Friday, March 22, 2013

I wish DC would stop paying people who hate Superman to write stories about Superman

Surprisingly, this post is not about Orson Scott Card.

(But he still sucks.)

It's about the video game Injustice: Gods Among Us and the comic tie-in.

Injustice is the upcoming fighting game starring a bunch of DC super-people. The plot of fighting games tend to be pretty superficial. Mostly they serve as a paper thin rationale to answer the questions posed by ex-drama students, who might suddenly ask "What's my motivation here?" when Zangief pulls Dhalsim into a spinning piledriver.

So the bar for fighting game storylines is generally pretty low. We just want something that will give us an excuse to believe that these people would be fighting each other. Prize money, pride in your nation, proving you're the best around and nothing's ever gonna keep you down, revenge, rivalry with another combatant, these are all fine.

I'm a guy who loves the cheesy backstories of video games and owns White Wolf's entire line of Street Fighter: The Story Telling Game. It doesn't have to be Hamlet; just give me a semi-plausible fig leaf of an explanation and I'm happy.

Hell, in Marvel comics it's almost de rigueur for superheroes to fight each other when first meeting. That's like how they shake hands.  In Justice League Task Force, the reason you're not really fighting your teammates, you're actually fighting their evil android duplicates created by Darkseid. Fine, great, whatever. I'll buy that. It's no more ridiculous than any number of canonical stories. Parallel universe counterparts, clones, training simulations, again, whatever. Excuses abound. If I believe a man can fly and shoot death rays out of his eyes, I'll believe that there's a reason where he might be fighting Batman.

Much like Fox Mulder, I want to believe.

Now, hold that thought.

Non-comic book writers, when they do write stories about superheroes, have two types of stories they like to tell.

The first is some kind of regulation/registration of super heroes, which I first encountered in the 1981 Days of Future's Past X-Men story arc, and then once every year or two right up until the present day.

And Wikipedia has helpfully compiled a list, so I don't have to look for examples:

As you can see, there are a ton of these.

For some reason, this is something that people outside of comics think that never occurs to comic book writers, while in reality, it's one of the hoariest of comic book cliches.

The other thing they think of is making Superman evil. An evil Superman in an Elseworlds is only slightly less common than a dead Spider-man in an issue of "What If?" There are literally hundreds of variations on this, but they're all mostly the same story.

It's not a good story, by itself, or a bad story. Much like anything, it depends on how its told.

However, I tend to be suspicious of people whose only idea for a story about Superman is one where Superman turns evil, because I think an even more essential element to the character even than his great power is his great goodness. The central premise of these evil Superman stories really seems to come down to the belief that Superman is only a hero because he doesn't know any better, because he's never faced any challenge or tragedy, and that his naive idealism is so brittle that it will crumble with one good shock.

A story with an evil Superman can sometimes work, if you contrast the man he has become against a character who has been defined by a lifetime of good deeds.  Take the Justice Lords two-parter in the JLA series. But if your story opens with Superman suffering some tragedy and going, "I guess I'm evil now," so you can write a story where you destroy the character twice, once when he betrays his values and again when he's beaten down by tougher stronger, better heroes who stood tough and didn't break when the going got rough, well, pardon me if I don't want to pay my money to read your story.

Greg Rucka said something once that really gets to the core of Superman: Pet peeve time: for the contingent out there who sneer at heroes like Superman and Wonder Woman and Captain America, those icons who still, at their core, represent selfless sacrifice for the greater good, and who justify their contempt by saying, oh, it’s so unrealistic, no one would ever be so noble… grow up. Seriously. Cynicism is not maturity, do not mistake the one for the other. If you truly cannot accept a story where someone does the right thing because it’s the right thing to do, that says far more about who you are than these characters.

And part of this is because it's not easy to write an entertaining Superman story without subverting some aspect of his nature. I don't personally like Joss Whedon's work, but I've heard from several people who usually like his stuff that they thought Captain America was boring in the Avengers, whereas I thought he was great in his own movie. I was talking about this with some friends, and I think the core of the problem is that Whedon, like a lot of other writers, just doesn't know what to do with a Honest-to-Goodness, Lawful Good, Twenty-Million-Die-By-Fire-If-Am-Weak, Super Hero. (And note that's not my usual dig against Whedon. It's a lot harder to play goodness straight than it is to deconstruct it.)

It's for those reasons that this story strikes me less as a reason to explain why these superheroes would be fighting each other and more of an excuse to shit all over Superman by someone who hates him.

I knew Ed Boon wasn't going to give us All Star Superman, but Jesus, this one is so bad that the comic makes me not want to play the game. It's so bad that when I read I read the original description of the plot I thought it was a joke, because it was such a collection of the worst of the 90s over-the-top grim n' gritty women in fridges bullshit that the only way it made any sense was as a parody.

