In 1986, Alan Moore changed the face of comics for generations to come when DC released his iconic superhero deconstruction series, Watchmen. Widely regarded by many to be the greatest comic book story of all time, Watchmen follows a team of retired, flawed superheroes who got back into action to solve the murder of one of their own. Almost 40 years later, the story’s main villain, Ozymandias, is still DC’s most interesting villain.
Watchmen released to critical acclaim in 1986-1987, leading many to praise Moore’s storytelling and Dave Gibbons’ art. Beginning with the murder of Edward Blake, a retired member of the team, it follows the paranoid vigilante Rorschach as he begins an investigation who believes someone is murdering heroes. The mystery led the heroes back to their own teammate, Adrian Veidt (Ozymandias) — the smartest man in their world. However, this villain proved to be anything but a standard arch-enemy. Rather than being motivated by power, wealth, or hatred, Veidt was driven to hatching the ultimate evil scheme with the goal of saving the world. Thirty-seven years after the series’ debut, Ozymandias’ presence, intellect, and depth as a character have yet to be matched in the pages of DC Comics.
Watchmen Is A Character Study Of Fallen Heroes
Watchmen was written to take apart the superhero genre and examine the idea of superheroes who more closely mirrored real people. Rather than Superman’s impossibly wholesome nature or Batman’s near-perfect efficacy, these heroes stumbled and struggled through life like anyone else. Though Dan (Nite-Owl) and Laurie (Silk Spectre) were fairly well-adjusted people, Rorschach was a paranoid conspiracy theorist, Doctor Manhattan a quasi-nihilist, and Ozymandias a mass murderer. Set in a world where superheroes were outlawed, most of the characters had given up on the ideals superheroes typically represented. Ozymandias had realized he could do more good publicly than from behind anonymity. Manhattan was devoted to science and technology. Comedian had come to see the whole thing as one big joke.
Ozymandias wasn’t like Lex Luthor, who is often written as a villain operating under the self-made delusion that he’s a hero while only bettering himself. Nor was he like Doctor Doom, a man driven by a need to be loved and respected by his subjects in Latveria. Instead, Ozymandias had truly devoted his life’s work to making things better, and almost comes across as being his world’s Bruce Wayne or Reed Richards. No part of his plan required recognition, praise, or reward beyond the simple knowledge that he had saved the world from annihilation. This alone sets him completely apart from just about every conventional super villain, especially the vast majority motivated by just about everything but the greater good.
Watchmen follows the evolution of each of its characters across their history and in the present as Rorschach’s investigation progresses. As Doctor Manhattan slowly rekindles his care for humanity through his love of Laurie. Meanwhile, Laurie and Dan connect over their forced retirement. At the same time, readers catch glimpses of the team’s past and the events that shaped them. Along the way, a series of events — later revealed to Veidt’s hidden plan — further detach the heroes, paving the way for the villain’s master stroke. Reading the story a second time is less like a murder mystery and more like watching one next-level game of chess, played by the world’s smartest man. As each of the dominos fall, the final plot comes to fruition, further revealing the Machiavellian mind of Veidt.
Ozymandias Isn’t A New Republic Serial Villain
As a man, Adrian Veidt wasn’t motivated by anything a typical villain finds appealing. To him, the wealth he had amassed was little more than an engine for his goals of bettering humanity, enjoying a great deal of comfort and solitude along the way. Hidden away in his Antarctic fortress, Veidt plotted the ultimate super villain plan for the world. Using a threat of epic magnitude, he intended to unite humanity at the height of the Cold War. As the threat of nuclear Armageddon crept ever-closer, Ozymandias concluded the best way to save the planet from itself was to unleash a monstrous creature upon it. This forced the United States and USSR to come together to fight what they believed to be an attack on Earth by aliens.
