Friday, May 22, 2015

Superman is Actually the Bad Guy

Injustice: Gods Among Us; Year Two, Part Two

You know you've made it when your nickname alone becomes synonymous with you and no one other. While Kleenex, Q-Tip, or Band-Aid might be used to describe themselves or their generic forms, “The Dark Knight” and “The Man of Steel” refer back to Batman and Superman exclusively. John Henry be damned, Kal-El of Krypton is the Man of Steel. Forget the Black Knight, Batman owns the dark title.[1]

There are other titles, of course. Ra’s al-Ghoul was fond of calling Batman “Detective,” valuing his formidable mind over the brawling and fear-based tactics that sent petty criminals reeling. Detective Harvey Bullock and several villains favored the diminutive “Bats,” and certainly no one for several decades has been born “Bruce Wayne” by accident. Ra’s’ daughter Talia never called him anything other than “Beloved.” Likewise, “Supes” has been tossed around by his friends and, though it has fallen out of use, Superman has had one other nickname: “Big Blue.”

Depending on the source, this has two etymologies. The more innocuous has always been that Superman is a large, beefy hunk of Kryptonian man-meat, who wears a primarily blue uniform. Onlookers frequently describe his sudden[2] and brief appearances as a big blue blur. The terminology was also a popular nickname for a certain International Business Machines company, o it would have been in the zeitgeist. Fair enough. However my favored interpretation has always been that Big Blue has also been a diminutive. Superman is “the Big Blue Boy Scout.”

Batman might strike fear into the hearts of criminals, but fear of Superman has always resulted from people being terrified of what he can do, not that he would do it. Batman drops criminals off rooftops. Superman will only ever threaten to drop you. Maybe. Generally, he’ll just take one high enough that they cling to him and beg him to return them to the ground. In a prison. Far from him. Superman smirks but that’s about it. Unless you have superpowers yourself, their has never been a reason to fear for your life around Superman.

And that’s boring. He’s honorable. Predictable. He literally helps little old ladies across streets and saves kittens from trees. His whole thing is being the best person he can be, morally, because he’s already better than the best human at everything physically. Batman frightens people as a tactic. Superman does it by existing. He has to be good. Because the alternative, anything less than sheer Platonic perfection, is our nightmare.

It’s probably for this exact reason that current trends favor questioning the capability, sanity, and otherwise worthiness of powered individuals[3]. The Joker and Lex Luthor may be terrible foes, but no one ever doubts that our heroes will defeat them. Batman is a greater detective, Superman will use his powers and sheer ethical will to overcome whatever no-win scenario in which he seems to be trapped. But what if the heroes were themselves the Bag Guys? Not some “evil ray got them” or “Evil Twin” nonsense the Prime Character can take out one-on-one. Not some alternate reality version come to Earth only to be bested by our hero. What if Superman turned evil?

Don’t question the premise, or how the writers get out of such a predicament to return Clark Kent to his status quo. What if Superman, the “real” Superman, wasn’t morally upright and staunch in his ideals of freedom? Hasn't Lex Luthor frequently made credible arguments against the unlicensed and unilateral operation of such a vigilante element? During Marvel’s Civil War storyline, didn’t Captain America “die” fighting Iron Man’s S.H.I.E.L.D. and a federal government believing just that? In fact, barring his (granted more often than not in the multiverse) criminal and megalomaniacal tendencies, hasn't Lex Luthor showed rather ingenious insight into how to use heroes’ powers better than their actual owners?

Say what you will about Frank Miller’s The Dark Knight Strikes Again, but Lex had the Flash running in a giant hamster wheel to power the entire freaking West Coast for free and Supes was The Administration's nuclear deterrent. In Superman: Red Son he might have been an asshole but he advanced technology centuries ahead of schedule and stabilized inflation on a fucking napkin. Frankly, except for using his power exclusively to try to defeat Superman and not to help the American people[4], and yes, murdering many people along the way, President Luthor actually solved every major problem of the 20th century in a year, then cured disease and sleep, instituted a better replacement for representative democracy, lived to be 4,000 years old, and spawned the most famous lineage in history. Because fuck your commie superpowers.

Injustice: Gods Among Us was a video game and then an ongoing prequel comic taking place in a parallel world that was, for all purposes, exactly like the pre- “New 52” DC comics continuity. The only difference begin that in this world Superman and Lex Luthor were actually good friends, meaning Luthor wasn’t as murderously megalomaniacal as usual. The base premise is this: one day, the Joker gets bored always losing to Batman, so he sets a massively elaborate trap for Superman instead, and he wins. He wins big. Not only does he kill millions, he contrives a way that Superman is directly responsible for it, losing Lois and their entire future together. He breaks Superman because he had a bad day once. Batman had a bad day once. “What do you think Superman will become?” he asks.

The answer in Injustice is a bloody, terrifying tyrant, overthrowing all federal governments and beating back the Green Lantern Corps, opposing heroes, and murdering several former friends with his bare hands. Superman is, quite truthfully, unstoppable. We’ve spent so many years building up Superman to combat every threat thrown at him, rebooting him slightly when necessary because flying through space dragging whole planets behind him nonchalantly was too much. Yet no matter how inordinate the threat, no matter how insurmountable, we as readers know that we can find a way to make Superman surmount. We have imbued within him a will strong as Green Lantern’s and a mind like Batman’s, if still a bit naive. He is the pinnacle of physical power.

Superman is the ultimate weapon in the universe. And thank God he’s on our side.

[1] He’s actually been the black knight in several ‘Elseworlds’ titles.
[2] The average speed of a projectile fired from a standard-issue Glock 22 is roughly 1,155 ft/sec, or 787.5 mph. Apparently “faster than a speeding bullet” is at least Mach 2.4, just a little shy of the trans-light velocities necessary to reverse the flow of time in Superman II.
[3] Supes, Batman, Thor, Mr. Fantastic, Tony Stark, Cyclops, Barry Allen regularly altering history….
[4] It can be argued that Lex intended to destroy Superman only because he recognized it was a requirement for mankind to advance on its own terms.

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