16.7.12

Superman debates The Authority, and it doesn't go well for him.

Superman vs. The Elite begins with writer Joe Kelley asking an interesting question: What if Superman's non-interventive, no-murder morality were held up against that of The Authority, who are happy to use their powers to kill people who they identify as morally corrupt (largely because those villains make ethnic cleansing their trade). Would the world value Superman's endless optimism, even when people have to be sacrificed to it, or would they side with a group who would rather just kill Lex Luthor and call it a day?

It's a debate that could open up all sorts of possibilities for interesting storytelling, if only Joe Kelley had the slightest bit of interest in exploring them. He doesn't, though. Instead of making an impassioned case for Superman's point of view, he simply makes The Authority (pseudonimized as 'The Elite' for purposes of lawsuit-avoidance) simplistic villains so that their way can't be taken seriously as an option.

Am I being too harsh in saying that Joe Kelley uses hack writing to undercut his own characters so that they won't ever be a legitimate threat to Superman's ideals? You tell me. Here is literally the first thing we see them do as a team:

They kill a dog. For barking at them.

Because, you see, only monstrous psychopaths could ever consider killing a supervillain as a solution. Monstrous psychopaths like Barry Allen.

The problem with the movie - and why I'm being so hard on the writer (although who knows how much of this is his fault, I haven't read the comic he adapted this from - although he's the writer of that, too...) - is that the movie completely fails to make Superman look like the good guy. I mentioned earlier that it fails to make an impassioned case for Superman's morality, but that's not entirely accurate - it fails to make any case at all.


This is the Atomic Skull. The film introduces him as he walks through downtown Metropolis, killing anyone who gets within arm's reach. For no reason other than he likes seeing people die. Superman jails him in 'Stryker's Island', but he escapes soon after, killing at least fifty more people. At that point the Elite announce that they've had enough of the supervillain's nonsense, and explode his head, ensuring that he'll never again escape from prison and murder dozens of people.
The film shows Superman having a problem with this, but it can't explain why anyone else should. Manchester Black (the team's male stand-in for Jenny Sparks) announces that Superman doesn't take villains seriously enough because he's functionally immortal, and he can't relate to the way regular people fear for their lives around the kind of super-powered serial killers who plague the DC universe. Black believes that Superman has the luxury of his morals because he's never in any real danger.

To the film's credit, this is an incredibly good point. To the film's brutal discredit, it never in any way offers any reason to doubt Black's reading of the situation. Superman is completely out-of-touch with the experience of being someone fleeing from a murderer. From seeing your father brutally murdered and desperately wanting someone to ensure that no one else ever has to suffer the way you have. A prominent educator is murdered by the Atomic Skull, and it's only with his teenage son's go-ahead that Black finally executes the helpless villain. Superman is so far above the average citizen of Metropolis that it never occurs to him how it looks to them that he's always careful not to hurt the people who just got finished killing scores of innocent bystanders. All he has to offer are platitudes about not wanting to lower himself to the level of villains - implicitly making the argument, of course, that every police officer who's ever killed a criminal is as bad a person as the criminal they killed.

So, with the film seemingly stacked so heavily in The Elite's favour, how does it turn the story around to make Superman the 'hero' of the piece when the credits roll? Simple - by attempting to undercut The Elite in two distinct ways. One of them actually backfires, and the other is just contemptibly stupid.

First, the backfire. This comes with the Manchester Black character's backstory. An abused and dirt-poor child, he resorted to petty crime in order to care for his little sister. While the police were trying to arrest the little girl she wound up pushed in front of a train, and Black used his recently-acquired telekinetic powers to stop the train, saving her life. A perfectly serviceable origin story, right? The movie then tries to give it a darker hue by having Lois Lane dig into the facts of the case, which seem to have been erased from history. She's handed a file by a woman claiming to be Black's grown-up sister which tells the true version of the story - when Black stopped that train, he killed more than a dozen people! And the rest of the Elite were super-powered criminals before the government put them on the payroll as Black-Ops operatives! Shocking, right?

