Ladies and Gentleman, welcome one, welcome all to our very first Character Smackdown! We’ve all wondered at times: who would win? Rambo versus Jack Ryan? John McClane versus Martin Riggs? Ethan Hunt versus Jason Bourne? Rocky versus The Wrestler? Terminator versus Wall-E? Tonight, we have a cosmic showdown as Stan Lee’s Silver Surfer blasts his way toward Dr. Manhattan to find out what mortal-turned-deity remains standing. Will it be Marvel’s Surfing Herald for The Destroyer of Worlds or will it be The American Atomic Superman? With the ability to atomize objects, glimpse the future, and traverse space-time itself, what matters in the end when god meets god?
This past week moviegoers were introduced to John Osterman, a.k.a. Dr. Manhattan. Created in 1985, Alan Moore’s demi-god represented the next step in the nuclear race, a living, breathing “Atomic Man” in the world of Watchmen. One of the earliest members of the vigilante group The Minutemen, scientist John Osterman fell victim to a freak accident in which his basic being became warped by energies beyond knowable science. The result: a super-powered god, contracted by The United States to tip the balance of the Cold War. In Vietnam, Dr. Manhattan cuts a atomic swatch across the battlefields, wrapping the war up neatly. But with his power came the burden of immortality, a burden that challenged Osterman’s very humanity. And Dr. Manhattan goes from a man isolated from his humanity to a man who simply gives up on humanity itself.
The Defending Champion
Stan Lee’s The Silver Surfer arrived in 1966’s Fantastic Four #48. A humanoid alien on the planet Zenn-La, Norin Radd lived in peace and comfort with his love, Shalla-Ball. Then, Galactus cometh. The Destroyer of Worlds, planet-eating Galactus arrived to consume Zenn-La. However, Radd bravely offered himself in exchange for his homeworld’s safety, to serve as a herald for Galactus so that the Destroyer could conserve his energies. Galactus accepted this Faustian bargain, imbuing Radd with the Power Cosmic and forsaking this Silver Surfer from returning to the world he had just saved. With the Power Cosmic, The Silver Surfer slices through galaxies, seeking out desolate planets for Galactus’s appetite so that life may be spared. All the while, he takes comfort in surfing the cosmos as he feels his soul darkened with every planet consumed, tortured by every minute he is denied his home and love.
What makes a good character? It’s a good question. One that filmmakers asks themselves constantly. Hemingway once said something along the lines of what we see of a character is but the tip of a iceberg above water. So it is with these two characters, who film and literary versions have garnered fans of all ages. So, to do both justice, I must consider both their film and literary characterizations and determine who is the best character?
For me, character is about choice, will, and goals. Character is about watching someone do whatever it takes to accomplish some goal by any means necessary and regardless of the costs. Both John Osterman and Norrin Radd are compellingly tragic characters, changed by circumstance into something more than human…or perhaps less.
Osterman is an ordinary man who finds himself the first abnormal element in a ordinary world. With amplified intelligence and extra-sensory abilities, Osterman’s emotional core diminishes in the wake of his god-like personality. It is perhaps this lack of humanity that allows Osterman to so inexplicably become a pawn of the United States government and their Cold War ambitions. As Dr. Manhattan, Osterman is a wrathful god without the anger and somehow this indifferent lethality is scarier and more devastating for there is no appeasing him. Dr. Manhattan, a being of immense intelligence and deistic perception, somehow is manipulated by the limited war hawks of America’s 1980s right wing. He has literally become a weapon–something that is fired, does not talk back, and simply destroys. More importantly, Dr. Manhattan instills fear.
Yet, Dr. Manhattan is capable of human longing, of some sort of love. Take Silk Spectre, the lover with whom we first meet Osterman with in both versions of “Watchmen.” Silk Spectre is Dr. Manhattan’s anchor to the world, and its only through her that anything resembling human in Manhattan exists. When Silk Spectre leaves Dr. Manhattan, Dr. Manhattan leaves the world, a beautiful analogy for a man who has lost his own world. Where does he go? Mars, to be alone, to heal a heart few thought he had.
