This story contains spoilers through Episode 8 of HBO’s Watchmen.
Watchmen, the graphic novel, includes a statement from Doctor Manhattan’s biographer clarifying a quote he once gave a reporter. “I never said ‘The Superman exists and he’s American,’” the writer complained. “What I said was ‘God exists and he’s American.’”
Watchmen, the HBO adaptation from the writer Damon Lindelof, takes that statement a step further: God exists, and he’s not only American, folks; he’s black.
As revealed in Episode 7 and explored further in last night’s flashback-driven installment, Cal Abar (played by Yahya Abdul-Mateen II), the mild-mannered stay-at-home dad and husband of the masked detective Angela Abar (played by Regina King), is actually Jon Osterman (a German-born Jewish man) a.k.a. Doctor Manhattan. Cal, along with Angela, deliberately blocked his memory of being the product of a physics experiment gone wrong so that they could be together. It’s a monumental twist in the world of Watchmen, and one that even Abdul-Mateen himself couldn’t wrap his head around when Lindelof told him about it after they finished shooting the pilot. “I don’t know what I did on the outside, but on the inside, I was going crazy,” Abdul-Mateen recalled to me over the phone last week. “I couldn’t believe it.”
Doctor Manhattan, after all, isn’t just a typical superhero; he’s more an all-powerful deity, immortal, blue-skinned, and all-seeing. He can manipulate matter, teleport anywhere in the universe, and create or destroy life. In 1985, the show reveals, he terraformed Jupiter’s moon Europa and populated this utopia with his own Adam and Eve—now known as Mr. Phillips (Tom Mison) and Ms. Crookshanks (Sara Vickers). Most important, Doctor Manhattan experiences time at once, rather than linearly: As he talks with Angela in a bar in 2009, for instance, he’s also with her in bed six months into the future, as well as hiding in a manor as a child in 1936.
Abdul-Mateen said he barely had time to comprehend the character’s incomparable powers. “It’s difficult enough acting two things at one time, so trying to be in two places at one time—and not just two, but an infinite number of places at one time—that would have really confused me,” he said. “I tried to think about it, and it kind of broke my brain.” The actor also had to sit through three hours of makeup every day and learned to modulate his voice to emulate the behavior of those he called “hyperintelligent figures,” such as Steve Jobs.
As for being a black man playing one of the most powerful characters in comic history, Abdul-Mateen said the significance didn’t strike him until after the series began airing. Black superheroes exist, of course, but they’re a rarity in Watchmen. Casting Doctor Manhattan as black is not only challenging the classic image of a superhero, but also challenging the comic’s own biases. “I never considered that when I was playing Doctor Manhattan. I was just stepping into the role,” Abdul-Mateen admitted. “What’s been most interesting is being able to look around and to interact with people who are finding that imagery to be really, really powerful, to be a part of this statement that we’re making on the show.”
It’s quite a statement, but then again, it’s Watchmen as interpreted by Lindelof, who—as seen in his previous TV series Lost and The Leftovers—is one of the medium’s most daring writers, using nonlinear storytelling to deliver bold statements and character studies. Across its eight episodes so far, Watchmen has upended its own history to give screen time and voice to the types of characters not usually featured in these stories. The sixth episode revealed that Hooded Justice, the first vigilante in the world of Watchmen, was a black man, and the show focuses on Angela, Laurie (Jean Smart), and Lady Trieu (Hong Chau)—three women of varying ages and races.
But in casting these roles, Lindelof and the show’s writers aren’t merely making a more inclusive superhero show. They’re respecting the original graphic novel’s ethos while also underlining the show’s premise, which interrogates racism and the rise of white supremacy. Instead of simply adding more actors of color to play token parts, Watchmen is criticizing the genre’s preference for reductive (and largely white) male-power fantasies. Pivotal narrative movements have come from unexpected, divergent sources. In Episode 4, for example, the cold open appears to focus on a pair of white farmers (surname: Clark, in a nod to Superman), but turns out to be about Lady Trieu. The series began with a heavy focus on Judd Crawford (Don Johnson), the white chief of police, only to kill him off in favor of focusing on Angela. When Jon has to choose a form for his new identity, Angela comes up with the idea of hiding him in plain sight. She offers him multiple corpses of men who “lived alone, died alone”—a Lost reference—and actively steers him toward Cal’s body, which makes her feel “comfortable.” Not only does a black female superhero make the call, but the decision also reinforces Angela’s intelligence. Jon praises it as an “elegant solution.”
By reimagining Doctor Manhattan, the closest thing it has to a god, Watchmen is furthering its point: People are kidding themselves if they think they’re above race. As trite and obvious as that argument may be, the show could only make it so decisively through Jon, someone who’d “transcended” race. Jon is unable to grasp some human emotions (such as shame, hence his constant nudity), and therefore considers racial issues to be beneath his concerns. Put simply, Doctor Manhattan no longer “sees color.”
Yet his new form has a profound impact on everyone around him. His appearance as Cal perhaps encourages Will (Louis Gossett Jr.)—Angela’s grandfather and the retired Hooded Justice—to accept what Cal says about Judd being a member of the white-supremacist organization Cyclops. And his appearance as Cal makes the former masked hero Adrian (Jeremy Irons) believe that he’s headed for paradise when Jon-as-Cal proposes he teleport him to Europa. Adrian, self-obsessed and egotistical, would likely not have responded the same way had the conversation been with someone who was glowing blue or who was a white man like himself.
For Abdul-Mateen, the role has been deeply resonant. “In a world where white supremacy is the antagonist of our story, it makes sense that a god is inhabited by a black man … [that] God can be black,” he explained. “It’s really humbling to be a part of that narrative.”