Actually, no. The crazy thing here is that the 'darkened' version of the story actually strengthens Black's rhetorical position, rather than weakening it.

So Black killed a bunch of people when his powers first manifested. It's a tragedy, but it's not like he had control over them or knew what he was doing. What happened next is the key part. Was he punished for this accidental crime? No - in fact, the exact opposite happened. The Government scooped him up and said 'don't worry - you're powerful, so you can be one of us now. Go kill the people we want you to kill, and don't ever think about that train. In fact, it never even happened.'

I don't know if the writer fully intended this, but it's the government's decision right at the beginning of Black's career as a powered individual that sets the stage for his later rebellion. The UK government only cared about power, and utterly disregarded the 'little people' who were harmed along the way. It's this exact entitled attitude and obsession with control at all costs that Black and The Elite are rebelling against later in life. Rather than invalidating his beliefs or making him look worse, all Lois Lane has done by exposing Black's backstory is let the audience know that he has a profound personal connection to the kinds of abusive power that he's now deciding to fight against. Which, if anything, makes him more heroic.

Also, what's his sister's motivation for giving Lois the story? Assuming, of course, that she actually is the sister, rather than just another government spook.


In any event she works for the government, and seemingly believes in defending the status quo at all costs, even if it means sacrificing the brother who gave up everything to protect her. Yet Black is supposed to be the bad guy. In what way?

A little background is required before we get to the contemptible stupidity. A running plot in the film involves two warring eastern European nations, who each seem desperate to wipe the other off the map. They yell at each other on the floor of the UN, go on news programs to threaten one another - it's a mess. And the countries' military leadership are especially brutal. One side unleashes bio-monsters, while the other intends to use jets to level a major city. Both sides actually seem to go out of their way to ensure civilian casualties.

The Elite state their desire to resolve the conflict, but Superman seemingly beats them to it, disarming an entire wing of fighter jets, then announcing that he's going to force the two countries into peace talks. One problem - the Elite have already killed the two countries' leaders, believing that this will stop the conflict, and arguing (not unpersuasively) that anyone who would order the mass-bombing of a civilian hub probably had it coming. Superman is so infuriated by the news that he actually punches Black - an image captured for all the world to see by Black's omnipresent camerabots. At this moment The Elite have everything they want. The world at large prefers their way of doing business. Superman has just made an unprovoked attack on the world's most-admired man. They can now continue doing whatever they like to 'save the world' confident that Superman will be unable to do anything to interfere with them without forever crippling his own credibility.

So what do The Elite announce that they're going to do with all this newfound political capital? They're going to kill Superman. But why? They have no reason to do so - they have good enough tech that he's not a real threat, and he can't stop them from their work without the world turning on him. By attacking Superman they'll make themselves look like villains, and if they succeed the world will hate them for killing a man who's literally saved the lives of everyone on Earth multiple times. They have nothing that could possibly be gained by killing Superman and everything to lose - so why do they do it? For the most contrived reason of all: the story needs a clear villain, so four characters start acting villainous, even though they have no motivation for doing so.

The real problem with this interaction? The writer missed a golden opportunity to actually argue for Superman's point, and he missed it by not showing the consequences of the Elite's actions. Black announces that the two countries are now 'free' because their warmongering leaders have all been executed. That's great and all, but why would it necessarily lead to peace? It's not like countries generally just go to war because the President/Prime Minister/Potentate announces that it's going to happen. To build up to this kind of regional conflict you need decades - even centuries - of resentments brewing between factions. Does anyone seriously think that there was an ethnic cleansing in Serbia because Milosevic was just a really bad guy? That there was a Holocaust solely because Hitler had especially convincing oratory to offer? Just because the leaders of these countries are dead there's no guarantee that their people won't go on fighting. Who's to say that the country went to war because the wrong people were elected? Perhaps the right people were elected because both those countries wanted to go to war.

