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To the casual comic book fan, the most powerful being in the DC Universe is Superman. Of course, to more committed comic book aficionado, there is an understanding of another universe in which Dr. Manhattan exists.
Dr. Manhattan is a central character of the iconic graphic novel Watchmen, which will be expanded on in HBO’s upcoming series adaptation set for release sometime this year. He is the only character with real powers in Alan Moore and Dave Gibbons’ acclaimed tale, which reimagines comic book lore in a more satirically analytical approach. By definition, Dr. Manhattan is the most powerful being in existence.
It would be a fun idea, however, to see how these two titans of incomparable power would measure up. With that in mind, who would win in such a fight: Superman or Dr. Manhattan? Let us look into this more deeply.
This article contains SPOILERS to certain comic books featuring Superman and Watchmen's climax, as well as its 2009 film adaptation.
Perhaps I, and probably you, have been a little harsh on those who would often mistake Superman for either a bird or a plane. What else would the unsuspecting average citizen have expected to see soaring through the sky as if it was just another day?
Superman, the creation of Jerry Siegel and Joe Schuster, and most recently portrayed on film by Henry Cavill from 2013’s Man of Steel to 2017's Justice League, is credited as the first superhero in comic book mythology, introduced Action Comics #1 on April 18, 1938. As such, with his red and blue suit and Swiss Army knife arsenal of natural, astonishing abilities, he remains the definitive and most recognizable image of superheroism.
Born Kal-El on the distant planet Krypton, Superman’s birth parents sent him away in a small space pod as their planet was dying, hoping that he would see a better future. Kal-El found that better destiny in Smallville, Kansas, where Jonathan and Martha Kent raised him as their son, Clark.
When Superman was first introduced, he bore many of the abilities he is known for today, including super strength, super speed, enhanced eyesight and hearing, leaping tall buildings in a single bound, and durability. However, durability is not the same as invulnerability, which meant that one single gunshot may not hurt him, but he would not be completely impervious to much heavier artillery.
Throughout the 1940s to the mid-1980s, the range of Superman’s powers increased, and were given an explanation of Earth’s weak gravity (as compared to Krypton) and the intensity of our planet’s yellow sun. His sight upgraded to X-ray vision, his super speed to faster than light, his durability to invulnerability, and his leaping, of course, to flight, which was later explained as a result of him having telekinesis at one point.
Despite everything that makes Superman so “super,” as always, there is a catch - a few, actually. For one, if he comes anywhere near Kryptonite, a green mineral that gets its name from his home planet, even the meekest mortal could take a stab at the man and, most likely, come out on top.
In addition to Kryptonite-induced limitations, Superman’s abilities are enhanced by Earth's yellow sun. In other words, the guy is essentially a living, solar-powered battery. If the sun is blocked for too long, Superman has nothing to recharge himself on and, thus, might need to call on the rest of the Justice League to hold the threat over for him until he can find a less cloudy spot to chill out for a bit.
Superman, as a character, often gets a lot of flack for how his weaknesses are outweighed by his strengths. The list of enemies he has defeated is far longer than those who have successfully defeated him. Of course, with the exception of Kryptonite use, many of his defeats are the result of psychological torment than physical.
The Injustice storyline sees one of Superman’s most devastating defeats, as the Joker tricks Superman into destroying Metropolis and later killing his own wife and her unborn child. Also, who could forget how Superman’s battle with Doomsday resulted in his shocking death in 1992? Of course, he was resurrected a year later, but before then, no one saw such a fate coming.
DC’s Golden Boy is not without his limitations, physically and psychologically, but Superman still possesses the will and nearly unstoppable resilience that makes him a hero to depend on. I would trust him better than, say, Dr. Manhattan. However, should I really?
Superman is blessed not just with superhuman abilities, but with an optimistic, humbled personality that makes him an easy guy to like. Dr. Manhattan is also incredibly powerful, but his social skills are incredibly lacking.
Dr. Manhattan is a central character in writer Alan Moore and illustrator Dave Gibbons’ comic book epic Watchmen, and he was portrayed by Billy Crudup in Zack Snyder’s 2009 cinematic adaptation. The 12-part miniseries was published by DC Comics from 1986 to 1987, but it is set in a reality outside of the publishing company’s regular continuity, with Dr. Manhattan serving as a sort of hybrid of Superman and lesser-known DC hero Captain Atom.
