Old Photographs: Predestination and Free Will in Watchmen

Images From Watchmen

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An Old Debate as Seen In this Graphic Novel

Time in the Watchmen plays a crucial role in the creation of Dr. Manhattan. Dr. Manhattan is an ordinary man who, like Peter Parker, becomes a superman whose capabilities are reminiscent to those of God. Yet while Dr. Manhattan has many super powers, the artists make several references to his relationship with time, showing that his powers are limited by what he perceives as having already happened. Through Dr. Manhattan’s subservient relationship to time and predestination, the writers present a world where free will does not exist because there is never a moment where any of the characters, for all their powers, can override predestined events. Because this is the nature of the world that exists in the Watchmen, one end is no more or less tragic then another. The half million that perished in New York is no less tragic than the billions that might have perished in the world had Veidt not “saved” the world because every event only happened because it was predestined. In a graphic novel with a godlike character, time and predestination are the forces that limit the characters and show that salvation is impossible in a world where the future is seen as having already happened.

Yet to determine if time really has the final word on the characters lives, destinies, actions, and choices, it is necessary to look at the character of Dr. Manhattan because he is the one who is viewed as godlike. But just who is God and what characteristics are assigned to God? Traditionally, God is omniscient, omnipresent and omnipotent. He is transcendent of time and space. According to the Judeo-Christian concept, God is the creator who gave people free will, as seen in the Garden of Eden. In reconciling Dr. Manhattan with this view of God, Dr. Manhattan certainly fits many of these characteristics. He demonstrates a large amount of power by transporting large crowds of people back to their homes, dividing himself in two, going to Mars, reconstructing himself twice after being blown into oblivion, and by his ability to understand the way the world functions. He even can tell what is going to happen in the future.

Dr. Manhattan is godlike in many respects but his relationship to time reveals his limited power. God, being all powerful, would not be constrained by his knowledge of the future the way Dr. Manhattan is. Dr. Manhattan is able to look into the future, but he is unable to change it. If Dr. Manhattan were truly to be like God, he would be able to change the future instead of being subject to it.

One image that demonstrates Dr. Manhattan’s limitations regarding time comes through Dr. Manhattan’s experience on Mars where he mentions the falling photograph of him and Lanie in respect to the future and the past. By recognizing that the photograph will fall 12 seconds into the future, he even begins to count down to that event before letting it fall. After this happens, a later drawing shows the picture of the photograph falling yet again, this time with Jon’s recognition of this is a past event, one that he can not escape.

The connection he makes with the falling photograph to stars being nothing but old photographs (Chapter IV p. 1) shows the confining nature of time. As brilliantly as the stars once shone, the light that Dr. Manhattan perceives is from the past. Nothing can be done to alter the demise of the once existent stars. Likewise, in the end, Dr. Manhattan can do nothing to save the earth the way he tells Laurie he will, or for that matter, the half million people who died in New York.

An opponent to the theory that Dr. Manhattan’s powers are limited would say that this was just one event in a long progression of events where predestination is not involved. Yet there are many other instances where time influences Dr. Manhattan. This is seen in the instance when he confronts the assassination of JFK. His then girlfriend questions him about why he did nothing to stop the event, to which he replies, “I can’t prevent the future. To me, it’s already happening (Chapter IV, p 16).

He also shows his powerlessness in recognizing that he can’t keep Laurie as his girlfriend. This is implied even when she first mentions going on a dinner date with Dreiburg in Chapter I. The last picture shows Laurie calling up Dreiburg for a dinner date while in the foreground Dr. Manhattan looks at the reader with an enigmatic, yet knowing expression that is similar to his expression when he encounters Dreiburg and Laurie together at the end of the novel. What makes this incident distinct from the falling photograph is it clearly shows that Dr. Manhattan did not wish Laurie to leave him, yet he’s powerless to stop this event from happening. He even says, “On a rooftop in the past, I pull her sixteen-year-old body to me, breathing her perfume, never wanting to lose her, knowing that I shall” (Chapter IV p.25).