The Joker steals a nuclear bomb, and then kidnaps Lois Lane and implants a trigger in her chest (a development of which Chris Sims wryly observed: "I mean really, you'd think that if the Joker enrolled himself in medical school, let alone made off with a nuclear warhead, Batman would try to be on top of that situation"), then gives Superman a dose of kryponite-spiked fear gas so he'll see his (pregnant, of course) wife as a supervillain and fly her out in to space to her death. Then her heart  stops and sets off the nuke in Metropolis.  Then Superman goes crazy and takes over the world because he had a sad.

That expression is begging to be made into a poster

The trope of murdering of a female character to spur a male character has a name, and is covered here.

I'm a big fan of Kingdom Come. Lois Lane had been murdered in that one too, well before the story began, when the Joker gassed the Daily Planet. Everyone Superman loved, everyone that anchored him, snuffed out, just like that. And he tracks down the Joker, to bring him to trial, and then, when the Joker is killed in the street before he can be tried, Superman arrests Magog, the Joker's killer and sees that he is tried. When Magog is acquitted, Superman hangs up his cape and retreats from the world.

Instead of, you know, taking it over. 

It reminds me of a line from the review of the last episode of the Legion of Super Heroes series on the Legion Abstract. "... I'd like the Legion's final villain to be someone other than my favourite superhero."

I'm kind of amazed that this series got made at all. Comics are on the decline, and this game is going to be the most exposure that most people get to Superman until the movie. Is DC really okay with its flagship character going crazy and murdering a bunch of people? DC Women Kicking Ass covers the comic  and, if possible, hates it more than I do.

On top of all this, it's got a bunch of my pet peeves. The Joker. Jesus. Clowns are terrifying

but that's all he's got going for him. It's been my experience from working with crazy people that they poop in the closet, masturbate at inappropriate times and occasionally try to stab me, but being crazy didn't give them the wherewithal to perform open heart surgery or mastermind the theft of a nuclear warhead, even considering that didn't have to work around the Joker's liabilities of looking like a grinning anorexic albino in a purple suit.

And also we get the lecture from Batman

Superman: I think an objective evaluation would show that killing the Joker would save more lives in the long term.
Batman: No! Once you start down the dark path, forever will it dominate your destiny!
Superman: ...
Batman: Murder is like kryptonite-laced crack. Once you kill one person, NO ONE CAN EVER STOP!!

Now, this argument has come up several times from Batman, and it's hard to refute it, because, as every child knows that police officers who kill someone in the line of duty instantly turn into serial killers. 

Christ, that's ridiculous. 

Though a close second is something that has to be the idea has insinuated itself into every message board on the Internets, the idea that "Batman can't kill the Joker! He'd just take over hell and come back with an undead army!" which apparently is something that happened at some time or other, and is now being treated as a inviolate and unassailable fact rather than the idiotic element from a single story that it is. Some days, it's hard to love you, internet.

It's a shame, because the game looks exceedingly well put together, and the promotional campaign has been absolutely top notch. I guess I'll do the right thing and not spend $60 on a game I won't have time to play anyway. I'll make a stand. For Justice! 


  1. How about you just realize that this is just a Mortal Kombat game in a faux DC tuxedo. It was doomed to be crap since day one. Now go back to your closet and furiously masturbate to your Superman poster again. It's alright. Nobody actually playing this game is going to give a damn about its story. It's Batman fighting Superman. Big budget stupid; nothing more.

    1. That was the point I was trying to make, though. You don't need anything but the most superficial of justifications for these kind of games, but instead we're treated to a ten issue "FUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUCKKKKKKKKKKK YOOOOOOOOUUUUUUUUUUUUUUU SUUUUUUUUPPPERMAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAANNNNNNNNNNNN!!"

    2. Then abbreviate to that point post haste sir!

      In addition I don't mind a ten issue middle finger to comic book characters. They are called events or crossovers. It's par for the course within that, and many other, media industries.

      Finally can you tell I stopped reading comics quite a long time back? Partly due to no local access to a comic store around here and mostly now because the stories are just tripe. It's the 90's all over again with out the foil covers. (And you know I bust your chops too out of comraderie)

  2. I must also note the expression on Superman's face is reminiscent to the many facial expressions generated by Nicholas Cage in ANY of his movies. In semiotics this represents the audience being trolled by the publisher. The more you know....

  3. Great article! Thanks for posting it! I agree, good *IS* very hard to write.

    1. Thank you! I think I managed to convey what I felt about the game and the tie-in comic with this article.