How Watchmen Brought Doctor Manhattan to Life

Angela (Regina King) and Doctor Manhattan (Yahya Abdul-Mateen II) in HBO's Watchmen.
When Angela met Manhattan… Photo: Mark Hill/HBO

Doctor Manhattan, one of the most iconic characters from the original Watchmen comic, has had an outsized presence in HBO’s adaptation without ever appearing in the flesh. Between Doctor Manhattan phone booths, memorabilia, and one very notable dildo, he’s cast a shadow over the alternate-America of the series, although not, as it turns out, from his supposed vantage point on Mars. The show’s seventh episode, “An Almost Religious Awe,” put an end to one mystery and cracked open a thousand others with the revelation that Doctor Manhattan has been hiding in Tulsa all along, disguised as Angela Abar’s (Regina King) husband, Cal (Yahya Abdul-Mateen II).

This Sunday’s episode, “A God Walks Into Abar,” had to craft its own version of the big blue ubermensch. But what could have been a plodding slog of backstory instead became the most romantic episode of TV since Fleabag. The heart of “A God Walks Into Abar” is set in a Saigon dive in 2009, when Angela first meets and is eventually won over by Doctor Manhattan. He perceives time differently than us mere, linear storytelling mortals, so the episode simultaneously takes place in 1930s England, present-day Tulsa, and one of Jupiter’s moons. But that spatio-temporal mind-trip was far less of a challenge for director Nicole Kassell than the idea of a woman and a demi-god chatting over a couple of beers. “A total, ‘Oh shit’” is how she describes her first time reading Lindelof’s script. “How do you take 25 pages of two people sitting in a bar, and not show one of their faces, and make that visually interesting?” Here’s how Watchmen engineered its own version of Doctor Manhattan, bare tushie and all.

The voice

Until “A God Walks Into Abar,” Doctor Manhattan has been characterized by silence. He hasn’t weighed in on worldly affairs since leaving for Europa, and he doesn’t pick up Jean Smart’s extra-terrestrial phone calls. This episode is heavy on Doctor Manhattan’s voice, however, as he earnestly plays along with Angela’s interrogations in the Saigon bar. Before the camera lets viewers see his face, Manhattan’s voice makes up most of our exposure to him in the episode.

Until Manhattan assumes Cal’s body, though, Abdul-Mateen has to sound like a man-turned-superhero who was born in Germany, fled to England, was torn apart particle-by-particle in a mid-century lab, and who treats it all with a level of remove. Even more difficult, he has to sound like someone experiencing all of time at once, but still falling in love. In figuring out Doctor Manhattan’s voice, Abdul-Mateen says he channeled the speaking patterns of the most intelligent people he could think of. “I identified Steve Jobs,” he explains. “I identified James Bundy, who is the dean of the drama school at Yale, and then Damon Lindelof himself.” Yahya workshopped the voices for Kassell and Lindelof, but had to take breaks as they filmed. “Hiding the tenor of your own vocal chords is very hard,” Kassell says. “It’s almost like singing, you know? It’s very physical work.”

The Manhattan-isms

In distinguishing Doctor Manhattan from Cal while still being true to the version of the character from the comics, Abdul-Mateen had to develop specific body language for different parts of the episode. “I thought about his breath control. I thought about changing his center of balance, about how large is the size of his kinesphere, about the way that he communicates,” he says. “He doesn’t need a lot in order to get things done. So he’s not a character that has to use a lot of energy, a lot of physical energy or a lot of physical effort.”

During their first date at the bar, the most we see of Doctor Manhattan is his hands: conjuring an egg out of thin air, gesturing to Angela when he talks about their future together, removing a cheap plastic Manhattan mask that he’s using to deflect attention.“It was almost an afterthought to run three or four scenes on his hands,” Kassell says. “As a last-minute thought before we moved on, I said, ‘Let’s run this [camera] angle on his hands,’ and then I saw how much he was doing. That’s the gift of working with Yahya. He, as Doctor Manhattan in those scenes, performed more with his hands than he does as Cal.”

The blue makeup

Photo: Mark Hill/HBO

It takes a Blue Man Group to raise a Blue Man, and special effects makeup artist Greg Nicotero worked alongside Kassell, Lindelof, and Abdul-Mateen to screen test a number of body paint shades for Doctor Manhattan. Kassell says they also attempted white contacts in his eyes, but decided to add that pupil-less glow “entirely” with visual effects in post-production. They decided that “when he was not using his powers, he wouldn’t glow,” which explains Manhattan’s matte finish throughout most of the episode.