Dr. Manhattan was born Jonathan Osterman, a nuclear physicist and mere human being. In 1959, he was accidentally locked inside an Intrinsic Field Subtractor, which disintegrated his body until he was able to reconstruct himself into a shining, blue being of unlimited power whom the government was quick to enlist for help in defense.
Technically, Dr. Manhattan only possess two abilities by name: telekinesis and molecular combustion. However, while Superman is endowed with enough different powers to make your head spin, Dr. Manhattan literally could make your head spin.
Dr. Manhattan’s telekinesis allows him to control objects with his mind, but this is not limited to pouring himself a glass of water without touching it. Not to mention the fact that he does not even require water to live.
Dr. Manhattan is also an omnikinetic being, having not only full awareness of atomic energy, but control over it. If he were to disintegrate, he could just as easily reconstruct his body and even create additional duplicates of himself of whatever size or in whatever location he pleases.
He could blow a human being to bits just by thinking of it, just as he reluctantly does to Walter Kovacs (Rorschach) at the climax of Watchmen, which also came in handy whilst fighting for the US in the Vietnam War, which he single-handedly won in the comic book’s storyline. Since Watchmen is a Cold War-era story, the idea of Dr. Manhattan effortlessly destroying Soviet nuclear missiles is also suggested, and easily factual.
Dr. Manhattan has the value of omnipotence, immortality and even a non-linear perception of time that allows to see future events. However, despite that ability, he chooses not to intervene and allow them to remain inevitable, which brings is to his sole weakness: apathy.
As I have mentioned before, Dr. Manhattan is no social butterfly, with his infinite wisdom and godly intimidation rendering him unable to bring himself to human levels. That lack of human emotion is also what leads him consider Earth meaningless, motivating him to take refuge at a self-made “fortress of solitude” on Mars.
Though he was eventually convinced to help the other Watchmen defeat Conrad Veidt at the climax of the novel’s story, Dr. Manhattan also allowed several moments of tragedy to take place, including the assassination of John F. Kennedy. Imagine if Watchmen was written after 9/11; how conversation of the character’s moral compass would have increased a hundredfold.
Dr. Manhattan, by design, is a hero that humanity should put uncompromising faith in to protect them, but the truth is that he is not to be trusted. His apathetic views on human life and pacifism in the wake of chaos could result in humanity’s ultimate downfall, yet he would remain standing.
However, what if that force of chaos against him was another hero of blue appearance and shockingly grand power?
Superman Vs Dr. Manhattan
Imagine two of comic book lore’s most powerful beings meeting their possible fates: each other. If Superman took on Dr. Manhattan, it would be a fight to the ages, especially because it might take a while.
For one, the moments leading up to the battle may be especially extensive, as neither of these beings are usually one to pose a threat. Perhaps Superman was exposed to red Kryptonite, bringing out his evil side, or Dr. Manhattan vaporized a group of people protesting his own indifference to their existence.
Whatever the inciting incident may be, one thing that I know for sure is that Superman would go in head first, with his signature determination to take down whoever is adverse to his will. Dr. Manhattan, visibly unphased by Superman every will, would probably just stand there, taking every punch, before instantaneously changing positions or making duplicates of himself or increasing his size as a disorientation technique.
None of this would keep Superman down, thought. He would use all his might, all his power, everything he has got to take the big, blue guy down. Yet, Dr. Manhattan would not have to do a thing.
Dr. Manhattan already knows he has this battle in the bag. His clairvoyance has allowed to him always know. He is only choosing to let Superman win out of his reluctance to cause the Golden Boy to cease to exist in mere seconds.
Knowing that Superman has the will and motivation that he will never have, Dr. Manhattan would realize that this battle could last forever unless he comes to the inevitable conclusion of reducing him to a mere atom. The only chance for resurrection would lie in Dr. Manhattan’s hands, if he wanted to do so.
There is a reason that, excluding the current DC event Doomsday Clock, Superman and Dr. Manhattan exist in separate universes. There is only room for one of them to succeed, and that one is Dr. Manhattan. Superman may often be compared to a god, but Dr. Manhattan essentially is one, leaving him no choice but to bow down in defeat.
But perhaps you have a different view on this epic fight. Let us know how you think Superman vs. Dr. Manhattan would go down in the poll and comments below.