In the end, Dr. Manhattan is forced to participate in the deception of mankind for the sake of peace. Seeing that Silk Spectre has moved on to a more grounded man, Dr. Manhattan leaves Earth for a place in the galaxy a little less complicated. It’s a somewhat anti-climatic ending for this Dues Ex Machina, one that falls in line with both Moore and Snyder’s pattern of creating a God who limits himself to the flaws of one nation–of one people–with no real reason. Never do Moore or Snyder explain why Dr. Manhattan is so complacent to the United States. With a man who can perceive the very substance of reality, why limit one’s self? Is it for the sake of Silk Spectre? If so, this goes unexplored.
In the end of the day, sadly, Dr. Manhattan is a passive god conquered by petty men. Outside of two decisions (that to leave Earth, and that to leave Earth again), Dr. Manhattan does very little in terms of moving toward a goal in either medium. Even his decision to side with Ozymandius during the climax seems inevitable and without cost since he leaves Earth anyway. Dr. Manhattan simply is…and while this stagnation is somehow tragic for the human beneath the glowing blue, it ultimately makes him a very difficult character to access let alone respect or admire. And when the fate of the world itself hangs in the balance, Dr. Manhattan is still only moved by some misguided husk of love for Silk Spectre, a woman who has already moved beyond him. Thus the passive god wielded by petty men ends up petty himself…and what do petty men do? They flee, as Dr. Manhattan has.
This is not the case with Norrin Radd. Although the film version does not always capture it, there is no mistaking the tragic nobility of Norrin Radd. Here is a man who made the decision to sacrifice himself, to be robbed of his homeworld and his love, in order to allow them to live. To save that which he loves, Radd accepts eternal damnation in the service of a monstrous cosmic entity, a servitude that will no doubt torture his very soul until the day that soul shrivels and dies. But that’s the beauty of The Silver Surfer…HIS SOUL NEVER DIES!
Even as Galactus’ herald, The Silver Surfer tries desperately to steer the Planet-Eater to uninhabited worlds so that no life is lost. Sadly, success is fickle and The Silver Surfer must endure the inevitable genocide that is his master’s sustenance…until Earth.
The Silver Surfer comes to Earth and is moved by the nobility of The Fantastic Four and their blind ally, Alicia Masters. With Earth damned to certain doom, The Silver Surfer connects with what is left of his battered soul and alone rebels to save Earth, striking out against his master and driving him off. However, again, sacrifice for The Silver Surfer, who finds the freedom of sailing the cosmos the only small pleasure of his isolated servitude now denied. Galactus damns The Silver Surfer yet again, this time Earth, never to sail the stars again, caged in an invisible barrier.
This is why The Silver Surfer reigns supreme as a better character over Dr. Manhattan. Radd is a man who decides to sacrifice himself for the good of his homeworld and for his love. And what is the purest form of love than to to deny yourself the joy of experiencing that love so that the beloved can survive? In that decision, there is a will like no other, the same will that guided Galactus to uninhabited planets and the same will that moved Radd to rebel for the sake of Earth.
Decision. Will. Goal.
Dr. Manhattan, again, has no firm goal outside of Silk Spectre, and even that is approached with a casual indifference. Dr. Manhattan is the ultimate Dues Ex Machina, and both Moore and Snyder seem aware of that no matter how hard they attempt to forge a connection with the super-being. In the end, Dr. Manhattan is too weak to stand up for his own convictions and beliefs–if he even has any. He allows himself to become a servant for the sake of being a servant, whereas Norrin Radd allows himself to become a servant in order to save his world. When Dr. Manhattan finally rebels against his handlers, he escapes, he runs away–a god with a tail between his legs who dislikes somehow the complexity of humanity. Conversely, when The Silver Surfer rebels he does so for the very complexity of humanity that he finds so noble, and because Earth reminds him of his own long-lost homeworld and love.
Whether their goals are right or wrong, just or unjust, moral or immoral, these two god-men clearly have a different character.
Whether it’s comic or movie, The Silver Surfer sails circles around Dr. Manhattan, whose penchant for indifference and fleeing makes him no match for a determined man willing to sacrifice his soul for those he loves.