Adrian Veidt, or Ozymandias, of Watchmen is as imperial and hubristic as his chosen name would suggest. Over the course of the series, this dubious hero amasses more power, clout, and fame than any other Watchmen character. He is closely associated with the Comedian, his true nemesis, through both their indomitable physical prowess and their morally ambiguous association with secretive governmental operations.
You may even consider Ozymandias to be the inverse of the Comedian. For all the Comedian’s brutish hostility and open treachery, he is ultimately perturbed by Ozymandias’s detached ability to use other people as dispensable pawns. Ozymandias, despite his polished manner and lofty ideals, proves to be the true scheming villain of Watchmen.
Because Veidt ultimately distances himself from his crime-fighting alter-ego more than any other Watchmen hero, you will see me refer to him as Veidt and as Ozymandias interchangeably.
When you think of Ozymandias, think Brainiac. His malice is more subdued than this other DC villain’s, but his intellect seems just as otherworldly. Veidt’s primary skill is his supernormal intelligence. He is referred to in the media as the “smartest man in the world.” In his youth, Veidt is highly idealistic. His wealthy parents die when he is a teenager. After their deaths, he donates their fortunes to charity and embarks on a spiritual pilgrimage that traces Alexander the Great’s conquests.
During this pilgrimage, aided by his romantic identification with Alexander the Great of Macedonia and by a healthy dose of hashish, Veidt attains the enlightened realization that he must devote his life to tempering the evils of mankind by becoming a superhero. As a superhero, he costumes himself in the style of Alexander the Great and takes on the name Ozymandias, the Greek name for Egyptian pharaoh Ramesses II. The significance will not be lost on you, dear reader, of Adrian Veidt’s fervid identification with two of the most prominent empire-building military leaders of antiquity.
As a costumed avenger, Ozymandias coordinates with former Minutemen to dispel evildoers and human malignancy. Early on, Ozymandias captures the attention of both the Comedian and Dr. Manhattan. The Comedian and Ozymandias despise each other from their initial encounter with one another when both are attempting to track down Hooded Justice. Veidt also has misgivings about Dr. Manhattan, despite finding him to be insurmountably fascinating. Ozymandias perceives that Dr. Manhattan has a destabilizing effect on Cold War relations and secretly contrives to undermine him despite working closely with him.
In the ’60s, Ozymandias attempts to organize the Crimebusters, but his attempts at leadership are foiled by the reductive condescension of the Comedian. Thanks to his calculative braininess, Ozymandias foresees the fall of masked vigilantes to public disgrace. By the time masked superheroes are banned by the Keene Act of 1977, Ozymandias has already broken away to build a commercial empire of his own. By 1970, he has amassed enough wealth to buy a small island from which he plans and executes his schemes.
Because his secluded island base was not remote enough to escape detection by the Comedian and Dr. Manhattan, Ozymandias later builds a similar base in Antarctica, which he names Karnak after the Karnak complex in Egypt’s Valley of the Kings. To conceal his machinations from the all-encompassing perception of Dr. Manhattan even further, Veidt installs tachyon generators around his complex to prevent Dr. Manhattan from seeing the future. Among other things, Veidt’s Antarctic hideout is known for its room with a wall covered floor-to-ceiling with television screens all displaying different world events. Veidt is portrayed sitting before the screens, unfeasibly consuming all the information transmitted by them simultaneously.
The recurrent portrayal of Ozymandias calmly soaking in the rays emitted by his myriad screens is iconic. For one thing, it starkly characterizes his inconceivable brainpower. More thematically, it strikes upon Veidt’s representation of classical imperialism contextualized in the contemporary era. Aided by modern technology, Ozymandias is empowered to expand his sphere of influence beyond anything that Alexander the Great himself could have ever imagined.
Specifically, Ozymandias’s technological empire is impelled by his dominance of commercial enterprise. He encapsulates a component of Watchmen’s larger commentary on the decline of the American empire—one that is averse to the Comedian’s representation of the specifically American ethos. Nope, Veidt’s brand of expansionist power transcends nationalist politics and aspires to global conquest.
Like the Comedian, Ozymandias operates from a curious position of moral ambiguity; unlike the Comedian, Ozymandias commits heinous acts in the name of benevolence. Let’s explore Ozymandias’s sprawling domain of destructive, self-serving influence by taking a closer look at the corporate activities of his global business conglomerate, Veidt Enterprises.
Veidt as Villain
Although Ozymandias purports to be an idealistic hero who is known widely for his gestures toward philanthropy and benevolence, he is a cunning schemer who is willing to sacrifice people in order to execute his plans. Most of his plans from the late ’60s onward center around stopping the nuclear arms race at all costs. This, in Veidt’s mind, requires denigrating and stripping power away from Dr. Manhattan.
