“In your children you shall make up for being the children of your fathers: thus shall you redeem all that is past.” – Friedrich Nietzsche, Thus Spoke Zarathustra
In the beginning there was Superman. From him spawned an entirely new generation of heroes, and an entirely new generation of readers and consumers who took those superheroes and made them gods. Their stories made myths to monitor the pulse of an ever-changing world. The Justice League has remained at the forefront of our conversation on the changing ideals of heroism since their first appearance in 1960. From the team’s introduction in Brave and the Bold #28, which proudly declared on its cover, “the world’s greatest heroes team up to battle ‘Starro the Conqueror!’” The Justice League’s most important battle has been one not merely of brawn but of minds. Their defeat of the giant, mind-controlling alien starfish, Starro, is as bombastic as anything to come from comic history’s Golden Age, but it also set a precedent, unintentionally so, that the Justice League would forever be a team defined by their relationship to humanity’s free-will. Justice, through this lens, is to not only protect the lives of humanity, but to protect their ability to decide for themselves how they would move the world towards the future.
With that free-will comes the matter of legacy. DC Comics has always been based around the idea of legacies—on teams with rotating members, each inspired by those who held seats before them; on sidekicks who would one day take up the mantles of their mentors and chart out their own paths; on those who take familiar symbols and costumes as their own, each in a world that reflects the birthrights left to them by the global conflicts, politics, and idealism of their parental figures. The Justice League of America, as it was first named, is an extension of Superman’s mantra of “truth, justice, and the American way,” a legacy in itself. Superman doesn’t even appear on the cover of Brave and the Bold #28, and neither does Batman. In the decision to exclude DC’s most popular characters from the first image of the team, the cover highlights the expansion of superheroism that was built from those two essential characters. And clearly, Wonder Woman, Aquaman, Flash, Green Lantern, and Martian Manhunter have the Starro situation under control (Aquaman and Martian Manhunter less so). But what happens when legacy grows beyond the ability to envision, beyond control? What happens when justice as an ideal is no longer as seemingly simple in a world increasingly complex? This is the foundation of Zack Snyder’s DC films, Man of Steel and Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice, and it is also the question central to what is arguably the greatest Justice League story of all-time, Kingdom Come. While writer Mark Waid has repeatedly and explicitly discussed his disagreement with Snyder’s take on our most famous heroes, Kingdom Come tackles similar issues as the films, the division between them lying in the context of the world they were created in. Released in 1997, Mark Waid and Alex Ross’ Kingdom Come could not fully fathom how the future of our world would change in the aftermath of September 11th. Thus, Kingdom Come exists as a prophetic text, while Man of Steel and Batman v Superman are reactionary, which largely accounts for their philosophical differences.
In Kingdom Come, legacy has become contaminated, and we experience this story through the eyes of a visionary preacher, Norman McCay and his guide, The Spectre. The children of the heroes and villains of the past have overrun the world of the future like an infestation, more concerned with fighting each other than in saving the world. In this alternate reality, Superman, unable to change with the times, has abandoned the world to the progeny of those he once fought alongside. Batman, injured beyond recovery, has turned Gotham into a police state where robotic Bat-sentries enforce the law through fear. And Wonder Woman has failed her mission of peace, exiled by the Amazons, she has embraced the harsher truths of war and pushed her paradoxical nature to its limit. The Trinity has collapsed, and what remains of the Justice League is unrecognizable, as is humanity’s relationship to heroes. Kingdom Come follows through with the concept of looking at these characters as gods, not simply costumed clad vigilantes who’ve sworn to protect the human race, but deities who control fate, and whose fickle nature determines life and death on a daily basis. These super-powered beings don’t protect humanity; they rule over it. Kingdom Come shows how easily worship of superheroes and an attempt to preserve free-will can turn into fascism, and as the embittered New God Orion, tells Superman, in his experience “liberty was every bit as paralyzing as fascism.”
The fear of god-wielded fascism defines much of the central conflict in Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice. Where Kingdom Come takes an aged Superman, defined in American values of the ’50s, Zack Snyder envisions a young, novice Superman, shaped by an America of increasingly isolationist values, and fear of the “other,” exacerbated by 9/11. Snyder’s Superman is one defined by free-will, instilled into him by the virtues of two fathers, one who dared to rebel against a society built on predetermination to ask, “What if a child dreamed of becoming something other than what society had intended?” and another whose first-hand understanding that with choice comes consequence beyond imagination gave him the courage to say, “You just have to decide what kind of a man you want to grow up to be, Clark; because whoever that man is, good character or bad, he’s… He’s gonna change the world.” The Superman of Kingdom Come is too defined by the history of comics to step far away from our expectations of “the big, blue boy-scout.” Narratively, he acts with a kind of performative free-will, but meta-textually he is restricted, his choices and subsequent legacy defined by an ancestry of comic canon with very specific ideas about who Superman is. The future Dick Grayson gets right to the heart of the problem with this version of Superman, “He thinks he can get everyone to behave like they did when times were brighter…but even he can’t turn back the clock…can’t a man with telescopic vision see the world around him?” At the core of our conversation we have two Supermen, one known and unknown, and the Justice League of two worlds is respectively defined by that distinction.
