The Higher They Fly, the Harder They Fall

March 20th, 2013 by | Tags: , , , , ,

Yesterday, my badminton partner Chris Sims wrote a piece on the weekly comic tie-in Injustice: Gods Among Us, based on the upcoming game by Netherrealm Studios. For the most part, he and I disagree on it. I think it’s a fun series while he considers it one of the frontrunners for worst comic of 2013. The one thing we do agree on is the dire first three issues, though he certainly minds it a lot more.

The series tells the story of how Superman comes to take over the world in the name of the greater good, ultimately leading to a DC version of Civil War. Through the first three issues, we see the Joker devise a situation where after he shoots Jimmy Olsen in the head, he kidnaps Lois Lane and tricks Superman into killing her. He does this by dosing Superman with Scarecrow fear gas laced with kryptonite so that Superman thinks Lois is Doomsday and shoves her into orbit. And it turns out Lois is pregnant too. Then Joker blows up Metropolis. When in custody, Joker’s questioned by Batman and they argue over Superman’s integrity until the Man of Steel busts in and angrily puts his fist through Joker’s chest.

The whole “fridging of Lois” thing is what made me aware that the comic even existed, but I didn’t care to read it until seeing some panels from the fourth issue, where Green Arrow keeps Harley Quinn in custody himself so that Superman doesn’t execute her as well. Even Sims admits that that’s a well-written bit and has some positive things to say about the issues that follow. And yes, while I claim the series is worth checking out, I mainly mean AFTER the Joker plot.

That said, the discussion on the matter made me realize a state of comics that nobody really touches on. As unfun as Superman being tricked into killing his wife and unborn child is, I’m not all that offended by it because “fridging” or not, it’s a step that the writer kind of had to make based on years upon years of righteousness. It’s a fucked up thing, but it’s the double-edged sword that comes from the purity of comic book heroes. It definitely could have been pulled off better in this story, but it’s a necessary trope.

It makes me think about something Grant Morrison’s talked about during his Batman run. Over the decades, the way the Joker has been written has evolved into something nasty, both in the character’s context and in the writing context. He went from being a goofball obsessed with “boner crimes” to a man who’s killed more people than polio. He went from flying around in a clown-faced helicopter to cutting his face off and having it reattached like a Halloween mask. The explanation is that by figuring out the Joker and his crimes, Batman puts a cage over him. Joker has to think bigger and more twisted to escape the cage and Batman puts a bigger cage around that. It escalates and the next thing you know, Joker’s chopping his face up.

Every now and then, a writer will play with a superhero’s refusal to kill and see where that goes. Sometimes it leads to a hero deciding at the last second, “No, I can’t do that.” Sometimes they’ll be totally ready to do it until getting interrupted and realize later that it’s probably for the better. Then there are times when they really go through with it. Whether it’s a good story or a bad story, I don’t envy the writer who has to set up that plot development because you’re forced to go over the line.

When I think of superheroes who strictly don’t kill, the four who pop into my head are Superman, Batman, Spider-Man and Daredevil. Each and every one of them has had at least one story that shows just what it would take to make them kill. Most of the time it’s a non-canon story that can get away with it easily (ie. Injustice) while other times it’s a canon story meant to be part of the bigger picture of the serial storytelling.

The Marvel two on that list aren’t too hard to shove, all in all. Marvel characters are about being down-to-earth, after all, and while Spider-Man and Daredevil are virtuous dudes, there’s still a limit. For Spider-Man, it’s about taking out a loved one. In canon, he was fully prepared to hunt down the Kingpin and kill him once Aunt May flatlined, but since that got retconned away via deals with the Devil, he never followed up on it. In various What If comics, they’ve had him kill the Red Skull for executing Aunt May, kill the Kingpin for having Mary Jane killed (she took the bullet for Aunt May in this scenario) and one issue even looked at him beating the burglar to death for Uncle Ben’s murder instead of bringing him in.

Oh, and there’s that kicking rad What If by Jeff Parker where Wolverine convinces him to become his partner in making the world a better place via black ops. He shoots a bullet out of his wrist. It’s nifty.

