Telling a story about Doctor Manhattan is pretty confusing, because stories involve words like “before,” “then,” and “after,” words that form sequences, signal timelines, and generally order a linear tale. Jon Osterman, however, exists simultaneously in his own past, present, and future. He’s not an easy guy to throw a surprise party for. But for the actor who currently plays him, finding out that he would portray Watchmen’s most famous character was a surprise—a surprise he learned after he’d already landed the part.
Aquaman star Yahya Abdul-Mateen II had already filmed the first two episodes of Watchmen when he learned that his role as Cal Abar was not just a good part—a supporting role in an expensive, buzzy HBO series created by acclaimed Lost showrunner Damon Lindelof—but a great part. Lindelof sat Abdul-Mateen down and told him that he wasn’t just playing Cal, a supportive husband of the series lead, Regina King’s Angela Abar, but Watchmen’s most iconic character of all: Jon Osterman, better known as Doctor Manhattan.
“I knew that there was something a little off about Cal, but I didn’t know what,” Abdul-Mateen says. When delivering the big news, he says, “Damon was very straightforward and calm, and I remember saying something like, ‘Oh, wow.’ But on the inside, I was going crazy, because I was playing freaking Doctor Manhattan! And then I said, ‘Okay, well, I’m going to have to get a gym membership and get in shape.’”
For most of Watchmen’s first season, Cal didn’t seem like an integral part of the story, which followed Angela’s fight against the white supremacist Seventh Kavalry and her unraveling of the mysteries surrounding her grandfather Will Reeves and the death of her police captain Judd Crawford. But the cliffhanger for Watchmen’s seventh episode found Angela cracking her husband’s skull with a hammer, and removing Adrian Veidt’s tachyon particle-irradiated device that had been inhibiting his memory of his true identity as Doctor Manhattan.
The original comics detailed Osterman’s transformation from a young physicist into Doctor Manhattan, via a tragic nuclear test chamber accident. The resulting super-powered humanoid reshaped world history, leading the US to victory in Vietnam and to the nation’s colonization as America’s 51st state. He’s the reason all cars are now electric, he’s the target of countless human prayers, including those of his ex, now-FBI agent Laurie Blake, and it’s been assumed throughout the series that he’s living on Mars, no longer encumbered with the problems of a species he feels increasingly alien from. But Episode Eight reveals that after falling in love with Angela Abar, he’s spent the last decade as a suburban dad in Oklahoma.
Jon Osterman could hardly be more different from Abdul-Mateen: He’s white, originally from Germany, and, in 2019, 90 years old. But in order to achieve a normal life with Angela, he adopted the appearance of a corpse from Saigon’s morgue, and has been living incognito as Cal Abar ever since.
But in the scenes in which Osterman is his full-on blue self, he’s still played by Abdul-Mateen. To create the voice of the preternaturally youthful German-American physicist, the actor drew inspiration from some the most intelligent people he knew or had heard of, including late Apple CEO Steve Jobs and Lindelof himself, landing on a calm, detached vocal style that’s higher pitched than his own speaking voice. “We found something that was different enough that it would still be distinct, but then also be easy enough that it allowed me to have me to have freedom of range and vocal expression,” says Abdul-Mateen.
If Doctor Manhattan is known for anything besides his blue hue, it’s that he’s not fond of wearing clothes—so it’s not surprising that the Yale School of Drama alum bared all in Episode Eight. “For me it was liberating,” he says. “I always had the choice every day that I filmed it. I was given the choice of how much I would show, what I would show.”
HBO announced last year that actors on all of its series would work with intimacy coordinators to ensure that sex scenes and other sensitive moments would be filmed in ways that respect performers and their comfort. And Abdul-Mateen consulted with an intimacy coordinator on his nude scenes and sex scenes for Watchmen. “There was someone that I could talk with and make sure that my comfort was a top priority,” he says. And while he’d had positive experiences shooting sex scenes before this role, he found working with an intimacy coordinator helpful. “It really adds to the comfort level, to have someone whose specific job is to make sure that the performers and everyone on set is taken care of in that regard,” he says.”
While few fans will bat an eye at a naked Doctor Manhattan, a black doctor Manhattan could be a different story. After the series’ debut revealed a take on the graphic novel that centered characters of color and reckoned with America’s history of racial violence head-on, aggrieved chuds review bombed its IMDb and Rotten Tomatoes pages, expressing their disdain at having their favorite brainy superhero comic adapted into a show about black people. Abdul-Mateen’s casting as a black man who happens to be the most powerful being in the universe, a god in all-but name, is likely to rile the same internet racists. But for the rest of us, seeing a black character who’s nearly divine but yet achingly human, and part of one of the most romantic TV love stories of the year, is pretty cool.
Given the history of the white world’s perverse fascination with and abuse of black people’s bodies, seeing a character whose penis is such a meme that it was the basis for the sight gag of the season portrayed as a black man is also loaded. But in Watchmen, Doctor Manhattan’s nakedness is handled with matter-of-fact good taste.
“I don’t think our Dr. Manhattan is overtly sexualized, not in the way that black bodies have been sexualized in history,” says Abdul Mateen. “I think that he is able to be naked, he’s able to be uncovered because he’s so powerful, because he’s hyper-intelligent. It’s because he’s above shame. He doesn’t experience or have time for those notions. I think it’s a compliment to his power, to his grace, and to his intelligence, his physical and emotional maturity.”
But it’s hard to say if Abdul-Mateen will be playing the role for long. At the end of Episode Nine, Doctor Manhattan is seemingly kidnapped by the Seventh Kavalry, his essence sucked into a device the hate group created in hopes of destroying Osterman and imbuing their leader, Senator Joe Keene, with his powers. We’ll probably get a better picture of Doctor Manhattan’s fate during next Sunday’s season finale, but until then, the story of how Jon Osterman spent the 2010s was one of the best episodes of television of the year.