Neither Superman, one at the beginning of his journey and one nearing the end, is comprised of the kind of righteous perfection so often attributed to the character, and so compellingly distilled in Christopher Reeve’s portrayal. In Man of Steel, Henry Cavill’s Superman exhibits some of the recklessness that the younger generation of super-powered beings display in Kingdom Come. One of the core reasons of why the legacy metahumans in Kingdom Come become a problem is their wanton destruction of buildings, without much concern for civilian casualties, and their willingness to execute their enemies. This in turn became the central factor in Waid’s opinion that Man of Steel failed Superman as a character. This debate, which has been exhausted, is no longer interesting. What is interesting is examining the two depictions of Superman under Grant Morrison’s notion of the character:
Superman is a metaphor. For me, Superman has the same problems we do, but on a Paul Bunyan scale. If Superman walks the dog, he walks it around the asteroid belt because it can fly in space. When Superman’s relatives visit, they come from the 31st century and bring some hellish monster conqueror from the future. But it’s still a story about your relatives visiting.
The Superman of Zack Snyder’s films forces together the tenets that make Superman Superman, alongside an initial rejection of leadership and deification that define the millennial age. This welding isn’t about perfection, but about functionality. For the first-time on-screen, Superman wasn’t our older brother, our father, or our grandfather. He was us. And Man of Steel is the story of a guy trying to choose who he wants to be under the guidance of two sets of parents, a crazy uncle Zod, and a society that has its own ideas about what he should be. And Superman has to fight against all of that, experience both the highs and lows of what he’s capable of in order to emerge as himself. Man of Steel is Jesus Christ Superstar in comparison to much of Superman’s prior lore existing as the New Testament. Which in turn makes Kingdom Come, The Book of Revelations.
Headline: “Man of Tomorrow Fears the Future!” Perhaps he should. In Kingdom Come we witness a future where our heroes have not only failed society, but society has failed our heroes. Rejected by politicians and would-be heroes, Kingdom Come re-poses the question that formed the title of Elliot S. Maggin’s famous “Must There Be a Superman?” A question that was again posed in Batman v Superman. Unable to change the minds of the generations of metahumans through words or violence, at odds with Bruce Wayne and his Lex Luthor-backed Mankind Liberation Front, and persuaded by Wonder Woman to take a harder course of action, Superman imprisons those who do not side with him with the hopes of rehabilitation. Alongside his new Justice League, Superman and his fellow heroes become wardens, trying to maintain balance while unaware of the internal pressures threatening to blow everything apart. “Where does robbing us of our freedom fall, oh great and powerful Oz?,” an imprisoned metahuman asks Superman. This is the fear of fascism and liberty in action, the thing that the Bruce Wayne of BvS fears of a Superman trying to reject the very burdens that would ever place him in that position. In Kingdom Come, those fears come to fruition by a Superman with the best of intentions, but misguided into thinking, foolishly so, that justice carries the same meaning it once did. Justice, by definition is a concern for peace, and a genuine respect for people. Its synonyms include: fairness, objectivity, and neutrality. Yet in Kingdom Come, the Justice League’s concern for peace leads to war, a war that as Batman says to Wonder Woman, “is not one act of violence…at the cost of some lives. Our war ends in extinction.” Their stance is anything but neutral.
General Amajagh says in BvS, “Men with power obey neither policy nor principle, Miss Lane. No one is different; no one is neutral.” In both Kingdom Come and BvS, Superman tries and fails to maintain neutrality. In BvS, this happens on a smaller scale with Superman attempting to enforce his perspective of justice on Batman. But in Kingdom Come, this enforcement is broadened, leading to a Guantanamo-esque prison. In some ways, Superman in Waid’s story is predictive of President George W. Bush. He is a reluctant leader who succumbs to poor decisions made at the advice of others, enlists others in a war that on principle cannot end, and ultimately refrains from making the toughest choices. Wonder Woman tells him, “Whether you like it or not, you’re a world leader…and the league is getting tired of waiting for you to adjust to that role.” Superman, like Bush, leads as though he were in a different era, unable to fully grasp the 21st century, or shake off the bygone American consciousness embedded within him. In BvS, Lex Luthor says, “the biggest lie in America is that power can be innocent.” In both BvS and Kingdom Come, Superman tries to preserve his innocence, setting him up for battles that create and embolden enemies, suggesting “no one stays good in this world.”