Daredevil had a couple kills in What If on the Kingpin. The first suggested that he was fully planning on killing Kingpin during the events of Born Again, only to get his ass handed to him. In the What If, he’s smart enough to pickpocket a guard’s gun and bypasses the fight. In another story, Karen Page doesn’t die and her near death experience drives Matt to discover that Kingpin sold out his identity, leading to murder out of outrage. In both instances, Daredevil gets shit on because it’s comics and that’s what seems to happen to him 9 out of 10 times.

Which brings us to Daredevil’s in-continuity killing of Bullseye. After years of writers turning a good comic into a monthly look at how depressing they can make this poor guy’s life and mixing that with Bullseye blowing up an apartment building in Hell’s Kitchen, Daredevil finally has enough and executes a defenseless Bullseye. Then they reveal that he was possessed by a demon or something because you can’t have him go on to continue swashbuckling against crime unless you pull the “Parallax Defense” and blame someone else.

The characters in DC aren’t quite as human and sometimes come off as more cartoony in their ideals. Batman wants to kill the Joker SO MUCH but he won’t because it’s a slippery slope to him and once you pop, you just can’t stop. The Joker’s killed thousands and Batman won’t kill him. The Joker tortures James Gordon and cripples Batgirl and Batman won’t kill him. The Joker murders Robin and Batman won’t kill him.

In the Elseworlds story JLA: The Nail by Alan Davis, he decides to write a story where Batman is finally driven to kill the Joker for the sake of adding distrust to a superhuman community that lacks Superman. But how do you do that? If poisoning a load of boyscouts won’t do it, what will? Davis has to reach down deep and goes into really disturbing territory where the Joker – armed with some Kryptonian tech – tortures and tears apart both Robin and Batgirl while forcing Batman to watch it all unfold. When Batman gets free, he’s seen on live TV snapping the Joker’s neck in a fit of rage. With the deaths of his sidekicks and his moment of weakness, Batman endures his biggest failure in any continuity and the rest of the series – as well as the sequel, Another Nail – is about him getting by through the help of his remaining allies.

I still remember someone telling me that he thought Batman killing the Joker there was out of character. I mean… what more do you want before you can accept it as a thing that he would do?! You can’t build stories on this being a possible thing and then insists that it’s impossible no matter what angle you use.

Even Jeph Loeb of all people knows that Batman has a limit. If Joker had omnipotence and tortured Batman to death on a daily basis, I’m sure Batman would think, “I really want to kill that guy.”

Those are two extreme instances to set the ball rolling, especially compared to the Marvel heroes. Superman’s side of this is a little more unique. He has killed before, exposing Zod and friends to kryptonite out of fear of what they’d do if they ever came to Earth. There was also Whatever Happened to the Man of Tomorrow where he killed a demonic Mr. Mxyzptlk. Those were both instances where he had to protect the world and felt horrible about his actions afterwards.

The status quo of Injustice demands something more from Superman. Not only does he have to kill, but he has to feel vindicated so he can continue. The plot demands that Superman become a dictator, so how do you go about that and let it make sense? The Justice League cartoon was able to get by by simply having Lex Luthor kill Flash, but that plays by different rules.

Wait, you know, now that I think about it, Justice League did once have its own scene where Superman accidentally killed Lois.

No word on if she was expecting during this dream sequence.

As well-meaning as he was, Superman was basically a fascist dictator in Kingdom Come. In order to position him in that spot, Mark Waid had to cut Superman’s tether to mankind, which was Lois. Fittingly, this was done by having the Joker murder both her and Jimmy. It’s unsure whether or not Superman would have killed him, but Magog sure did and Superman got all pissy about it. Then again, as much as Waid loves Superman, he probably wouldn’t have.

Joe Kelly once did a story about Lois dying. Sort of. In his story arc Ending Battle, Superman came home from a long day of fighting so many bad guys to find Manchester Black standing over a dead Lois. This was all a mind trick done by Black to test Superman and to his shock, Superman passed by swearing he’d send Black to prison for the rest of his life. So killing Lois won’t make Superman flip the fuck out on that level. You have to go even darker because that’s what’s been established.

