The biggest surprise in "DC Universe: Rebirth" #1 is the revelation that "Watchmen's" Doctor Manhattan manipulated the DC Universe, taking away 10 years and altering the lives of every DC Comics character.
But what's Doctor Manhattan's deal, and why would he do something like this? And how does a "Watchmen" tie-in miniseries play into what's going on in a big way?
In the seminal 1986 series by Alan Moore and Dave Gibbons, Doctor Manhattan plays a unique role as the only being with actual superpowers. In Issue 2, as the various former superheroes and acquaintances reunite for the funeral of their murdered comrade the Comedian, we see what appear to be flashbacks to Doctor Manhattan's earlier encounters with him, including one time when the Comedian challenges whether Manhattan still has any true emotions. I say they "appear" to be flashbacks because of what we learn in "Watchmen" #4, the origin of Doctor Manhattan: In that story, dubbed "Watchmaker," it's revealed time exists on a different spectrum so Doctor Manhattan. So he wasn't really "flashing back" at the funeral, but rather experiencing both moments -- the past and the present -- at the same time.
That comes into play in Issue 4, when he travels to Mars with a photograph of himself with his then-girlfriend before the accident that transformed him into Doctor Manhattan. He stares at the photograph, but he sees it in the present, the recent past, the distant past and the future, all at the same time. His comprehension has exceeded the grasp of humanity. We see that the earliest signs of these abilities ultimately drove a wedge between Manhattan and his first wife (the girlfriend from the photograph), as he matter-of-factly tells her the future.
Manhattan comes to a turning point, however, in "Watchmen" #9, where he builds a city on Mars and fairly plainly tells his girlfriend Silk Spectre that he'll allow Earth to be wiped out by nuclear holocaust because it's destined to occur. Besides, humanity is just too insignificant for him to care what happens to them. She pleads with him to no avail. But finally, her tragic story of how she discovered the Comedian was her father changes Manhattan's mind, because he thinks it was a "thermodynamic miracle" that the universe aligned in just such a fashion that her birth father was the man she grew up hating. Realizing that all of humanity is its own little miracle, he agrees to help Silk Spectre try to save Earth.
But when they arrive too late to stop Ozymandias, Manhattan ultimately agrees to go along with his plan. Ozymandias is somewhat surprised, considering Manhattan has become interested in humanity again. Manhattan explains he's going to travel to another galaxy and try to create life.
That's the last we see of Manhattan in the original "Watchmen." But as part of DC Comics' 2012 prequel "Before Watchmen," writer J. Michael Straczynski returned to Doctor Manhattan, and seemed to suggest the approach the publisher might be planning with the character's role in the DC Universe.
In "Doctor Manhattan" #1, by Straczynski and artist Adam Hughes, the writer explores quantum physics ideas like SchrÃ¶dinger's cat, a thought experiment involving a cat locked in a box with a flask of poison that could break at any time: Until you open the box, you don't know whether the cat is dead or alive. Eventually, the cat becomes essentially both dead and alive at the same time. Here, Doctor Manhattan observes the universe and is able to see how things could be different depending on seemingly random events occurring.
For instance, at the Crimebusters meeting, he initially was paired with Rorschach but used his powers to alter the name he was paired with to Silk Spectre. History changed from that point, and the universe where he was paired with Rorschach ceased to exist (I suppose that means there was a possible universe where Rorschach ended up having sex with multiple blue guys). Thus, according to Straczynski's take on Manhattan, he was experimenting with the universe well before the end of "Watchmen."
That's explored further in "Before Watchmen: Doctor Manhattan" #2, where simply choosing whether his bride is in the left dressing 'room or the right creates two alternate timelines that Manhattan follows, each to its own respective "ending" (one where the Cuban Missile Crisis escalates and another where it doesn't). By the end of the issue, Manhattan even wonders if time is perhaps broken.
In the final issue, Manhattan comes to Ozymandias with his view of the future, thus perhaps compelling Ozymandias into creating his plan in the first place. It's interesting what Manhattan says to Ozymandias after the plan was over: that it's not at its end, as there are no such things as endings. That's especially true with superhero universes. At the end of the issue, Manhattan seemingly creates a few new "boxes," worlds of possibilities and reflects, "Perhaps you will become something amazing. And perhaps we will become something amazing, TOGETHER. I would like that. I would like that very much."
That, then, can help inform how Manhattan might view the current DC Universe. He sees things as simply "boxes," and this could be an experiment where instead of one thing coming out of the box (like Black Canary and Green Arrow being together) another came out instead (Canary and Arrow never being a couple). And as we have seen with regard to his view of time, 10 years might not seem like it makes a difference to someone who sees past, present and future all at once. In the alternative, for some who does see time on so many levels, perhaps that's part of the experiment itself: What can a guy like that do with a full decade's worth of time?
In any event, Moore, Gibbons, Straczynski and Hughes have certainly presented the architects of the modern DC Universe with plenty of examples of a being who's more than willing to tinker with universes and timelines, leaving many avenues open to the writers as they shape the DC Universe in the years to come.