Applying the makeup was a three-hour process for Abdul-Mateen, including shaving his hair and donning a bald cap. “Privacy and personal space really goes out the window when you’re painting my whole self blue,” he says. People also treat you differently when you’re bright blue. “Regina would just kind of stare. I would just catch her staring and she said, ‘It smells like apple,’” he recalled.

The camerawork

Photo: Mark Hill/HBO

Even with all that time travel, teleportation, and blue glowiness, the episode is anchored and emotionally grounded by Angela and Doctor Manhattan’s meet cute at the bar in Saigon. Compared to the visual effects-heavy sequences throughout the episode — at one point, Manhattan creates organic life on Jupiter’s moon Europa — the idea of “two people sitting in the bar” seems like a relatively straightforward piece to shoot. However, with only three days to film this pivotal event in the series, Kassell says she had to have everything “very specifically charted out, where and when and how to put the camera.”

The main goal was to establish romantic tension, a difficult sort of will-they won’t-they romance where the viewer and Doctor Manhattan know that Angela will eventually fall in love. Kassell built that tension by playfully refusing to show Manhattan’s face until the last third of the episode. “In the wide shots, we just had a lot of fun thinking of ways to obscure his face using set dressing,” she says. “There was no being subtle about it. It was like ‘Yeah, we’re putting a balloon in front of his face.’” Even the camera shots behind Manhattan’s head were carefully framed and timed to call attention to what he’s telling Angela. “By the time Doctor Manhattan takes his mask off, I wanted us to be aching so much to see his face,” she explains.

The tension is also built up throughout the bar scene by surrounding the two characters with Doctor Manhattan iconography, tchotchkes, and murals: The plastic mask is a coy, effective tease, as is the shirtless, blue-painted Manhattan impersonator sitting on a barstool behind Angela throughout the scene. By the time Angela finally convinces Manhattan to take off his cheap mask, Kassell wanted to “lean into torturing us with all the suspense,” which is why the camera stays with his hand as he pulls it off of his face.

In perhaps the episode’s most crucial scene, we jump six months into the future, to Angela giving Manhattan — now disguised as “Cal” — a very unconventional sort of engagement ring. The epic sweep of their love story is solidified here, as she implants the ring into his forehead: Manhattan is choosing to sacrifice his memory and powers so that they can live together in Tulsa, as close to a normal couple as possible. Kassell says the scene was “very simply filmed,” but that cinematographer Greg Middleton heightened the romantic tone by backgrounding the wide shot with “the most gorgeous sunset ever depicted.” As for the warmth of the scene, Kassell also points to how the texture of the shot “looks like the sprockets of celluloid film.”

The reveal

Which, of course, brings us to the moment in present-day Tulsa when Angela violently ice-picks the ring out of Cal. Up until this point, the episode still hasn’t shown Doctor Manhattan’s full, true blue self. Kassell coordinated with “An Almost Religious Awe” director David Semel to ensure that the blocking at the end of the previous episode would put the characters where she needed them for this pivotal scene at the Abar residence, once they’ve been discovered by the Seventh Kavalry. The script stated that this would be the moment when Doctor Manhattan finally floats “in that iconic pose,” directly referencing a frame from the Watchmen comic.

Kassell made sure that the first glimpse of Manhattan would be in that famous pose by sticking with his point of view until he was floating in mid-air, with the camera filming from below. “When we cut wide to see him, it’s, ‘Holy shit, there’s DoctorManhattan floating!’ I didn’t want to show any of the labor, the transition. I wanted him to be in that full upright, hands by his side position.” As for how he actually floated, it involved a lot more practical effects than one might expect. “A giant seesaw is the best way to explain it,” Abdul-Mateen says. “They pushed down, I balanced myself, and I’d go up and levitate.” And the walking on water? “A plexiglass platform in the pool.”

And yes, the nudity

For fans of the comic, part of this episode’s tension leading up to the Doctor Manhattan reveal is how much Doctor Manhattan would reveal. If Spider-man has his suit and the Hulk has those little purple tear-away shorts, Doctor Manhattan is a superhero famous for being allergic to clothes. Kassell knew the character’s nudity had to be included, “otherwise it would look like we were avoiding something.” So when Manhattan visits Veidt in the form of Cal, he does so stark naked. “As all nudity on screen should be, it has to be based in story and character,” Kassell says. “It’s everything about that character, that he is completely oblivious and indifferent to opinion.”

For his part, Abdul-Mateen says he hired a trainer right after he learned the truth about Cal’s identity, and that HBO was “very supportive” about giving him options for each scene. Ultimately, he decided to go for it because Manhattan is “really above any notions of shame” about nudity. “Black Panther had a suit and Doctor Manhattan has his birthday suit, you know what I mean?”

How Watchmen Brought Doctor Manhattan to Life