And there you are. What else is there left to do? If your intention is to write a story where Superman rules the world with an iron fist and Batman has to stop him, you can’t just go from A to C without proper justification. Something bad has to happen. You have to crack some eggs for this omelet and thanks to years of showing just how pure-hearted and unbreakable Superman is in these situations, you have to crack some disgusting and nasty eggs because anything less doesn’t work.

One might say, “Then simply don’t write a comic where _____ kills a dude in the first place.” But why not? Because it’s a bad comic? It doesn’t have to be. What If Daredevil Killed the Kingpin and JLA: The Nail were both very good. Just because something is taboo doesn’t mean you should never try to mess with it. If not, we wouldn’t have gotten Winter Soldier or the Last Temptation of Christ. You don’t know if you don’t try. If these characters are defined by their limits, then sometimes we have to peer into a world where those limits are broken. If the hero always wins, what would it look like if they lost? They never die? Well, what if they did? They’ll never kill? Something would change their mind, even for just an instant, else how can we identify with them?

It’s superhero fiction. There are no limits. If I can believe a man can fly, I can believe that he can be imperfect.

You know what? I just realized a fifth hero who is pretty big on the “no killing” rule. Wally West as the Flash. You know why he’s able to have stories that don’t show him killing? Because he never actually makes a big deal about it, so we don’t give a damn. You can’t lose if you don’t play.

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19 comments to “The Higher They Fly, the Harder They Fall”

  1. I’m totally willing to believe that batman wouldn’t kill the joker, what I can’t believe is that the government of the united states wouldn’t kill him. So I’ve always thought getting on batmans tits about it (not that your doing this) is weird since “we cannot kill the joker under any circumstances ” is the official line of the government.

    My problem with the story is that it’s a bunch of dumb impossible stuff to set up Superman and Batman fighting each other. Those two fight every 20 minutes, you don’t have to fridge Lois to make it happen for the billion and first time.

  2. Honestly, I am not too concerned about a video game tie in comic. All I expect from Injustice is a “Shit goes wrong” storyline, and for what it is worth, that is what we are getting.

    As much as I am looking forward to the game, though, the fridging of Lois Lane is messed up.

  3. Also, looking at the Chris Sims article, he pins that scene on the storywritters at Netherrealm, while you seem to attribute it to whoever wrote the comic. It does beg the question, who the heck did come up with “Superman is tricked into murdering his pregnant wife”?

  4. Actually, now I feel like I may be putting words in your mouth or maybe transposing my feelings on the issue. Sorry about that.

  5. Now that I think about it the larger problem here is that if killing the joker is a good idea (like the 6th time the government inexplicably lets him out to commit mass murders), and he wants to hurt you. Well waiting around until he (not very convincingly) tricks you into killing your pregnant wife makes you look like a total moron. Dude you don’t need to conquer the world you need you stop being an idiot about people getting near you with kryptonite, you have x-ray vision and can travel at super speeds. Hint: batman has some, i’m sure you’ll fuck that up too.

  6. I’m not persuaded that testing the limits of heroes is necessarily a good thing. There are certain conceits that the entire superhero genre is built on, and one of the main ones is, heroes don’t kill. There are exceptions (your Wolverines and Punishers and other 90s throwbacks) but they work primarily because they ARE exceptions, and the non-killers outnumber them by a couple orders of magnitude.

    Yes, it’s realistic that a sociopath might kill Superman’s girlfriend. It’s also realistic that Superman might kill in response. But if we go too far down the path of “realistic”, we also reach a point where no government on earth would tolerate superheroes much less supervillains, and the entire genre collapses.

    So maybe it’s better if we quietly acknowledge that there are lines storytellers shouldn’t cross, if for no other reason, to not leave a mess the next guy has to clean up.

    I think about Snyder’s “Death of the Family” run, and three things tell me Snyder understands the importance of not creating a mess. 1) The idea clearly occurred to him that the Joker COULD cut off Batman’s associates’ faces, but he didn’t include that notion in the story until he came up with a reason the Joker WOULDN’T do it (i.e., Batman spazzing out and indirectly killing his family is funnier if what set him off was a prank). 2) Snyder confronted the question of why Batman doesn’t kill just the Joker — we all know the “if I kill once I’ll never stop” defense is pretty unconvincing — and came up with what I think is a slightly more durable reason (i.e., Batman is afraid of what Gotham would create to replace the Joker). 3) Snyder hit the reset button on the Joker: whenever he plunges to his death, he always come back hale and hearty, and probably with his face attached too. Snyder told a good story, didn’t break anything, and in fact left things in better condition for his efforts.

