he is 17, leaving him an inheritance. However, Veidt idolizes Alexander of Macedonia, who nearly united the entire world, and wants to measure his own success against Alexander’s. He gives away his inheritance and travels to Turkey to follow Alexander’s footsteps. On the street corner, Joey and Aline fight. Aline is angry at Joey for looking at Hustler. Joey says she wishes she were “straight” and she wishes she were “dead.” In the pirate comic, the survivor reaches the ocean.
Veidt’s idolization of Alexander the Great, who nearly united the world by conquering many nations and killing countless people, foreshadows that Veidt will also make the exchange of many human lives for a unified, peaceful world. Veidt thus embodies utilitarian ethics, in that he believes that the ends justify the means and that one should pursue the greatest good for the greatest number of people, even through sacrifice and moral compromise.
In his glass-walled vivarium, Veidt continues to recall his trek across the Middle East, through Egypt where Alexander was dubbed Rameses II, and finally to Alexander’s resting place. Veidt feels disappointed that Alexander failed in his mission to unite the world. On his last night in Egypt, he takes some hashish and has an epiphany—he will become the next Alexander and bring his principles to the modern world. He takes the Greek name for Rameses II (Ozymandias) and sets out on his quest to defeat all of man’s evils and create a unified world. He thanks his staff for helping him in that journey. His staff sit on a bench, unresponsive. Veidt presses a button on a console and the walls of the vivarium slide down, exposing them all to the Antarctic winds. He leaves, and the vivarium and Veidt’s staff are quickly buried by snow and ice.
Veidt kills his staff as a way to cover his tracks, which implies that he also killed all of the people on the boat with Max Shea and Hira Manish. Even before his plan is complete, Veidt murders hundreds of people, mostly of whom supported him and his work. But according to his utilitarian philosophy, uniting the world is worth these costs, just as Alexander the Great considered wiping out numerous armies the worthwhile cost of uniting the world in his day. Veidt’s trading of some people’s lives for the sake of others makes him an ethically questionable figure, far from the typical idea of a hero or a villain.
On the street corner, Gloria Long asks the news vendor if he’s seen her husband. They talk briefly, but she spots Malcolm down the street and goes to him. In the pirate comic, the survivor hears an angry mob pursuing him. The pirate freighter floats in the sea in front of him, and he realizes that it was not preparing to strike his hometown, but rather waiting for him. With no life left on land, he swims desperately out to the ship to join its crew.
The pirate comic’s narrator ultimately becomes a villain, confirmed by the angry mob of villagers who pursue him into the sea and drive him to become a pirate himself. Again, this foreshadows Veidt’s eventual position as neither a clear hero nor a clear villain, but an ethically ambiguous figure who some may find monstrous just the same.
Rorschach and Daniel find the entrance to Veidt’s vivarium and use it to enter his fortress. Daniel expresses some hesitation about killing Veidt, since he always seemed like a gentle guy. Rorschach says that they must, and he will do it if Daniel doesn’t feel able. They spot Veidt in his dining room and attack him from behind, but Veidt easily subdues them. Rorschach continues unsuccessfully trying to attack, but Daniel demands to know Veidt’s plot.
Rorschach’s conviction that Veidt must die, regardless of his motivations, demonstrates his strictly moralistic view of ethics. Rorschach and Veidt thus represent two opposing ethical stances pitted against each other. Veidt embodies utilitarianism and ethical ambiguity, while Rorschach embodies rigid moralism.
While fending off Rorschach, Veidt explains that as a hero, he quickly realized that not all injustice is perpetrated by villains. In the 1950s, he discovers that the Comedian is hunting for Hooded Justice on behalf of the government and suspects that the Comedian may have killed him. He also knows that the Comedian is in Dallas with Nixon on the day that J.F.K is shot. Kennedy was about to give a speech declaring that the U.S. is the “watchmen on the walls of world freedom.” Veidt realizes that all of their vigilante adventuring is pointless; they are just fighting the “symptoms” rather than the “disease.” When the Comedian talks about nuclear war at the Crimebusters meeting in 1966, Veidt realizes he is completely right, but refuses to share his darkly comedic cynicism about the world.
Veidt’s story confirms that the Comedian murdered people on behalf of the American government, reinforcing the point that it is a corrupt institution. Furthermore, Veidt’s realization that stopping petty crimes makes no real difference critiques the popular notion of comic book heroes as righteous role models who stop muggings and rescue people from burning buildings. Veidt’s claim that the masked vigilantes only fight the “symptoms” and not the “disease” points to the fact that such heroes do not tackle the root causes of poverty, crime, and evil in the world—things that Rorschach in particular has always ignored in his quest to stop individual injustices.