Showing the countries descending into chaos and mass slaughter would have been a bracing dose of realism for The Elite to deal with. They'd have learned that there are a great many problems that simple violence can't solve, and that fixing the world isn't as simple as killing the right people. Sometimes negotiations - backed by the threat of Superman-level enforcement - have to take place, and people must be deprived of what they think they want in order for everyone to move forward together.

As I've mentioned before, though, the writer of this particular story had no interest in actually making a case for Superman's value, so instead of a lesson in the way the world works, we get a nonsensical fight.

The irony is that The Elite actually had it all backwards - at a key moment they announce that they'll be fixing the world from now on while Superman can feel free to busy himself with costumed creeps and mad scientists. In actuality their skill sets are perfectly matched for the opposite tasks. Superman's endless well of optimism and practical dedication to social justice (along with the ability to intervene and stop major conflicts) is the kind of force that could change hearts and minds, leading to a better world for everyone further down the line. The Elite's raw power and flexible morality makes them the perfect choice to wipe out whatever Doctor Lights and Deathstrokes who might pop up around the world from time to time.

The problem with Superman's morality is that it's meant to inspire people in our world, rather than his own. In a world where prisons work, and serial killers are sealed away forever, people have the luxury of being against the death penalty. In the world of DC, where mass-casualty psychopaths are essentially allowed to roam free, killing countless numbers of innocent people, being against finality in punishment essentially counts as a mental illness. Superman was created to fight bank robbers, mad scientists, and occasionally japoteurs. Back then, Superman killed some of them. Later the government would announce that Superman wasn't allowed to kill people, so the stories changed along with that edict. Through the 50s and 60s Superman had fantastical, low-threat adventures, helping out on alien planets and playing elaborate pranks to trap soviet spies. After the 80s, when content restrictions were fully lifted, writers decided to amp up the threat level - instead of villains who had bold plans but were thwarted in the nick of time, suddenly every recurring villain was gifted a three-digit bodycount.

Unlike the last time the tone of Superman's stories was drastically changed, this time Superman's character didn't change along with it. Now he's an absurdly pacifistic boy scout standing alone among a crowd of Ted Bundys. As writers made the stories more and more extreme - Darkseid wiping out whole planetary populations, evil Reed Richards blowing up an American city - Superman was left behind, rigidly unchanging and becoming less relevant with each passing atrocity that he let occur without a proportionate response. Superman vs. The Elite attempts to address this problem, and make a case that DC's failure to allow Superman to grow and change along with circumstances that define his world was  really a principled stand being taken against the dangerous direction that society has moved in, rather than just simple cowardice on their part.

It's not a convincing case.

10 comments:

pernoctator said...

Beautifully argued. Great post.

Anonymous said...

I kind of see what you're getting at but don't wholly agree. Superman isn't judge jury and executioner. He leaves sentencing in the hands of the courts. A metahuman, one with godlike powers, should not have the power to be judge jury and executioner. Power corrupts.

Also, you shouldn't use it as your first resort. You should try to incapacitate first, and only when there isn't any other option should you kill. Superman killed Zod in man of steel because there was no other option,

The real reasons villains keep breaking out is because comics need recurring baddies. If things were handled better than it wouldn't be as much of an issue. A cop who kills a criminal because the guy pulls a gun is legit; a cop who kills a criminal because he hates the guy is scum, since he's acting out of revenge rather than the law.

Vardulon said...

Dear anonymous-

I understand your points, here is a rebuttal.

First off, if Superman were to kill the Atomic Skull, he wouldn't be acting as judge, jury, and executioner - just executioner, the Atomic Skull was already in prison forever.

You say power corrupts, but I don't think that's really accurate. Evidence tends to suggest that it just allows you to be who you are, only on a larger scale. Look at American presidents - Jimmy Carter was a pretty great guy before becoming the most powerful world leader, he was a pretty great president, and then he went on to do great things post-presidency. Bill Clinton was a guy who valued helping the lower classes, but also liked political expedience and cheating on his wife, and he went on to become a president who did a little here and there to help the lower classes, and also got a lot done through easy dealmaking, and kept cheating on his wife. Where's the corruption?