  7. @Asteele: Thing is, after the latest MK’s story mode worked by going balls out insane and having characters outright for each other’s blood (ie. Raiden reluctantly and accidentally putting down a seriously pissed Liu Kang after Sindel killed nearly everyone), you can’t build a Superman vs. Batman story on mind control and misunderstandings. Not being part of comic continuity, they’re allowed to get away with not having things go back to normal by the conclusion.

    So they have to build something like DKR Batman vs. Superman, only with Superman overtaking authority instead of being its meek whipping boy.

    @Chunky Style: Wolverine and Punisher are more gung-ho about killing than your average superhero, but I think that these days, the Marvel killer heroes outnumber the non-killers. It’s just that they don’t make a big deal about it because it’s rational in the context of their stories. Captain America, Iron Man and Thor have no problem with it these days in the right situation, which is very different from how it was in the 90’s.

    Also, a lot of my examples were non-canon stories, which I think is a good way of going about measuring what makes a character tick. Batman shouldn’t ever kill in regular continuity (unless it’s written crazy well), but I would like to see what kind of strings would have to be pulled to make it happen.

  8. Here’s the thing. Killing Lois is boring and trite. It seems like every alternate continuity has to find some way to snuff her out. This Injustice tie-in went for the shock value of killing Lois in the most egregious, but also most absurd way possible. And as far as I can tell, this entertained or enriched precisely no one.

    It makes me wonder what the game’s target audience is. Fans of these characters may want to play as them, but they don’t want to see them turned into unrecognizable killers and fascists, do they? And general video game fans may love violence, but dousing Superman and Shazam in bland grittiness won’t attract them to characters they’d see as cartoony. A DC fighting game that preserves something fun about the characters would have to look more like Super Smash Bros, in my opinion. Outlandish and over-the-top super moves are welcome, but applying a coat of gore and grimdark doesn’t make it more attractive at all.

  9. Gavok. I more or less disagree completely. If they were trying to make a story that makes sense this isn’t it. Murdeing dictators are not really good people dedicated to saving lives and helping others that have a bad day and turn to political domination. They already are changing the character, or at least this feels totally wrong for me. If they were going to have superman become a dictator I wish they would of picked something other than your standard sexist bad things happen to my property (which is totally how Lois treated here, as ‘superman’s’ girlfriend, so I go nuts and somehow this is kinda justified. Blah.

    Im someonewho does consume these products, I own the MK/dlc crossover game, although I honestly have basically no knowledge of the putative plot, and I own essentially every marvel vs game, which have essentially zero story. But this story is off putting enough to me, that the odds of me buying this game are basically zero unless it has really great gameplay. I’m the target audience, I play fighting games, I’m a fan of Superheroes, but right now I’m out, because of the story so stupid I can’t believe I’d enjoy playing

  10. The way fiction is set up now days it’s believing a man can be perfect that’s up there with a man can fly. I’d prefer to believe in the perfection. And I’d rather have them not write the comics like Injustice.

  11. @Alexi: Interestingly enough, it was absurd because of Tom Taylor, who wrote the comic. It was mandated that he had to write a story where Superman kills Lois in some way, so he chose to make it a scenario where 1) Superman isn’t really in control of his actions and 2) he at no point batters her.

    As for the game’s target audience, you have your pick of people who were mad that MKvDC was neutered due to the DC cast and the people who loved the Arkham games. A huge chunk of the roster is made of Batman characters. Also the fighting game community, since the last MK game shocked the world by actually getting tournament play.

    @Asteele: Superman doesn’t go overboard overnight. He kills the Joker in response to what happened to Lois, Jimmy and Metropolis, but he doesn’t suddenly take over the world from there. It puts him on the path and other stuff leads to where he is five years later. They’re on the tenth issue and so far they’ve only had him defend his actions against the Joker, save lives despite political red tape and endure a government that wants him silenced. The whole point of it all is that he has the right intentions (which is why most of the hero community is backing him up), but absolute power corrupts absolutely.