As powerful as Dr. Manhattan is, his limitations regarding time reveal that the watch is the controlling force in the book, not people. Dr. Manhattan is often doing what he sees himself doing in the future and his inability to deviate from the future he sees shows an absence of free will. If Dr. Manhattan, one of the strongest vigilantes in the book, is powerless to do anything but follow the path he has already seen, what does that reveal about the nature of free will that the other characters have? When other characters are seen interacting with Dr. Manhattan, there is little evidence of free will, only what is meant to happen. None of the characters are able to break away from the future Dr. Manhattan talks about; no alternative is explored in their actions. This is shown with Laney’s reaction to Dr. Manhattan after the JFK assassination. When Jon tells her he’s already foreseen this conversation, he says he knows she will sleep with him after a pair of earrings he bought for her arrives despite her insistent denials that this won’t be the case. She later fulfills his telling of the future, but not before saying, “I’m scared. I feel like there are big invisible things around me” (Chapter IV p. 16).

Just what are the big invisible things? Her mentioning of this implies some outside force and while there is no straight answer to what she might be referring to, one image that the writers might be alluding to is that of a puppet on strings. This image would be particularly applicable in light of her anxiety regarding Jon’s awareness of the present moment being little more than preplanned events that strip her away of her free will. By being exposed to Dr. Manhattan and his realization that certain events are already going to happen and there’s nothing he or any other character can do to stop them, he forces everyone to recognize their limitations and lack of free will in the face of predestination.

Yet Dr. Manhattan doesn’t always suggest a correct knowledge of the future. Veidt is the one character who can throw uncertainty into Dr. Manhattan’s world, thus disrupting the perception that all events have been predestined. He does this by creating a machine that disrupts Dr. Manhattan’s ability to tell the future. With no certainty of what is in the future, one could argue that the world does achieve the possession of free will. Does this mean that not all events are predestined if the figure closest to being godlike can’t always predict them? Not necessarily. Time is still shown to be the controlling element in this world.

At the end of each chapter, a clock is depicted with the minute hand a little closer to twelve than before. There is also the symbol of the circle on Dr. Manhattan’s end that shows the circular nature of history. The circle indicates a lack of beginning and end, as Dr. Manhattan tells Veidt, “Nothing ever ends.” (Chapter XII p. 27). Yet what really shows time as being a control factor happens when Nite Owl and Laurie confront Veidt about his proposal to destroy half of New York. When they ask him how he plans to do it, he tells them they are half an hour too late (Chapter XI p. 27). Yet again, the writers present action as a past event that cannot be changed.

In the destruction of New York City and the death of half a million people, Veidt claims he saved the world. It seems apparent that he has. His action has caused the cessation of global hostilities and a temporary end to the Cold War. The earth has, achieved momentary peace. However, is this event one that is dictated by free will or predestination? Veidt, known as the smartest man alive, calls his action a “necessary crime” (Chapter XII p. 27). His recognition of this being the only course to which he can save the world indicates the work of predestination because there are no other options given by which to save the world. His action was already decided before the book even began because there were no other options, only the one path that was preordained. In a life that has only preordained events, there is no free will.

Dr. Manhattan, who is like God, demonstrates over and over again that he cannot rise above his knowledge of the future. This is also seen through the falling cogs in the beginning of his life, his needing to retrieve the watch from the lab that results in him becoming Dr. Manhattan, and his saying of the falling pieces of the watch, “I am standing on a fire escape in 1945, reaching out to stop my father, take the cogs and flywheels from him, piece them all together again…but it’s too late, always has been, always will be too late” (Chapter IV p. 28). With no free will, there is no great rescue, only events that are like old photographs or like stars whose existence has long since ceased while their light gives the false impression that there is still life.

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Comments 2 comments

vrbmft profile image

vrbmft 5 years ago from Yucaipa, California

What? No comments? This was certainly not predestined to be. A fluke, perhaps!

Well, you provided us with an interesting discussion here. I think we can actually co-create our future and I think seeing the future as if it has already occurred according to our dreams is one way to make it unfold. And without realizing it, many or most of us in the Western world relegate God to a very narrow Graeco, Aristotelian box. When we apply such notions as perfection to God, I think we are actually limiting God. I was a philosophy major in the 60's so I love these discussions!

Did you by chance see the recent film, "The Adjustment Bureau"? Great movie about free will.

Anywho thanks for posting a mawvelous discussion.


Elefanza profile image

Elefanza 5 years ago from Somewhere in My Brain Author

Love hearing about new films! I will have to check that one out! Yes, I can definitely see what you mean about relegating God to an Aristotelian model. I'm not sure which viewpoint isn't limited to a narrow perspective of God, but whatever the perspective, good discussion on God are always interesting to have.

Thanks again for the comment! Have you ever seen the movie Primer? That's another good one on predestination and free will. You might enjoy that one a lot!

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