WARNING: The following article contains minor spoilers for “Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2.”
When it comes to major Marvel events, you know that nearly anything all that important will have a Watcher present, as the Watchers’ whole deal is that they are there to monitor all of the major events of the Multiverse for posterity’s sake (and thus, not interfere with history itself). Any good scientist, though, knows that the very fact that they are there, observing people, in and of itself inherently affects events. There’s even a term for it – “The Hawthorne effect” (sometimes called “The Observer Effect,” but there’s a similar but notably different physics term with the same name) where subjects will act differently when they know that they are being watched. However, the Watchers often go far beyond just observing, which is what has made them such interesting characters over the years — and is probably why James Gunn decided to make a fan theory regarding Stan Lee very close to a reality when he introduces them to the Marvel Cinematic Universe in “Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2.”
Amusingly enough, as soon as the first Watcher debuted in “Fantastic Four” #13 (by Stan Lee, Jack Kirby and Steve Ditko – yes, the three most important creators of the Marvel Universe all worked together on the issue that introduced the Watcher) when the Fantastic Four were fighting the Red Ghost and his Super Apes on the moon in a standard anti-Communism plot of the era (we couldn’t let commies take control of the moon!) and they accidentally bumped into the home of Uatu, the Watcher who was assigned to the Marvel Universe.
Amazingly enough, in the very first issue that he appeared in, almost as soon as he established his whole “non-interference” vow, Uatu was interfering, as he helped the Fantastic Four defeat the Red Ghost. However, it is fair to say that he was pretty discrete about his help. That’s what made his second appearance so shocking, in that this is just the second time that he’s ever appeared, and already in “Fantastic Four” #20 (by Stan Lee, Jack Kirby and Dick Ayers), he’s telling the Fantastic Four how he is going to make an exception, just this once…
At the end of the issue, he even fixes everything damaged by the Molecule Man (what a curious angle on the Watcher’s appearance in that panel by Kirby).
How would that even remotely rise to the level of him needing to violate his non-interference pledge?! What’s amusing is that today, we all joke about the way that the Watcher is always ignoring his pledge to not interfere, but this was even a joke back then, to the point where Steve Englehart even made it a plot point in “Captain Marvel” #37 (by Englehart, Al Milgrom and Klaus Janson) that Uatu had been driven insane by his desire to ignore his oath and then just actively attacked Captain Marvel!
At the end of the story, after Uatu went on trial by his fellow Watchers, he vowed to no longer interfere. This was clearly Englehart’s attempt to re-set the Watcher and bring him back to his original goals (by the way, soon after the Watcher debuted, he actually had his own short-lived back-up feature in “Tales of Suspense,” and it was there that we learned the reason for the Watchers’ existence. They used to interfere a lot, but then gave nuclear technology to a race that was not ready for it and it essentially destroyed the planet. They then vowed to never interfere again).
At the end of the 1970s, after his return to his vow of non-interference (which, of course, he ignored, although for a time, at least, writers seemed to at least make an effort as to how he might explain away his interference – like an issue of “Fantastic Four” written by Marv Wolfman where the Watcher helped Reed Richards pull off a bluff by interfering with an attempt to read Reed’s mind. Uatu explained that he just happened to choose that moment to study Reed’s mind himself, and if it “accidentally” kept someone else from reading his mind at the same time, well, that was just happenstance), Uatu began what is likely his most famous role for fans of a certain generation. In 1977, he became the narrator for Marvel’s “What If…?” series, where Uatu would tell readers the stories of what happened on alternate Earths where different decisions had been made…
Note that Uatu was still being drawn as sort of pudgy, with not such a large head. By the end of the first volume of “What If…?”, the more standard look of gigantic head, relatively thin body had been established…
Later, at the end of the 1980s, a new “What If…?” series debuted, which lasted for over 100 issues! During that volume, Watcher even got to star in his own storyline where he helped stop an attack on time, with the help of the Time Variance Authority. By the end of the series, though, Uatu was appearing less and less in the actual comic book, as the series was pretty confident that by that point, readers understood the concept of the series and didn’t need Uatu to explain it to them. Around this time, he actually got into hot water with his people once more, as he helped side with the Fantastic Four against a rogue Watcher, even choosing to kill the evil Watcher, Aron…
Even though Aron was trying to destroy the universe, the other Watchers still banished Uatu from their group for his constant interference. Eventually, though, he returned to his base on the moon and picked up his mission once more (it mostly seemed like writers just forgot that he had been banished). This time around, the Watcher mostly actually did just show up and watch at various major events.
In Matt Fraction’s “FF” series, it turned out that Uatu had fell in love with a female Watcher, Ulana, and they were having a child together. Tragically, soon after this, Uatu was killed by Nick Fury, although it appears as though Fury did it as a mercy killing, after Uatu had been attacked by some villains. Fury took over from Uatu as the new role of watching over Earth as “The Unseen,” but it appears likely that this isn’t the last that we have seen from Uatu, especially with the “Guardians of the Galaxy Vol.2” news.
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