Such a niche little story Watchmen is, filled with characters from an array of backgrounds and personalities. Some are loved (Rorschach), some are hated (the Comedian), and some omnipotent (Dr. Manhattan). Each character brings their own story to the table and each character falls somewhere on the morality scale. For example, The Comedian would be considered not morally outstanding given a lot of the actions he’s done. While Dr. Manhattan would be considered neutral. Ozymandias would probably fall somewhere between The Comedian and Dr. Manhattan, because, while his actions would be seen as immoral/evil, his reasoning for it was to prevent a nuclear war between the U.S. and Russia (a necessary evil). Rorschach would also fall under neutral territory like Dr. Manhattan, but in a slightly more chaotic sense and does have a very black and white view of it (there’s only good and evil) while Silk Spectre would be somewhere between neutrality and good, more closer leaning towards the latter.
And then there’s Nite Owl, a.k.a. Dan Dreiberg, who would certainly fall on morally good ground. Along with that, I would say that out of all of them, Nite Owl, in universe is the more heroic of the main six characters. He was the least ‘corrupt’ of the Crimebusters, but not without flaws. He had a moral compass, and his heroics were plain and simple. He was human, so flaws and changes were to be expected.
While Nite Owl may not be as well remembered/loved as Rorschach, as hated as The Comedian, or as omnipotent/overpowered as Dr. Manhattan, he is no less a hero. What makes Nite Owl more of a hero and a better person comes down to a few factors.
Imperfect, but Not Corrupt
The characters in Watchmen were not meant to be these morally benevolent boy scouts who fight for the greater good (i.e. Superman). As a series that was made to deconstruct the superhero genre and the characters being real, everyday people, with the exclusion of Dr. Manhattan’s creation. None of the characters are meant to be placed on a pedestal. Some Crimebusters less than others.
The Comedian was a volatile and abusive man who took advantage of other people without remorse until his final moments. Ozymandias, despite doing what he felt like was correct in the moment, killed thousands of people with the attacks he launched. Due to his accident and how he comprehends the world around him, Dr. Manhattan over time became so emotionally inept that that it effected his relationships and how he views everything. Rorschach started off with a purpose, but after the death of Blaire Roche, he became more volatile and developed a black and white view when it came to good vs evil.
Laurie and Dan were the least “corrupt” if you will when compared to their teammates. Laurie had some built up anger, but given her feelings towards Eddie (The Comedian), one cannot blame her. Nor can one blame her for feeling unfulfilled in her relationship with Dr. Manhattan given his emotional unavailable and distant.
Dan, on the other hand, had his own personal demons. With Dan, it appeared that he had an air of self-consciousness and regret. While he always had a moral compass that seemed good and human, his personality and mentality were something relatable. He doesn’t have as big of a confidence or ego as someone like Adrian Veidt or Eddie Blake. Nor may he have as much fulfilment with retirement like his mentor Hollis Mason, as he does question if Hollis regrets retiring. He questions if it’s worth hoping back into Nite Owl after so long, but does so with the help of Laurie and Rorschach. He’s not the best when it comes to love, but does know what it’s like to feel it, even if it is in the heat of the moment.
And while breaking Rorschach out of jail may come off as not very heroic, Rorschach was a good friend of his, and Dan was willing to put trust in him. However, that does not stop him from ultimately putting his foot down later on. While Dan may seem passive, taking some of Rorschach’s gruffer statements with more patience than most, he does finally put his foot down, while simultaneously stating how everyone else (Dan excluded by interpretation) doesn’t want to challenge him because of his unpredictability. Dan does apologize, as some of it could be seen as harsh, but what he said did get through to Rorschach, who admits he can be difficult and that Dan was a good friend.
Dan does have character flaws, but when compared to the other Crimebusters, his come off as less problematic, thought provoking, or chaotic as theirs.
