Jon sits on Mars, looking at the photograph he took from the bar. He experiences all moments in time simultaneously, and his mind skips between them. In 1945, Jon sits at his father’s kitchen table in Brooklyn, trying to repair an old watch, intending to take up his father’s trade. His father runs in with a newspaper and announces that the U.S. dropped an atomic bomb. Jon’s father thinks this bomb is the future; the world no longer needs watchmakers like himself. Jon protests, but his father throws the gears, cogs, and watchmaker’s tools out the window, into the street.
Watches and clocks symbolize the carefully-ordered universe, with its complex laws of nature and physics, which gives the illusion of a watchmaker—presumably God—being in control of it. Jon’s father throwing away the watchmaker’s tools after reading about the atomic bomb thus symbolically suggests that the arrival of such a devastating technology upsets the careful balance and order of the universe.
In 1948, Jon attends Princeton. In 1958, he graduates from Harvard with a Ph.D. in physics. He takes a job in a research facility in Arizona. A research assistant shows him around, walks him through the lab where they do tests with radiation looking for something called an “intrinsic field,” and shows him the local bar. In 1959, Jon meets Janey Slater in the bar. In 1963, they make love after an argument. In 1966, Janey cries and packs her suitcase. In 1959, they’re together at an amusement park. A man takes their photo and calls them young lovers. That evening, they share a hotel room. In 1966, Janey cries while trying to shut her suitcase. In 1985, Jon watches a meteor shower from Mars.
Ironically, the atom bomb changes the world particularly by changing the course of Jon’s life, setting him on a trajectory to become Dr. Manhattan and bring new advances to technology, as well as tilt the global balance of power in America’s favor. As a superhuman, Jon is able to view all moments in time at once, suggesting that humanity’s linear view of time is itself an illusion. Janey Slater crying and packing her suitcase suggests that their relationship ends, making way for his relationship with Laurie.
In 1959, a month after the amusement park and hotel, Jon accidentally locks himself in the radiation test chamber. The machine starts up for a scheduled test and the radiation evaporates Jon’s body. One month later, Janey sticks their photo together on the wall in the bar. One month after that, a floating human circulatory system appears briefly in the lab’s kitchen. Days later, a human skeleton with growing muscles appears next a fence, screams, and vanishes again. Two weeks later, when the researchers wonder if their lab is haunted, Jon materializes in the air in a flash of radiation, transformed into a man who is blue and naked and powerful.
The procession from circular system to muscled skeleton to full body suggests that Jon is recreating himself. Jon dies and is reborn as a superhuman, able to transcend all of humanity’s natural limitations. Although the story has a markedly atheistic tone, Jon’s rebirth and transformation is its own form of reincarnation, a transition into a transcendent, god-like form that recalls the biblical story of Jesus Christ. This again positions Jon as a god-like figure in the story,, especially in the chapters that wrestle with meaning and nihilism.
At Christmas in 1959, Janey struggles to adjust to Jon’s new form. Jon takes her in his arms and tells her that he will always love her. He knows it’s a lie—he can hear her shouting at him in 1963 and leaving in 1966. In 1960, the government wants to make him into a weapon. They design him a costume, which he hates. The government names him Dr. Manhattan for its “threatening association.” Jon feels like he’s losing control of it all. Broadcasters announce, “The superman exists, and he’s American,” and show footage of Dr. Manhattan telepathically taking apart rifles and blowing up tanks. The world worries that this will disrupt the space and weapons race. Other costumed heroes seem skeptical of him.
Jon can see the end of any relationship before it even begins, yet he chooses to engage in such relationships anyway, suggesting that the value of such relationships is the journey through them, regardless of their eventual outcome. Although Jon’s existence has all manner of massive ramifications for society and technology, the American government immediately turns him into a weapon, suggesting that America is most concerned with its power to dominate and control its adversaries, rather than advancing humanity.
In 1960, the newspapers label Dr. Manhattan a “crimefighter,” so he starts fighting crime and killing people. Jon notes, “The morality of my activities escapes me.” In 1961, Jon shakes President Kennedy’s hand. Two months later, Kennedy is assassinated. In 1962, Hollis Mason retires. He tells Jon he’ll become an automotive repairman—the world is changing fast, but cars should stay about the same. Jon tells Hollis that new electric cars are already being manufactured, since Jon can synthesize enough lithium to make them better than gas-powered engines. The news unsettles Hollis.
Jon’s sense that he has lost control and does not understand the morality of his actions suggests that the American government turns him into a weapon against his own will. Although he does not refuse to fight, neither is he inclined to. Jon’s news to Hollis that all cars will soon become electric reflects how, in the modern world, even things that seemed dependable and stable—like automotive repair—are rapidly changing.
In 1963, Janey shouts at Jon when he tells her he knew that J.F.K. would die—she thinks he should’ve stopped it, but he claims he’s unable. In 1966, Jon sees 16-year-old Laurie for the first time when Captain Metropolis tries to form the Crimebusters. Janey notices him staring at Laurie and hates him for it. Jon and Laurie start having an affair. Janey packs her bags and leaves. In 1969, Jon learns of his father’s death. In 1970, he moves in with 20-year-old Laurie.
