I talk about Superman a lot here. There’s a reason for that. It’s because I believe in Superman. Not in some kind of goofy, nerdy way, though there is that, and I admit, I am guilty of it. Not enough I’d name my kid Kal-El or anything, but still, as a goofy, nerdy kind of person, I do believe in Superman.
No, it’s because I believe in Superman as an idea. The concept of the character, as a hero, is something that holds me fast. The idea that we, as human beings, can be better. That to have a role model, something we can aspire to, helps us along that way.
I’ve had a lot of people, over the years, that I’ve looked up to. Jim Henson, and his boundless creativity. Hiro Mashima, and his unique way of building characters, and stories. Stephen King, and his narrative flair. Leonard Nemoy, and his genuine, kind, civil approach to his fellow man.
Then, there was Superman. It wasn’t his powers that made him hold so much appeal to me. That he could punch a guy into orbit, or because he was almost invincible. It was because he was kind. Because he genuinely cared, and did what he did, not for some tragic reason, like another superhero I won’t mention just yet, but because it was the right thing to do.
When I really get down to it that’s what makes Superman the greatest hero in the history of comics. He does what he does, uses is powers the way he does, simply because it is the right thing to do. Helping people, just because. He gets nothing out of it, really. A little ego boost, maybe, if Superman can be said to have an ego. Beyond that, though, nothing really, besides gratitude.
Over the years, I’ve seen Superman do a lot of stuff. Get kittens out of trees. Comfort broken people by simply holding them. Help a kid with a broken bicycle get home. Play chess with an old man in the park. So many times, I’ve seen him be the hero this world needs, so badly.
You’ll notice, I didn’t mention the times he’s punched things. Any hero can punch things. Saitama is so good at it, that’s his main power. Superman, though, has always been defined by his ability to simply be kind. To take the time to check on the people he helps. To be more than just a guy in costume, but to be a symbol of what it means to truly care. To give of oneself, for no reason other than because, it is the right thing to do.
That’s the Superman I admire. The one I respect. The character who inspires me to believe this sad little species that is humanity can one day, maybe, be better than we are. Surrounded by infinite sadness, infinite loneliness, that we can still reach out to those around us with compassion, and rise above ourselves, to just be better.
I admit, it’s a childish dream, to hope to see that in my lifetime, a world that would make Superman proud. Still, I hang on to it.
The thing is, for all that these qualities make Superman great, they are also his great weakness. He cares so much, yet he limits himself in what he does. He could, many have argued, solved all the worlds problems. He could topple dictators and warlords. He could remove the threat of nuclear annihilation. He could make the world be peaceful. He could end all crime, all hunger, all sorrow, and all pain. He’s powerful enough. So, why doesn’t he?
Well, that’s kind of going against the point of inspiring us to do it ourselves, but that answer never seems to satisfy the trolls who get off on being factitious. So, why doesn’t Superman just take care of everything?
Injustice pretty nicely answers that question. Because a Superman who fixes everything, isn’t a hero. He’s a dictator.
Based on the fighting game released in 2013 by Netherrealms, the same company that brought us Mortal Kombat, Injustice quickly spawned a comic that explored the backstory of the game setting. While this would not normally be a thing that would be all that interesting, DC Comics took the time to actually really dive in and give as full context as possible to the events leading up to Superman’s fall from grace.
As a comic, Injustice is actually pretty darn compelling. It’s also graphic as all hell, but does explain not just why Superman would become the way he does, but why so many heroes would follow him, and become just as bad as they do.
The story begins with The Joker, as so many of the best DC stories do, deciding he’s tired of getting his ass kicked by Batman, and traveling to Metropolis to dick with Superman for a while. Normally, this wouldn’t be much of a fight, but because The Joker is crazy, not stupid, he decides to be devious.
Kidnapping Lois Lane, unaware she is pregnant, The Joker steals some of Scarecrow’s fear toxin, mixes it with Kryptonite, and surgically implants a nuclear trigger to Lois’s heart. As soon as Superman arrives, The Joker hits him with the fear gas, making him see Lois as Doomsday. Terrified that the monster will kill his wife and unborn child, Superman quickly carries him into orbit, too late realizing that he’s actually just murdered Lois.
Then the nuke in Metropolis goes off, killing millions.
As far as a plan concocted by The Joker goes, that’s pretty much right up his alley. Exactly the sort of thing he’d do. It works, too. Superman falls for it, because he’s scared already, and the fear toxin makes that even worse. Of course he’d see the worst possible thing, and in his desperation, he wouldn’t really think. He’d act.
Because that’s what Superman does. He acts. He has always been a proactive character, jumping in without taking a lot of time to think things through, because people are in danger, and he’s pretty well impossible to kill. It leads to exactly this sort of thing. As a set up, it’s extremely well thought out.
Then, in his horror at what he’s done, what he’s lost, Superman gets pissed. Like, really pissed. So pissed, he kills The Joker. Which, honestly, I can’t say is a bad thing. The Joker is a pretty terrible person. Killing him isn’t exactly doing the world any harm.
Of course, had it been anyone but Superman who did the killing, it probably wouldn’t have been that bad. But it’s Superman. His moral compass is gone. His desire to do right, to do good, simply because it is the right thing to do, has been thrown completely out the window. All that he’s done, and everything is taken from in a moment by a madman who just felt like fucking with him for a some giggles.
That’d throw anybodies moral compass out the window. Hell, I know it’d throw mine. But I’m not Superman. In his pain, his grief, and his anger, Superman forgets what the world needs him to be, and does the one thing he can never do. He fixes the problem, permanently.