On the street corner, Gloria finds Malcolm and tells him that she wants him back. She misses him. In the background, Joey pushes Aline down and starts kicking her on the ground. Gloria sees Malcolm looking at them and tells him that if he goes to help instead of staying with her, she’ll leave him forever. Malcolm tells her he’s sorry, but he can’t run from the world’s problems.
Although Rorschach criticizes Dr. Long for believing that he is a good person and can help the world, Gloria’s insistence that he simply block the world out does not seem like a better alternative. Malcolm’s decision to help where he can, such as stopping Joey from beating up Aline, seems the only reasonable alternative, even though it costs him his wife.
In Veidt’s fortress, Adrian continues to recall his journey. After the Crimebusters meeting, Veidt studies the world and sees the inevitably of nuclear disaster. The East and the West are bound for mutual suicide. They spend all their money on weapons, so their people suffer and the environment burns. Jon’s appearance accelerates this process by bringing advances in technology. The only way to stop it is for someone to exercise “brute power” and commit to an awful, but effective solution. Veidt figures that by the end of the 1970s, the world will be near catastrophe, so he spends the next decade building his fortune and amassing wealth, in order to prevent the end of the world.
Once again, Veidt’s view that someone must exercise “brute power” and have the gall to take horrific action for the greater good represents a utilitarian view of ethics. However, with Veidt’s understanding that the warring powers on earth will inevitably kill themselves and everyone else, such a utilitarian view seems to be the only one that can make a difference. Rorschach, by contrast, stays true to his morals and refuses to compromise, but he doesn’t have any answer for how to prevent a nuclear war.
The pirate comic ends when the pirate crew lowers a rope to the survivor. The news vendor says that people ought to connect with each other more. He asks the man reading the comic what his name is and is pleased to find that they’re both named Bernard. The other man doesn’t care, though. He notices Joey beating up Aline, with Malcolm intervening, just as Detective Steven Fine arrives as well.
The man reading the comic blows off the news vendor’s attempt to form a connection between them, suggesting that even when someone wants to invest in the world around them, people tend to isolate themselves and be hostile towards others.
Veidt continues revealing his plan. He knows he needs to get rid of Jon, so his company, Dimensional Developments, hires several of Jon’s past associates and secretly gives them cancer. Veidt buys an island and begins working on teleportation and genetic research. The Comedian discovers the island by accident and figures out his plot, so Veidt breaks into his apartment and kills him. Veidt believes that an “intractable” problem like nuclear war requires an unconventional solution. With a cadre of artists, scientists, and writers, Veidt builds a monstrous creature to convince national governments that they are being invaded by aliens, to scare them into cooperating with each other instead of fighting.
Veidt’s conspiracy turns out to be the connecting thread through a staggering number of seemingly random events, confirming his role as a mastermind. Although Veidt’s ethical justification is left up to the reader, he nonetheless occupies the antagonist’s role in the story, since he is behind every negative and confusing event that happens to the other Watchmen. His plan to save Earth looks disturbingly like an elaborate terrorist attack, using fear to drive various governments into cooperating.
With Jon and the Comedian neutralized, Veidt needed Rorschach taken care of as well to stop him from meddling. He frames Rorschach, then hires an assassin to try to murder Veidt himself, thus placing himself beyond suspicion. Veidt explains that except for Jon’s power, teleportation has never been achieved without the object exploding on arrival, which suits his purposes. When he teleports his “alien” into New York City, it will trigger a “psychic shockwave” that will kill half the city. Daniel tells Veidt that they will stop his plan, but Veidt tells him it already happened, 35 minutes ago. In New York City, an explosion flashes.
Veidt’s plan kills millions of people, yet ostensibly saves the rest of the world. This makes him the most extreme utilitarian and raises the dubious question of whether he is Earth’s savior or its worst criminal. The novel pointedly leaves Veidt’s role ambiguous, letting the reader decide whether they agree with Veidt’s or Rorschach’s ethical approach—whether it is better to kill some to save the world, or to die with the world, but with one’s principles intact.
In an article from 1975 called “After the Masquerade,” Doug Roth interviews Adrian Veidt in his base in Antarctica. Veidt expresses his belief that anyone can be heroic with the right attitude, and explains how morally ambiguous crime fighting actually is—for instance, a woman steals food for her starving children while politicians legally create her poverty, so who should be punished? People in the U.S. government engineer plots to kill people in other countries. Everything is complex and vague. They speak about the nuclear crisis and humanity’s race towards extinction. Roth finds Veidt disturbingly likable for someone who seems so far above the rest of the world.
Both Veidt’s actions and his beliefs stated in this interview suggest that the idea of a hero fighting crime is pleasant, but too simple to actually be effective; the world does not adhere to black-and-white standards of morality, and each crime is connected to evil actions (perhaps even legal ones) committed by other people. Although Veidt’s utilitarianism may seem callous, even horrific, it stems from wider, well-informed view of the world and how it works, making Rorschach’s narrow moralism appear shallow and inadequate by contrast.