Perhaps Superman shouldn't use murder as his first resort, but I don't think anyone having their lives threatened by a supervillain has a moral obligation to try and capture him. The problem with Superman, like Batman, is that there's no follow-through. They capture a guy heroically, because only they could, but one second later he's 'somebody else's problem', and Superman runs off, knowing full well that the standard criminal justice system is completely incapable of dealing with them - after all, Superman was the only one who could catch them.

Your point about villain marketability is well-taken, and the entire source of the problem. Companies need supervillains around because they're popular, but when all of them are mass-murderers who keep getting out of prison, superheroes wind up looking both completely ineffectual and utterly callous to the problems of the people they're supposed to be protecting. In the terrible Joker-themed crossover "Last Laugh", there was a side-story in one issue about people doing case study interviews with victims of the Joker's crimes. It was basically a series of monologues about how shattered people are as a result of their friends, lovers, children, being brutally murdered in front of their eyes by the Joker, while he laughed at their suffering. I don't know what the intent of the comic was, but if the creators wanted people to come away from it feeling anything other than 'The Joker's got to die - now', then they made a horrible miscalculation. And I suspect another response was intended, considering that the "Last Laugh" series famously ended with Batman saving the Joker's life.

I think you're being far too binary on the morality of police here. There's either heroes with pure motives who shoot only in self-defense, or monster vigilante cops who, I suppose, sneak into criminals' houses and gun them down in their sleep out of hatred. I'm sure there's a wide spectrum of motives and behaviours of cops in real life, but in any event the experiences of real-life cops aren't strictly relevant here, since none of them are being asked to arrest people who have indiscriminately killed hundreds, or even thousands, of people.

Finally - did power corrupt Batman back when he was chucking crooks off of roofs and shooting them? Did power corrupt Superman back when he was tossing spies into the middle of the Atlantic Ocean to drown? No one seems to be making that argument. So why does the power to kill evil people suddenly become a corrupting influence the moment Congress says Superman shouldn't do it any more?

Anonymous said...

In recent runs there have been super villain prisons, with varying degrees of effectiveness.

The power to pass judgement can be very very tempting to abuse, especially with the whole "for the greater good" mentality. I don't think I need to point out that many horrific atrocities were carried out by people who honestly thought it was for "greater good."

In Justice League, Superman kills Lex after a series of events. First Lex was elected president, then he led earth to the brink of nuclear war THEN he murdered one of superman's teammates. Superman kills Lex, which can be justified given that there was no nonlethal way to stop him from hitting the button, but Superman than proceeds to decide that no criminal can ever be rehabilitated, that democracy is bad, and that people need an iron grip to be ruled. The result is a world with no freedom where any peep of dissent will get you thrown in jail and where criminals are lobotomized.

In star wars tales of the jedi, ulic qel droma falls to the dark side because he murders the man he hates even when the guy is essentially defeated and could have conceivably have been taken into custody (the jedi have prisons for force users and in any case the guy would have most certainly stood trial and probably found guilty.) Instead he decides "fuck this I want revenge" and kills the guy in cold blood. He put his own selfish desires above his morality, and the rule of law. In star wars, killing is alright as long as you don't take pleasure from the act and don't choose to ignore your sense of morality or the greater good of the galaxy. And you shouldn't. Even if the person is a lunatic you shouldn't take joy in ending someone's life. Superman killed Zod because there was no other way to stop him, and he's visibly traumatized by the act of ending.

Sometimes it isn't clear cut, but in general there's a difference between killing someone in the heat of battle, coldly planning to kill someone, and killing an active threat vs killing a defenseless and incapacitated individual.

Avatar the last airbender actually had a good point; while most of the horrible things occur because Roku showed mercy when he should have been decisive, killing ozai wasn't the answer either, since every avatar had been caught up in extremes, and since killing ozai would have made him a martyr. It isn't always easy; sometimes there are times when you do have to kill someone to end them. There are also times when killing someone is pretty fucking stupid and will only cause harm.