Realizing he can fix all the problems of the world, so this sort of thing never happens again, Superman begins doing all the things the trolls have always wondered why he doesn’t do. He overthrows dictators, ends crime, and basically, brings order to the world with the iron fist of tyranny. Many of the members of the Justice League follow him, because he makes reasonable arguments.
It’s to prevent another Metropolis from happening. To save millions of lives. To stop monsters like The Joker from ever hurting another innocent life. All things any hero could get behind. There’s a cost, though. The world doesn’t want to change, and fights back.
The Kent’s are kidnapped by the U.S. Government in an effort to force Superman to stand down. Suddenly afraid of losing his adoptive parents, Superman lashes out at them, too, and in his anger, his fear, he kills Green Arrow. Straight up beats the man to death. Even though he had nothing to do with it, and was just in the wrong place, at the wrong time.
Killing is easy, especially for those with power. Do it once, and the next time is even easier.
Motivated to end all evil in the world by the rash actions of the government, Superman begins seizing power all over. Eventually, this leads to other factions getting involved, such as the Green Lantern Guardians, and Sinestro’s Yellow Lantern Corp. Magic users begin to be drawn into the conflict, and the entire thing just keeps escalating.
Through all of this, Batman has formed an Insurgency, trying to stop Superman. This works as another counterpoint to a frequent argument, that Batman could defeat even Superman with enough time to prepare. Over the course of the five years the Injustice comic covers, Batman is handed loss after loss. Superman defeats him at every turn, because he has gone to a place Batman can’t reach.
Batman refuses to kill Superman, unable to accept that his best friend, the man he respects, admires, and that gives him hope, is truly gone. He tries to save him at every turn, but Superman is soon beyond saving. This leaves Batman at a disadvantage he can’t overcome.
Things really come to a head when Superman murders Black Canary, and the world sees it. Suddenly terrified of the hero they believed was saving them, they accidentally gift Superman with one of Sinestro’s Yellow Lantern rings, a ring that feeds on fear.
Now truly unstoppable, Superman becomes a full on dictator himself. Batman and his dwindling number of allies fight a losing battle, as the once great hero loses the last vestige of his humanity to fear, anger, and hate. There is no way to defeat him.
Through this entire story, as even the Gods get dragged in, there are moments where it seems like Superman might snap out of it. However, those are brief, and grow ever fewer. Deep down, he knows what he’s doing is wrong. He knows he should stop. However, he dragged too many good people down with him, and taken them to some terrible, dark places. To back down now, means admitting he was wrong, that he went too far, and their sacrifices, the things they have given up for him, were also wrong.
Hal Jordan changes sides for the Yellow Lanterns. Cyborg actively invades peoples privacy. The Flash has done nothing will innocents were killed. Shazam has forced Billy to watch horrible things happen. All of them have lost so much, in the name of this quest to bring peace to the world. To stop, it’s more than Superman can bear.
Worse, it would mean he would have to face his own wrongs. He has found a way to justify every act. Even murdering his friends. He builds a narrative of himself as the victim, as the one who was just defending himself. He needs it, because to admit the truth, is to admit, he has become the very monsters he once sought to defeat.
So, he doesn’t back down. He just goes deeper into his anger, his fear, and his excuses. He loses himself in it all, and he blames everyone else for it, because that’s what people do when they commit unspeakable acts.
Superman is still just a man. He has incredible power, but he is not perfect. He’s not God. He is still just a man, and he does what all men do when they do something they know is wrong. They build a false version of events, to keep themselves the good guy.
Yes, Superman fixes the world. No more dictators. No more hunger. No more poverty. No more crime. He just has to soak his hands in blood, lose his humanity, and become the worst kind of monster possible in order to do it.
Eventually, he is defeated, as this is still a comic story, and the heroes need to win. However, it takes Batman and Lex Luthor reaching across to an alternate universe to grab another version of the Justice League, and Superman, to pull it off.
This is where it gets really good, though. Superman does know he’s gone off the rails. Faced with himself, an alternate version that has remained true to his principles, leaves him no room to ignore that. He tries, but there’s no escaping it. He cannot defeat his own better self, no matter how he runs from it. No matter how he fights it. He simply cannot build an argument, or a justification, that allows him to overcome his better self.
As much as Injustice looks, honestly, at what the world would become, and what Superman would become, if he tried to fix everything, it also knows the truth of what Superman is suppose to be. That it is his kindness, his compassion, that is his true, unbeatable super power. That even Superman himself cannot defeat that.
Injustice, as a game, I’ve heard is great. I don’t know. I’ve never played it. As a comic, however, it directly answers a lot of arguments that have been levied over the years against Superman, and many other characters, by showing us them as people, who have failings, and just how far down the wrong path those powerful people could take us, were they to simply do, instead of inspire.
Because, that’s what comic book superheros are for. They aren’t meant to be examined realistically. They are meant to inspire us. Batman, for all his tragic backstory, has come out of it a mostly well adjusted individual, who seeks to make the world a better place. Superman is a refugee, who inspires us to be better. So on and so on.
Comic book heroes embody what is best in us. They seek to make us want to be better ourselves. The fights they have, those are metaphorical battles against our worst sides. They represent how good, within us, can triumph.
Still, there’s always those who want to drag heroes down. To force them to be dark, and gritty. To mire them in humanities worst aspects for the sake of ‘realism’. For them, Injustice is a story that explains why that shouldn’t happen.
Why superheroes need to be above that kind of thing.