Thursday, 31 January 2013

Injustice: Gods Among Us and the problems with depicting Superman as a tyrant

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Contains spoilers for Injustice: Gods Among Us!


DC Comics have recently published a comic book prequel to their upcoming game Injustice: Gods Among Us. It's a fighting game and so the prequel comic has the task of explaining why all your familiar DC Super-Friends would suddenly want to knock seven shades of shit out of each other. It seems that in the continuity of the game, Superman, Wonder Woman and a bunch of other heroes have taken over the world because, in Wonder Woman's words, "Man's world isn't capable of self rule, we will preserve order!" As a result, Batman and a bunch of different heroes want to take down Superman and his fascist regime. What could possibly drive Superman to take over the world? According to the comic, the Joker tricks Superman into seeing Lois Lane, who is pregnant with Superman's child, as the monstrous powerhouse, Doomsday! As a result, Superman punches his pregnant wife into orbit, killing her and the child. This act triggers a nuclear explosion that destroys Metropolis.

Nice, right?

I don't necessarily have a problem with superhero comics tackling grim, unpleasant and violent storylines, especially in a non-canon, one-off, "what-if" series like this one. But I think a story has to be of sufficient quality to justify such adult content. If a story needs something really unpleasant to happen in order to give us something unique that can move us emotionally and make us think about these characters in a different way , then I think it's justifiable, even if it does use characters that are traditionally marketed towards young people. Problem is, Injustice: Gods Among Us isn't that story. It's actually a story that we've seen countless times before executed in a clumsy, tacky manner in a comic designed mainly to flog a video game.

'Superman goes Fascist' is a story that's been trotted out over and over again over the years. When told using a Superman analogue, such as in Alan Moore's Marvelman, or Mark Gruenwald's Squadron Supreme it's usually made for entertaining reading. Whenever DC Comics have tried it using the Man of Steel himself however, it's rarely worked. For example, in 1991, during DC's Armageddon 2001 event, Superman Annual #3 had a plot almost identical to the one seen in Injustice, with underwhelming results. In 1987, Alan Moore pitched a crossover event known as Twilight of the Superheroes, in which Superman and several other heroes have become tyrannical rulers of America. The story never happened, and if the grim and depressing plot synopsis is anything to go by, it's probably just as well.

In my view the problem with such stories is that Superman, as he is traditionally depicted by DC Comics in most of his various incarnations, values freedom so much that it's impossible to imagine any circumstances in which he would want to take over the world. "Truth, Justice and the American Way" is one of the key ingredients of almost every version of Superman and freedom is one of the key ingredients of "the American Way". As a result, a writer is usually forced to go to absurd, and often unpleasant lengths, to justify why a character like Superman would become a tyrant. Absurd and unpleasant, like say, being tricked into punching his pregnant wife into orbit. What you're then left with is a version of Superman who has witnessed or perpetrated something so awful that it borders on offensive, but still doesn't ring true to the reader! All that horribleness for something that still seems like bollocks.

If there's one story that illustrates what I'm saying, it's Mark Millar's brilliant Red Son, in which Superman is raised by Joseph Stalin and grows up to be a tyrant. This tale of a world-conquering Man of Steel works, because Millar cleverly removes "the American Way" completely out of the equation. But as long as whatever version of Superman I'm reading is still supposed to be the one who stands for truth, justice AND the American Way, it's going to be very hard, if not impossible for a writer to convince me that Superman would take over the world. Maybe there is a successful way of doing it, but I don't think slaughtering Lois Lane in a grotesquely violent way is it.


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