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Sunday, June 12, 2016

Static Thoughts - Justice League: A Better World

Edited by Robert Beach 

So the popular DC comics fighting game Injustice is officially getting a sequel, and the first trailer and gameplay footage are now dropping. Your excitement over this fact may vary based on whether or not you thought Injustice was a super hardcore, awesome experience or a sludgy fighter with junky controls, flaccid character design, and a story that started at ‘outwardly moronic’ and just got worse as it went along. 

I’m in the latter category (Can you tell?), so I’m not terribly enthralled by the prospect of MORE Injustice. The new game looks to be aping the worst aspects of Destiny’s bizarre quasi-freemium set-up. Instead, let’s talk about the story that “inspired” Injustice. By inspired, I mean Injustice ripped it off wholesale while draining the characterization and nuance. Let’s talk about the best episode of the animated Justice League series, and the best version of the “superheroes take over” story; let’s talk about "A Better World."

If you’ve never encountered Justice League the animated series, it was the early 2000s animated series starring Batman, Superman, Wonder Woman, Martian Manhunter, Green Lantern, and Hawkgirl as the first animated Justice League since the Super Friends. The show was a follow-up to the animated Superman and Batman shows that formed the DC animated universe under artist/producer Bruce Timm. It’s also where modern comics legend Dwayne McDuffie did some of his best ever work. 

Suffice it to say, it’s a great series with a lot of clout and a lot of great installments. The standard format for the show was to split its stories into 2 parts; each part lasts 20 minutes adding up to 45-minute stories. ‘A Better World’ was the 6th story of the 2nd season, marking the half-way point of the season and kicking off a saga that would run throughout the entire show. 

The episode revolves around one of comics’ best creative devices: a parallel universe. In this alternate reality, which I’ll refer to as Earth-3 for convenience’s sake, Lex Luthor became president. That presidency embroiled the entire world in a war that brought humanity to the brink of extinction and caused the death of the Flash. Faced with the world on the edge and Luthor’s unrepentant approach to his atrocities, Superman executed Luthor right on the floor of the oval office. It’s not exactly clear what happened after that, but 2 years later, the world has become a police state under the ever-watchful eye of the Justice Lords. In this world, Superman has convinced the entirety of his team to join him to rebuild the Earth in their image. 

We spend about ½ of the first episode exploring the world of the Justice Lords, seeing how things work on their Earth under their rule. Some things are the standard dystopian set-up like armored storm troopers putting down peaceful demonstrations or the team’s satellite headquarters acting as a constantly vigilant eye over the entire world. What makes things there so creepy is how many people genuinely think the Justice Lords are doing the right thing. 

There’s an exceptionally chilling sequence where we see how Superman has the ordinary citizenry, including Lois Lane, on permanent lockdown. Additionally, the soldiers guarding Lane seem to believe their situation is only temporary. It all speaks to a world that wasn’t dragged kicking and screaming into dystopia, but they were gently nudged and coddled into giving up its freedoms. After all, if you can’t trust Superman, who can you trust? 

The Justice Lords eventually become aware of the Justice League on Earth-1 and decide, since things are quiet on the home front, they might as well head to the Justice League’s Earth to “help” them make a better world too. The league ends up sidelined pretty quickly as the first episode is almost entirely dedicated to the Justice Lords.  

After they come to Earth-1, the team becomes embroiled in a spectacular fight scene with Doomsday. It’s a showcase of how precise and militaristic the Justice Lords have become in the 2 years they’ve had to train and become a stronger team. The whole sequence ends with Lord Superman lobotomizing Doomsday with his heat vision in a disturbing sequence. 

I’m fairly certain the action is a direct reference to the Superman story What’s So Funny About Truth, Justice, & The American Way where Superman uses his heat vision to remove a portion of a villain’s brain that gave them psychic powers. Where the act is treated as a necessary evil in the comics, here it’s a terrifying sign of the things Lord Superman is willing to do for his better world.  

There’s even a very creepy point where the gathering crowds actively start to agree with Lord Superman’s tactics against Doomsday that makes it very clear how easy it really was for the Justice Lords to slip into power. It becomes clear the Justice Lords didn’t so much “impose” their will on the populous. They gave the people what they wanted (the will of the people), and no one thought of the consequences. 

The second episode focuses more on the Justice League, though the Lords do get some development that continues to peel away the layers of creepiness that inform the team. Most of the episode is, once again, set on Earth-3 as the Justice League busts out of their prison and splits up. The main team goes to Arkham Asylum to rescue injured teammate Hawkgirl while Batman heads to the Bat Cave to locate the portal that brought the team to this Earth. 

The split up is an excuse to divide the Earth’s focus. The League encounters Superman’s hypocrisy and reign of terror while Batman finds himself swayed by his counterpart. The events at Arkham Asylum are a real trip. We see the Batman foes Superman has lobotomized housed in this bright, pastel institute.  There’s also an army of Superman Robots who pop up to brutally attack the team while spouting phrases like “violent behavior will not be tolerated.”    