Ozymandias had clear feelings of grandeur, so much so that he styled himself after the titular “king of kings” from Percy Bysshe Shelley’s 1818 sonnet. Even his costume was far more evocative of some ancient emperor than it was a superhero. Indeed, the anti-villain styled himself after the old Egyptian pharaoh, Ramesses II, while also taking hints from historic figures like Alexander the Great and Napoleon. The villain stole the show in the final few issues when Rorschach and Nite-Owl went to his Antarctic base to confront him. After Ozymandias explained his plan to them, the heroes demanded to know how to stop it. The villain revealed he had activated the plan thirty-five minutes ago, before the heroes even arrived. The moment was a great subversion to the classic comic trope when the villain reveals their hand too early. That Ozymandias played his cards so close to the vest proved his competence as a villain.
Philosophically, Veidt doesn’t share Comedian’s nihilism or Doctor Manhattan’s detachment. Instead, he’s an extreme utilitarian and believer in Consequentialism. He believes the ends justify the means, no matter how devastating. This was how Ozymandias decided sacrificing millions to save billions was worthwhile. Unlike other super villains, Veidt appears to have a very active conscience, at one time discussing how he was haunted by all the innocents he had admittedly murdered. Ozymandias didn’t regret what he had done, but he was — assuming he was honest — saddened that he did what he did.
Ozymandias Is The Definitive Anti-Villain
As much as Ozymandias may share some parallels with Lex Luthor and Doctor Doom, he outperforms them in one key aspect: He convinced the heroes he was right. Nite-Owl and Silk Spectre hated Adrian for what he’d done, but they didn’t share Rorschach’s steadfast commitment to the truth. Both uneasily accepted that Veidt’s plan had worked, and decided that exposing the truth would do considerably more harm than good. Rorschach’s devotion to his moral code and refusal to compromise prompted Doctor Manhattan to kill him, protecting the lie. However, Manhattan didn’t know Rorschach had already mailed his journal to a newspaper. Veidt’s plan was so effective it drove Manhattan to take his friend’s life, becoming a co-conspirator in the process. Manhattan himself admitted he could neither condone nor condemn the plan.
A villain like Ozymandias doesn’t count himself among other criminals. The notion of associating with other overt villains for any reason beyond the greater good is beyond him. He even remarked that all his villains were dead, suggesting a contempt the character has for these nemeses. Ozymandias proved his willingness to compromise when he sought Lex Luthor’s assistance in Doomsday Clock, hoping to save his home world. When he reached Prime Earth, Ozymandias was free and safe, and could have sought refuge on this Earth. Instead, he stayed committed to finding Doctor Manhattan, so he could convince him to save their home world. Ozymandias’ steadfast dedication to genuinely creating a better world through any means necessary makes him the ultimate anti-villain.
Veidt Is Too Competent For The DCU
As appealing an idea as it might be to want to see Adrian Veidt wind up an arch-nemesis to Batman or Superman, this misunderstands the point behind his character. The villains of Prime Earth DC Comics are foils to their heroes, characters who do pose a real threat but are ultimately no match for their rivals. Ozymandias, on the other hand, isn’t a conventional super villain. Unlike Joker, Doctor Doom, or even Darkseid, Adrian Veidt is a genuine mastermind. By the time anyone realizes what he’s up to, his plan is already underway. As both the greatest mass murderer of his world and its salvation, Ozymandias presents heroes with a foe whose victory is ultimately for the betterment of humanity.
Ozymandias fancies himself a fellow traveler of past kings, emperors, and pharaohs. For any other villain, this would be chalked up to an unearned sense of ego. For Ozymandias, it’s not entirely unearned. He’s certainly evil, just not the same form of evil as other villains. When examining Adrian Veidt, the threat isn’t that of tyranny or war. Rather, it’s a villain who presents heroes with a horrifying truth: He’s right. The world of Watchmen was written to be one that seemed irrevocably on course for destruction, and it was this very fate that allowed Dan, Laurie, and Manhattan to compromise. In this sense, Ozymandias is the most successful villain ever written in comics — and the most interesting villain in the pages of DC’s comics.
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