Jon’s interest in underage Laurie and the pain he puts Janey through with their affair suggests that, although he is now superhuman with limitless strength and intelligence, he is also still governed by human emotions and desires. This mixture of human emotion and limitless power makes Jon an exceptionally dangerous figure.
In 1971, President Nixon asks Jon to fight in the Vietnam War. Two months later, Jon meets the Comedian in Saigon. Blake seems entirely “amoral,” perfect for the “the madness, the pointless butchery” of Vietnam. Blake seems to be one of the few people who understands the horror of the human condition, and he doesn’t care at all. After Jon arrives, the Vietcong surrender within two months. In 1985, Jon stops looking at the stars and decides that he will create something for himself on Mars.
The story’s alternate reality closely parallels American history but alters it by imagining how masked heroes and a superhuman would have changed events. Jon’s observation that the Vietnam War was full of “madness, pointless butchery” seems to be an observation of the actual war, while America’s victory in it (America lost, in reality) imagines how a super-weapon may have changed its outcome.
In 1975, President Nixon amends the constitution to allow himself to run for a third term. Ozymandias retires and reveals himself as the business magnate Adrian Veidt. Jon and Laurie meet with him and marvel at his genetically altered giant pet lynx, Bubastis. Veidt explains how Jon’s appearance has heralded many advances in fields like genetics, transportation, and physics. In 1985, Jon sits on Mars and begins creating. In 1977, Jon and Laurie try to control a rioting mob that is protesting the existence of masked vigilantes. Jon teleports the hundreds of people back to their homes. A few die of heart attacks, but less than would have died in a riot.
Although American victory in the Vietnam War could be perceived (by American readers) as a positive change wrought by the heroes, Nixon’s rewriting of the constitution to remain in power is certainly a negative change. This suggests that more than being simply good or evil, the presence of vigilante heroes would be massively disruptive to human society, creating both positive and negative changes throughout. This contrasts with most superhero comics that came before Watchmen, where society looks largely the same as it does in reality and is structurally unaffected by the presence of superheroes.
In 1977, the Keene Act passes as an emergency bill, outlawing all vigilantes except for Dr. Manhattan and the Comedian, since they work directly for the government. Rorschach refuses to quit, but everyone else retires. In 1981, Jon and Laurie move into their new home in the Rockefeller Military Facility in New York City. The city is filled with electric cars and airships float overhead. In 1985, Rorschach tells them about Edward Blake’s murder. Later that week, Laurie leaves Jon. Later that evening, people accuse him of giving dozens of people terminal cancer. Jon feels “tired” of Earth and its people, tired of their entanglements and fears. He takes the photograph from Arizona and leaves.
The Keene Act outlaws all vigilantes except for the ones that the government wants to utilize itself. This creates a critical depiction of the American government, suggesting that it does not abide by the laws that it enforces against its people. Jon’s feeling that he is “tired” of humanity suggests that unlike Superman, who feels connected to humanity, a superhuman would be more likely to disconnect from humanity since their own experience is now so different. Jon is not just powerful, but an entirely different sort of being.
On Mars, Jon floats in the air and forms a glass clockwork palace from the sand out of pure will. He wonders if the shape of his creation was fated, predestined for all eternity, or if he himself created its shape. He considers all the events that brought him to this moment and decides that the universe has no creator. It is “a clock without a craftsman.”
Once again, clocks symbolize the ordered universe, which gives the illusion of some sort of clockmaker or God, just as Jon’s clockwork palace exists because he created it. However, Jon’s realization is the opposite conclusion: despite the universe’s order, he believes at that there is no God or force giving it shape or meaning—it is merely a product of chance.
In an excerpt from Milton Glass’s “Dr. Manhattan: Super-powers and the Superpowers,” Glass writes that the great paradox of the 20th century is that humanity calls for peace while preparing for war. When Dr. Manhattan appears, many newspapers quote Glass as saying, “the superman exists, and he’s American.” But what he actually says is, “God exists, and he’s American.” Dr. Manhattan seems the ultimate weapon, the ultimate deterrent to Soviet aggression. America’s new dominance has resulted in a temporary peace, where the West can do anything it wants. However, Glass believes that this will not endure. Even Dr. Manhattan cannot prevent a full-scale nuclear assault. If the Russians are pushed to their limit, Glass believes that “mutually assured destruction” is inevitable. Meanwhile, the rest of the world struggles to accept the existence of the superhuman.
Glass’s view of America’s use of Dr. Manhattan suggests that America establishes peace not by forming treaties or cooperating with other nations, but by dominating them militarily to keep them fearful. This again depicts the American government as war-mongering and oppressive—opposed to peace, essentially—even though it claims to support liberty and democracy. Glass aptly declares Dr. Manhattan to be “God” rather than merely a superman, since the full range of his power and intelligence makes him seem utterly inhuman. This reinforces Dr. Manhattan’s dual position in the narrative as both a god figure and an ultimate weapon.