If a cop kill someone who has surrendered, then yes they are scum. Even if you have righteous anger, police are supposed to be better. Some criminals are beyond redemption, but some are not.

Fact is, there are some people who just can't handle power, or who let power go to their head. In a democracy there are checks and balances so Jimmy Carter isn't a good example. Someone becoming an authoritarian leader with a shit ton of power is far more likely to get drunk on power


also,
In general I think the death penalty doesn't really work. Most people who commit murder are in general irrational so deterrent doesn't work, most of the civilized world has abolished it (in fact the ones that have abolished it tend to be less crime infested)

Vardulon said...

Anonymous-

I've got to say, I think Jimmy Carter is a pretty good example - despite the 'checks and balances' the guys two presidents before and one president after each did a pretty good job of abusing the power of the white house and committing an awful lot of crimes.

As for the Justice League, I personally thought the Justice Lords world didn't look all that bad as a place to live. I'm not pro-dictatorship, but if the tradeoff for an end to worldwide war, suffering, poverty (and probably) illness is Superman getting to tell me what to do, that's not a difficult tradeoff.

Of course the death penalty doesn't work as a deterrent in the real world - in the real world, as you say, murder is almost exclusively not a planned crime. But in the world of DC, it's not only frequently planned, but frequently planned by mass murderers whom no prison can hold. In the movie, Manchester Black's point is that had the Atomic Skull been killed during his previous escape, a lot of people wouldn't have been killed. Whether Black is killing based on expediency or hatred of criminals, he's still getting the job done in a way that Superman refuses to.

Anonymous said...

I get that sometimes killing is the only way but it shouldn't be the first last and only method. Some criminals can be redeemed. But relying too much on killing can be bad . I concede that sups should have killed atomic skull but I maintain lethal force should only be a last resort (ie furing his final battle with the general or whenever brainiac or darkseid shows up


With the justice lords it was that even nonviolent protest or complaining in a restaurant would get you thrown in jail. And when it comes to absolute power there are exceptions but in general those tend to be obscenely altruistic and noble. People like vandal savage are the kind who would get drunk on power.

Anonymous said...

I guess I'm not willing to cede my freedom. Give the government that power it will be abused (hence every dictatorship ever) Nixon had to leave because there were mechanisms that would have made him. Johnson lost reelection

Anonymous said...

there's another problem. Superman ultimately answers to the system. If every person went around saying "I AM THE LAW, MY VERSION OF JUSTICE IS WHAT GOES" than a lot of innocents are going to die. Having a superhero with god like powers saying "My version of justice is what goes, I am the ultimate arbiter of the law"......than the results are even WORSE. here, than that engineer is far more culpable than superman is. The likes of Darkseid, I admit, can't be held by human prison, but this atomic skull guy clearly could were it not for the worst prison designer ever. Barring that, the DCU is far more advanced than we are, and it's a place where an ordinary man like Batman (well, he's not ordinary, but any person who has the sufficient willpower can train to become him. Hence, Batman Inc) can beat the tar out of Superman and even the entire justice league if he wanted to. The governing bodies aren't nearly as helpless as you seem to think. In Young Justice alone, they developed collars that suppress any and all powers a person has, regardless of their origin or type. That alone makes a prison for supervillains a feasible concept. And if your still unconvinced, know that when I made that remark, I was thinking more about Batman's rouges, who are tough, but otherwise ordinary humans that escape escape from their prison more often than any other rouges. With all this in mind, I think it is safe to say that the high power levels of the villains are not that huge a factor.
But on the subject of whether inaction leads to death, your looking at it wrong. Superheroes don't take inaction. They stop the villain and then constrain them in some way so that they won't escape. Which they'll break free of. And they will and go back to doing crime. It is as unrealistic that they escape prisons as they would be returning from death (for reasons stated in the above paragraph). The good guys are just as unstoppable as the bad guys. As you called it, Narrative destiny bids that they do battle and nothing in the world is going to stop them from doing so. You say you ignore the fact that killing the villains won't be any better than imprisoning them in your argument, but the entirety of your justification for killing hinges on the fact that there is simply no other choice and that people will die as long as they live. If we're too look at it realistically, we have to admit that 1. the decision to end the life of a supervillain should rest in societies hands, not the superhero's hands and 2. there should really be no need to kill the supervillains except maybe as an act retributive justice (which I personally don't believe in at all. It's such a useless concept. In the case of Atomic Skull, it's better that he make millions of people's lives easier for years to come than that he die for killing....what, 3 people in his first rampage in the movie?). 3. This is also ignoring the alternatives alternatives. This is another weak point of the movie. Superman ends the film by making sure the Elite are never a threat again, not by killing them, but by taking away their powers. It makes me wonder why he doesn't do that for Electric skull. His robots/fortress of solitude has ability to take away bioelectricity, magical hellpowers, and....whatever the hell you call the lizard lady's powers, and make a precision cut from a distance to Manchester's brain. In essense, this is the same as killing them because it serves the same purpose: Make sure they are a never threat again. Why can't he do the same to his other rogue gallery? It seem arbitrary if he can just do that by looking at some files. Anyway, if it is a situation that you honestly HAVE to kill the villain to save an innocent, then yes, I can agree with that.

