A little under a year into “DC: Rebirth,” and we only know the what, but not the why, of DC’s transformation. Initially it was a publishing decision, tied in-universe to the Flashpoint event, which gave DC Comics a hard reboot which fundamentally reworked a lot of our favorite comics. Heroes were younger, origins were revised, legacies were missing, and relationships were broken. And last year’s DC: Rebirth climatically revealed that the disruption to DC’s history was caused by Watchmen’s Dr, Manhattan.
And the question is: why? What exactly is Dr. Manhattan’s problem that he had to go and dork up DC’s history?
A big clue may lie in exactly what Manhattan did. One of the biggest and most irksome changes made to the DCU in 2011 was the elimination of long-standing relationships. DC’s power couples who’d been together for decades were now split. Editorially, the idea was that DC’s heroes would be kept “young” by not being weighted down in marriages and relationships. In story, though, there was no explanation beyond it being a simple effect of the reboot. Still, DC lost the following relationships in the aftermath of Flashpoint:
- Lois and Clark: married since 1996, they were now seeing separate people and Superman eventually ended up with Wonder Woman.
- Barry and Iris: married since 1966, their relationship survived Barry’s death in 1986 and return in 2008, and they had notable children and grandchildren.
- Arthur and Mera: married in 1983, their relationship was on-and-off through the decades after their son was killed. By 2011, their relationship had been firmly restored, but post-Flashpoint, their marriage never happened.
- Oliver and Dinah: Another longstanding but on-and-off couple, Green Arrow and Black Canary were finally married in 2008 (initially in a fakeout wedding which was later corrected with the real thing). Oliver had a son named Connor Hawke who was introduced in 1994, although Connor was from one of Ollie’s earlier relationships.
- Wally and Linda: Barry Allen’s replacement became well known as the Flash after 1986 and eventually settled into a stable marriage with his girlfriend, Linda. They had two kids of their own, Barry and Iris, and their relationship was a very open and notorious casualty of Flashpoint which annoyed many fans.
That’s just scratching the surface. It seems like DC hasn’t had a lot in the way of stable relationships since 2011. Batman, despite having a son, is a perpetual bachelor. Hal Jordan and Carol Ferris aren’t much of an item anymore, Kate Kane and Maggie Sawyer were kept from marrying by editorial fiat, the Joker and Harley Quinn split up (yay) but so have Poison Ivy and Harley, and so forth. There’s just been no room for love in the DCU for a long time now.
Since last May’s DC: Rebirth, some of these relationships are trying to restart, but there’s still a bit of stalling going on. Wally West has returned to the DCU, but the timeline changes mean that Linda doesn’t remember their past relationship and they have to start over. Arthur and Mera are engaged, but a wacky prophecy says that Arthur will die and Mera will go nuts, so the marriage is on hold. Batman and Catwoman recently had a very close encounter, but one that failed to reach any permanence because they’re just too different. Right now, DC’s best hope for a stable relationship is Lois and Clark—but the catch is that this is the Lois and Clark from before the Flashpoint changes, and DC keeps hinting that they’re not the genuine articles.
So what’s Dr. Manhattan’s problem, and why did he erase DC’s long-standing love couples? It could be that Manhattan himself has no concept of how to make love work. In re-creating the DC Universe, for whatever reason, it could be that Manhattan has no sense of love’s utility or effectiveness, so he simply ditched it from the universe.
In Watchmen, Dr. Manhattan had a couple of problems. One, when it came to relationships, he was a colossal failure. His relationship with his first wife, Janey, fell apart as she became older and less attractive, and Manhattan openly fell for the much younger Silk Spectre. But even with the Spectre, things didn’t work well. By the 1980s, Manhattan became cold and cynical, and sexual relations with her became very “routine” with him bilocating, allowing him to do lab work while making love to her at the same time. His relationship with her became less real and more routine, doing things simply because it’s what a lover was supposed to do rather than out of any actual desire.
As a four-dimensional being, Manhattan became gradually detached from real human relationships. Throughtout Watchmen, Manhattan is portrayed as being fully aware that he’s failing in his relationships, because he sees them in full, aware of every moment in his life simultaneously. He goes into his relationship with Janey Slater fully aware that later in the future, he’ll leave her for the Silk Spectre. By implication, he’s fully aware that the Spectre will end up with the Night Owl at Watchmen’s climax, when he’s able to offer her the human contact that Manhattan no longer can.
In Titans #6, Lilith got a glimpse of what Dr. Manhattan was doing. She saw a future that was “cold and joyless, like a laboratory experiment.” That’s pretty much Dr. Manhattan in a nutshell, but more specifically, sounds like it’s indicative of a future without love and romance. If love is the animus that advances the human race, then Manhattan’s bleak future may come about specifically because he’s trying to get rid of romantic love—because he’s never experienced it for himself.
Fortunately, DC has also suggested the solution to Manhattan’s bleak future. It’s also heavily hinted that the solution to the “Rebirth” mysterty lies with the Legion of Super Heroes, and specifically Saturn Girl, who’s appeared in the present-day DCU. And this makes sense—the Legion isn’t just DC’s future, but also the symbolic continuation of its present-day heroes.
The fruition of romantic love often comes about through children—another thing that Dr. Manhattan never experienced. Manhattan never left a legacy, but instead made himself into an endlessly-perpetuating immortal being with no true past or future, but just a bleak, continued existence. As I wrote in my review of Kubo and the Two Strings, immortality can come at the price of emptiness as an infinitely continued existence never leads to anything. Death allows the individual human story to end; children allow the story to continue in a new way. Manhattan doesn’t understand this, and as such, it seems that he’s wiped away many of DC’s children along with its relationships.
The Legion of Super-Heroes suggests that DC’s heroes of today will keep going in some form long after they’ve died. It’d be ridiculous to assume that many of DC’s heroes would survive for another thousand years (though in some versions of the story, we’ve seen Superman and the Martian Manhunter continuing that long). But the Legion is at least the inheritor of the Justice League’s role, and some characters like Brainiac 5, Laurel Kent, Impulse, and XS have been shown to be direct descendants of today’s heroes.
In other words, Dr. Manhattan’s vision of the DC Universe is a static, cheap, empty one where the heroes are permanently stuck as they are—young and dynamic, perhaps, but also perpetually alone. The Legion’s future represents a joyful optimism, a knowledge that DC’s heroism will procreate and live on even long after its heroes have passed away.