Heroics: Becoming Nite Owl and His Moral Compass
While each character is a hero, their reasons for doing so vary. Laurie was forced into it because of her mother. Dr. Manhattan became a government asset after being exposed to a contained amount of nuclear radiation and helped where he could. Eddie Blake, like Manhattan, worked along with the government when things with the Minutemen went south. Eddie played a role in Vietnam, just not as high scaled as Dr. Manhattan. Though not as explore in Watchmen, Ozymandias wanted to help. It’s in Before Watchmen: Ozymandias that shows that he became a hero because he wanted to do what was righteous and get justice for the woman he had fallen in love with after she died in part to an overdose.
Rorschach had an understanding reason to become a vigilante. Rorschach wanted to help powerless victims after the death of Kitty Genovese. While he certainly had a troubled childhood, it wasn’t until the brutal murder of Blaire Roche that he became more aggressive in his work. He no longer saw the world the same, adopting a black and white/absolutism world view.
Dan got into heroics, in part, to his idolizing of the original Nite Owl (Hollis Mason), later mailing him when he had retired. Hollis was impressed with Dan’s engineered creations, and offered Dan the position of Nite Owl. Much like his predecessor, Dan certainly has a good moral compass, wanting to clear up crime where he can. And when compared to The Comedian, Dan is certainly less extreme. Like when Eddie open fired on protesters, wondering who they were protecting by doing this, and what happened to the American Dream.
In Watchmen, it’s shown that he does care about helping people, and with Rorschach was able to help tame some of the crime in New York. He is also more willing to accept a grey area when it comes morality/his world view when compared to Rorschach. For example, when Ozymandias launched his attack in the book’s climax. He disagreed with Ozymandias killing thousands of people, but got where he was coming from. Or when he decided to help get Rorschach out of prison. Neither could be seen as outstanding acts, but he wasn’t being malicious or overly problematic with either. He was doing what he saw as right, which was something he always strived to do.
When it comes to Nite Owl, his morality and heroics are simple, but not without merit. He may not have Rorschach’s unwavering resolve or stubbornness to avoid compromise, but he does have a conscious and a perspective that allows him to do the right thing. And while he may not agree with Ozymandias, he is willing to entertain of his motive.
What it Means to be Human: What it Means to be ‘Normal’
Dan is probably the most human of the Crimebusters, just as much as he would be the most heroic/noncorrupt. He’s no god-like figure like Dr. Manhattan or as intelligent as Ozymandias (not to say Dan wasn’t smart, but not a “superior intellect” like Adrian). He’s not as problematic as The Comedian or as absolute as Rorschach. Much like Laurie, he’s just a normal guy, with normal problems. But where Laurie did not have a choice in becoming Silk Spectre, he had one when becoming Nite Owl.
He also would be one of the more normal members of the Crimebusters. He didn’t have the most traumatic childhood when compared to some members (Rorschach). Nor did he show tendencies of being gifted or volatile (Adrian and Eddie respectively). He wasn’t forced to become a vigilante (Laurie). In some ways, he and Dr. Manhattan had more normal childhoods. Manhattan had to flee Germany as a child, and while Dan was never abused by his parents like Rorschach, dan’s mother was (according to Before Watchmen: Nite Owl).
However, while Jon was later exposed to radiation, Dan lived a normal life, going to college. Dan was still fascinated and looked up to Hollis, and was interested in inventing and Ornithology (the study of birds).
Dan also goes through a realistic transition between his retirement and stepping back into the Nite Owl guise. He was not as active as he used to because of retiring, and had put on weight as a result. He also had more human cares and worries. He was someone who could, but was awkward. He was friendly, but had instances where he knew to draw a line. He had his limits, but that wouldn’t stop him from trying. Overall, he may be a vigilante, but he is human. And despite his flaws and apparent normal life, he learned from what life has thrown at him without completely losing himself.
In conclusion, Nite Owl is a heroic individual. He may be flawed, but hew is human. He may not always come off as heroic, but some of his less heroic moments are not nearly as problematic as others. He’s moral, but can see the shades of grey. He may be the most normal member of the Crimebusters, but that won’t stop him from doing what is right.
Watchmen is a deconstructive piece of the superhero genre. And while the characters are meant to come off as cruel, above it all, or traumatized, Nite Owl seems to be the only one who is the least corrupt and the better man out of the group.