Batman’s trip is one of the truly great moments of the show in both performance and design as the Batmen of two worlds verbally spar on their respective ethical viewpoints. Basically, every major, politically themed superhero event to come out in recent memory, from the Civil War comic to Captain America: Winter Soldier owes its origins to this episode and this sequence. The debate here about the failings of democracy to defend the powerless and lack of possibility created by authoritarianism is an excellent infusion of real political depth into the conversation. 

It’s a great look into the mind of a Justice Lord who believes in what they’re doing, and the sense that Lord Batman isn’t just some goon. There’s also a very telling moment where we see the costumes of Batman’s former sidekicks under glass. It’s never addressed what happened to Robin, Batgirl, and Nightwing in this reality. Given Batman’s allegiance with Superman, I wouldn’t be surprised if they also died in Luthor’s war. It would fit with Batman’s character and especially his motivations as, no matter what Earth he calls home, the defining core of Batman’s identity is that he doesn’t want to see anyone gets hurt even if that means giving up on freedom. 

The League eventually makes it back to their world and devises a plan to take out the Justice Lords, which leads into the episode’s best scene. It’s an incredible brief sequence. But such a well-directed, well-acted scene it speaks volumes about the characters and their world in a way. It comes to the Justice Lords’ attention that Luthor has attempted to break out of prison and taken a hostage.  

Lord Superman immediately prepares to leave when Hawkgirl tells him not to be too quick. This Earth isn’t ready for a Superman who kills yet. As Superman brushes her off, Green Lantern steps in his path, suggesting they should all deal with the situation. Like I said, it’s a small scene, but the body language on display and the deliberate actions says so much about this group’s dynamic. 

The quiet, almost timid, way Hawkgirl brings up her concern as Superman stares down at the Earth, savoring the thought of killing Luthor a second time. It suddenly becomes infinitely clearer how much he led the TEAM down the path they’re on even if he didn’t need to force anyone to follow him. It’s Green Lantern’s action that speaks the loudest to me. The way he doesn’t tell Superman to stop or say no; he just tries to defuse things. 

It is obvious Lantern is the one to step forward because he’s the most powerful person there after Superman. Even with all that power, he’s still afraid of Superman, afraid to make him angry.  In one scene, we see how much this group of the world’s most powerful people live under the thumb of Lord Superman. The way he turned them to his purpose, and how much he’s used “security” as an excuse to kill. All that spawns from a few choice lines and well-directed movements. 

This comes up again in the episode’s finale where the League finally goes head-to-head with the Justice Lords. We never see Superman fight his counterpart. Instead, The Flash takes on Lord Superman in a cool fight. Flash’s gambit was that Lord Superman wouldn’t kill him because there were still lines he wouldn’t cross. In the end, he was dead wrong.  

That’s part of what makes Lord Superman such an amazing villain. The way he twists the mantle of Superman and even his own philosophy of authoritarianism into a suit of armor around his sick, violent, soul. Deep down, underneath the trappings of leadership and the Superman shield, what you’re left with is someone who just wants to hurt people. 

Fittingly, the real Superman is also forced to cross a line of his own to take down Lord Superman, arranging for Lex Luthor to receive a full pardon if he helps defeat the Justice Lords. It’s a neat idea, using Lex’s expertise as someone who spends every waking moment figuring out how to defeat superheroes to take down a group of bad ones, and it kicked off a much bigger storyline.  

To secure Lex’s pardon, Superman had to disclose to the U.S. government that his Earth-3 counterpart had killed the President. That threat went on to inform the CADMUS Saga in which the government started developing superhuman weapons in case the Justice League ever decided it was time for them to start picking off whoever they felt were guilty. It’s a great arc in its own right, addressing the question of checks and balances, and the things we do, not for a better world, but just to keep the one we have.  

That ambiguity marinates the episode’s ending as well. We’ve now seen Superman willing to cross a line for the greater good. What happens when that line changes from “working with villains” to “lobotomizing villains” or “killing villains?”  What’s more, we see a pardoned Luthor. His aspirations have turned from business to politics. It’s a great way to bridge the gap created by the parallel realities. Take the entire situation of President Luthor and the Justice Lords from a hypothetical to something that could happen anywhere. 

I mean, it took us, the audience, till the end of the story to become fully aware of just how rotten Lord Superman is. Who’s to say we aren’t making the same mistake with the real Superman as well? Maybe we’re just making the same mistakes as the Justice Lord foot soldiers on Earth-3 or the civilians who cheered Lord Superman lobotomizing Doomsday. We put our faith in Superman. Suddenly, the difference between the Justice Lords’ world and our own is that we don’t live in their world yet. It’s a chilling moral about the risks of blindly compromising value for expediency without considering the consequences, how much we are willing to accept for a better world. 

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1 comment:

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