    And if you don’t care about the game’s story mode, then there’s nothing to worry about. You can play as classic Superman or dictator Superman, each with their own mannerisms.

    You can also play as Flashpoint Pirate Deathstroke, which is the only Deathstroke I want to play as.

    @Jason: I don’t want to read about a perfect man, but I would like to read about a man who’s pretty great.

  12. The escalating problem with the Joker and Batman’s continued refusal to even let him die is probably part of the reason why I enjoyed Batman: The Brave and the Bold so much. When you have a universe where Batman is believably able to team up with The Joker, it’s a pretty clear sign that the universe you’re looking at is free of so much of the ‘dark and gritty’ that so many other version of him seem so keen to go overkill on.

    That episode is still one of my favorites from the series…

  13. So, the Joker kills Jimmy Olsen, tricks Superman into killing a pregnant Lois Lane, and destroys Metropolis. Then Superman brutally kills the Joker. I’m getting a Warren Ellis’ Ruins vibe from this, all it needs is Superman getting cancer from kryptonite exposure or something.

  14. @Greg: I don’t really get the connection to Ruins. If it was Ruins, Superman’s rocket would have run out of gas in space, Joker would have died in that vat of chemicals and Jimmy Olsen would have killed Lois because he’s a jerk for some reason.

    Though I don’t disagree that the opening plot is rather Ellisian.

  15. “Then they reveal that he was possessed by a demon or something because you can’t have him go on to continue swashbuckling against crime unless you pull the “Parallax Defense” and blame someone else.”
    Superhero deaths catch all the heat, but for me they are eclipsed in the realm of pointless, dead-end stunt storytelling by the “Parallax Moment”. Fake-out deaths gave us Steel, Captain Bucky, BatDick, FF (right? I don’t read those, but I hear people like it); what did “Hero does unconscionable thing while possessed” ever give us? Hal “Spirit” Jordan? Andy Diggle’s four-issue retelling of Badlands? UncanNOW X-Men is pretty okay I guess? (Wow! Pretty okay comics!) It’s just a bunch of boring “everyone hates hero, even though they were possessed, so it’s not their fault, but for the purposes of this story it is their fault, until issue 1 of the new series when it definitely wasn’t their fault. Unless we need everyone to hate them again at some point in the future” comics.

    Sorry for the tangent.

  16. @James W: A good question, but there was more good output than you give credit for. Hal going crazy in the first place gave us Kyle Rayner.

    Hal being retconned as being possessed gave us a decent explanation for why the GL rings don’t work on yellow, which in turn gives us the first step to the color spectrum, which opens everything up for the likes of Larfleeze, Saint Walker, etc. It also gave us Hal punching Batman.

    As bad as Shadowland was, it did at least give us the new Power Man.

  17. The opening plot reminded me of Ruins in that it seems like a bleak variation on the normal comic universe with a bunch of almost absurdly terrible things happening. I’m sure it didn’t keep that tone, but let me know if Firestorm is turned into a guy who lights his head on fire with gasoline or something.

    I was thinking about For the Man Who Has Everything, and in that Superman seems to be brought close to his breaking point due to Mongul being a birthday-ruining jerk. That kind of plot can be great, as can stories about Superman failing, like in Hitman #34. In that issue he is unable to save someone, which I think works much better for a Superman story than him killing someone, either knowingly or unknowingly.

  18. It would make more sense to make Batman the fascist dictator than Superman. You wouldn’t have to kill anybody to push Batman to that point. It’s sort of the logical endpoint of his crusade. And he has the tech and strategies and paranoia to push Superman into an underground situation. Basically reverse DKR.

    So I think the problem is mainly that because everyone thinks Superman is a tool–they decided he should be a dictator villian type. Which is not the same as when Miller made him a meak yes-man to a corrupt administration.

    So I think the premise is broken.

    But since you have to create a story whereby Superman becomes world dictator–I don’t think revenge would be his reasoning. He would think he was doing humankind a favor–that he was protecting them from some greater evil–without really considering that the cure was worse than the disease.

  19. @sarah h: That actually IS what his reasoning is in this story.