It’s Billy Batson, Captain Marvel (now known as Shazam), who best speaks to Superman’s legacy within Kingdom Come and the forfeiture of goodness. The character, derivative of Superman in appearance, but separated in power by magic that allows a boy to transform into a full grown man, is used to explore the loss of innocence in Waid’s narrative. Billy Batson, jaded, a victim to mental illness in the aftermath of Superman’s exile and the population boom of metahumans, and manipulated by Lex Luthor, is unable to cope with the fact that the world he inherits as an adult is not the one that the Justice League predicted, that their fight for free-will was to establish. He’s a would-be hero, as Batman says, who “vanished inside a scared little boy.” The same thing could be said of the Batman in BvS, a scared little boy whose years of rage and crimefighting could never make sense of a world that left him orphaned. The respective clashes between Superman and Captain Marvel in Kingdom Come, and Superman and Batman in BvS, play out differently, but both have the resulting effect of establishing new terms of justice. Batman’s fight against Superman is a means to force change into a world where his villains rotate in and out of Arkham and Blackgate, and he tells Alfred that destroying Superman “may be the only thing I do that matters. Criminals are like weeds, Alfred; pull one up, another grows in its place. This is about the future of the world. This is my legacy.” Whereas Captain Marvel’s fight against Superman is a primal rage of retaliation for the world left as his inheritance. His silence is damning, and his blows speak volumes.
Ultimately, both Batman and Captain Marvel are given the chance to become heroes again. Batman through the recognition of Superman’s humanity through their mothers’ shared names, and Captain Marvel through the realization that he doesn’t have to depend on his forefathers to solve the world for him; he can leave his own legacy. Batman’s rediscovery of his own heroism, ability to choose a new path ultimately enables Superman to make the hard decision of sacrificing his own life to stop Doomsday. But in Kingdom Come, Superman is faced with an impossible choice, let the approaching nuclear bomb destroy the metahuman population who have broken free of his prison and begun an all-out war with the Justice League and Mankind Liberation Front, or stop the bomb and allow the war to wage on, at the inenvitable cost of civilian lives. Either decision would make Superman a killer, and erode the very values that Waid’s Superman is built upon, and as Superman says “only the weak succumb to brutality.” It’s a choice Superman never has to make as Captain Marvel pulls Superman back and detonates the bomb in the air, killing most, but not all of the metahumans on the ground, ending the war, and ensuring no immediate civilian casualties. In choosing life, Captain Marvel also chooses death, for himself and for others. For many to live, some must die. That is the sad truth of our world played out in comics.
To have Superman make Captain Marvel’s choice would bring the character too close to the real world, stretch thin the dimensions through which we can see these characters as exceptional examples. In Man of Steel, Zack Snyder punctured that dimension, forever changing our conversation about Superman and truly making him a figure of our modern world (“one of us! One of us”) a marriage that like all marriages, is bound by the conditions of ‘for better, or for worse.’ Lex Luthor tells Superman in BvS that “God is tribal. God takes sides.” By not having to take a side in Kingdom Come, Superman rejects his godhood and re-embraces his humanity. Captain Marvel’s free-will essentially preserves Superman, redeeming his past, preventing weakness, and insuring no possible corruption that would change him too much. But what’s super about not having to make the tough choices? Is Superman the hero of Kingdom Come, or is he the self-righteous messenger given the opportunity to become a hero again by the sacrifice of others? And if so, is that just? The only way it isn’t is if we come away from Kingdom Come still looking at Superman, at Clark Kent as a god, instead of a man given forgiveness and ready to admit to his own failings. The great Morrison metaphor at the heart of Superman’s story in Kingdom Come is the story of a father willing to admit he failed in his teachings of strict discipline, and is willing to try again, this time within a partnership conducive to evolution.
“Hope is brightest when it dawns from fear,” Norman McCay says in his concluding sermon. This is the path that Zack Snyder’s DC films have charted, exploring the fear that comes with power in a post 9/11 world and hope that comes from creating a new legacy in the face of a failed one. Justice League, in the DC cinematic world becomes the child of a Superman willing to sacrifice himself for his adopted homeworld in an age of self-preservation because he has truly become a part of it, a Wonder Woman willing to step back into man’s world despite its darkness, and a Batman who can overcome his own isolationist tendencies and trust again. In Kingdom Come we see this play out in a more literal sense, with Superman and Wonder Woman is expecting parents and Batman as Godfather, to a child who will redefine the future. Though they are able to reclaim their roles as heroes, the role of justice has been passed to the future with each member of the trinity making the necessary steps to reclaim their legacy. In the end of Kingdom Come, our characters are left slightly changed in a world facing many of the same problems, only with a new vision of how to solve them. And that right there is the history of comics, slight change in the face of a never-ending battle to ensure the enduring legacy of these characters and the ability for future creators to take them on. Through Zack Snyder’s DC films and Mark Waid and Alex Ross’ Kingdom Come, justice is redefined. Justice is to give hope in an uncertain future and to strive toward an ideal together. This doesn’t necessarily mean fulfilling it, but it does mean having the freedom to give our best shot.
Featured Image: Alex Ross (DC Comics)