This effort was first girded by undertakings through Veidt’s research company, Dimensional Developments. Despicably, Veidt hired Dr. Manhattan’s close associates and secretly exposed them to radiation poisoning. By inducing terminal cancer in these researchers, Veidt concocted the suspicion that Dr. Manhattan would induce radiation poisoning in humans that were in his proximity.
Most people would agree that causing people to suffer the ravages of cancer as part of a deliberate plan is evil, yet Veidt constructs a narrative that the harm he causes is justified as a contribution to the greater good. In this instance and in many others, he proves that he is willing to harm or to even do away with other people, all while insulating himself from the heinousness of his actions. Ozymandias’s villainy becomes apparent once you realize that he elevates his own plans and machinations over the well-being of individual people.
In addition to causing people to develop cancer while fabricating debilitating rumors about Dr. Manhattan, Ozymandias kills people who work for him without hesitation in order to protect his secrets. Much of the plot of Watchmen revolves around his secret plot to decimate a portion of the population of New York City.
Ozymandias stages an attack on the city with the goal of ushering mankind into a new era of peace by giving them a common, albeit contrived, enemy. In the DC Comics series, Veidt manufactures a humongous genetically engineered psychic monster that emits a devastating mental shockwave that kills half the city’s population. In the 2009 film by Zack Snyder, he instead simply replicates Dr. Manhattan’s unique nucleic energy to produce bombs that decimate multiple cities, making it appear that Dr. Manhattan is the world’s common enemy.
Incidentally, Ozymandias killed the Comedian at the beginning of the Watchmen story to silence him after the Comedian discovered his plot. His twisted scheming is thus the impetus for the entire story of Watchmen. Rorschach begins investigating the Comedian’s death thinking that a killer is going after former masked avengers and begins pulling other former superheroes out of retirement. Ozymandias nominally executes this diabolical plan to institute world peace and to save the planet. Yet, it also seems rather like he is motivated more by megalomania and by his god complex than by authentic compassion.
Hubris: The Conqueror’s Ruin
Anyone who wants to argue that Ozymandias operates from a position of empathy or benevolence must overlook the deliberate, fatal harm that he inflicts on comrades and people he is entrusted to protect, alike. Veidt admires and emulates Alexander the Great. Yet, for all his powerful intellect, Veidt lacks the wisdom to learn from the example of Alexander the Great’s negative qualities—such as pride, arrogance, and narcissism—and instead embodies them.
When I think of Ozymandias’ subtle treachery, I think of the tale of Alexander the Great leading his men through the Gedrosian Desert. This trek was unfeasible, and many armies had tried unsuccessfully to traverse it before. Alexander had been leading his men on an empire-building campaign for years. Many of them began to defy him in continuing the journey, entreating Alexander to instead return home. Some historians believe that Alexander drove his army through the Gedrosian Desert to punish them for resisting him, others believe he was compelled more by the desire to outdo other leaders who had failed in the past.
Whatever the reason, many of the men perished in the trek across the desert. Alexander’s decision to force his army through the desert was senseless, cruel, and irresponsible. It is also but one example of Alexander’s prioritization of his own vanity over the well-being of other people. Ozymandias is not so different. When push comes to shove, he’s willing to murder his own kind in order to protect his image and to project his will onto others.
Speaking of which, Adrian Veidt isn’t shy about projecting his image, either. A considerable portion of the Veidt Enterprises megacorporation entails marketing action figures in Veidt’s own likeness. This instance of his not-so-subtle megalomania counters his magnanimous image and reputation. Alexander the Great, too, had the imperialist tendency to ascribe his identity to subjects of his conquest. This tendency is closely related to the twisted god complex that Ozymandias and Alexander the Great share. Perhaps Ozymandias’s desire for omnipotence was his real qualm with Dr. Manhattan’s extraordinary powers all along.
After his scheme to manufacture world peace by instigating destruction ended with Rorschach’s death and Dr. Manhattan’s self-imposed exile to the planet Mars, Ozymandias went on to collaborate with the United Nations to adhere the tenets of world peace. Years later, Rorschach’s journal documenting Veidt’s treachery came to light. After Rorschach’s allegations were corroborated by an official investigation, Veidt became the most wanted man on the planet. He then learns that he suffers from brain cancer, begins working with the second Rorschach, and attempts to locate Dr. Manhattan.
It is exciting to consider how the new HBO Watchmen Series will represent the later developments of Ozymandias’s history, and how it will coordinate the later parts of the original DC Comics series with the storyline of the new series. We know from a newspaper headline that flashes in the HBO official trailer that Veidt, played by Jeremy Irons, has been declared dead, but we also know that he figures prominently into the action of the series. I believe that we can expect him to continue to attempt to pull strings to orchestrate conspiracies of his own design.
Surely, Ozymandias and Dr. Manhattan will meet again, giving the entity formerly known as Jon Osterman the opportunity to remind Adrian Veidt that the world’s smartest man poses no more risk to him than its smartest termite.