Claire Moore said...

In short, Superman shouldn't be the one to decide whether the sanction should be used.
Some other guy said
"Moving forward, you suggest prison cells would be impractical for supervillains. If that is true, and I'm not sure it is, the movie atleast doesn't portray this. Contrived writing more than anything else is what let Atomic Skull out of his cell. The guy was COMPLETELY trapped until there was a power outage that somehow shut EVERYTHING down instantly and had no back up generators and no safeguards to stop him if he made it past the glass window. That is nothing short of absurd. Honestly, this qualifies as too dumb to live on part of whoever designed the prison, and if deaths through inaction is a valid philosophy here, than that engineer is far more culpable than superman is. The likes of Darkseid, I admit, can't be held by human prison, but this atomic skull guy clearly could were it not for the worst prison designer ever. Barring that, the DCU is far more advanced than we are, and it's a place where an ordinary man like Batman (well, he's not ordinary, but any person who has the sufficient willpower can train to become him. Hence, Batman Inc) can beat the tar out of Superman and even the entire justice league if he wanted to. The governing bodies aren't nearly as helpless as you seem to think. In Young Justice alone, they developed collars that suppress any and all powers a person has, regardless of their origin or type. That alone makes a prison for supervillains a feasible concept. And if your still unconvinced, know that when I made that remark, I was thinking more about Batman's rouges, who are tough, but otherwise ordinary humans that escape escape from their prison more often than any other rouges. With all this in mind, I think it is safe to say that the high power levels of the villains are not that huge a factor.

Anonymous said...


"I think your forcing your interpretation of the story onto them in order to call them strawmen. There is more support that it's an examination of the idea of a killing hero in general. Is it really better or not? The fact is, the idea of killing super villains wasn't entirely laughed off as absurd. Lois herself, superman's own loving girlfriend, considered that maybe the Elite are right in that some guys just should be killed. If they were as determined to make the idea of a killing hero as repulsive via strawmen, then they wouldn't have bothered showing that and just had all the good guys disagree with them no matter what. The Elite make too many good points that Superman does not easily refute to say that the writers presented a one sided argument. As I said, I think the point the movie was making who should kill. Definitely not the Elite. And superman doesn't want to do it on principle because he generally doesn't need to. That leaves the common people who I will talk about in a moment. But as for the movie, the most I can say is that the story would make much more sense if you let go of your presumption that reinforcing superman's no kill policy was what the writers intended. You don't have to take my interpretation, but the one you have is only supported if you ignore several parts of the story that explicitly give credence to the idea of a killing hero." the elite can't be trusted.