Superheroes are Bastards: DC Edition
On several occasions, I’ve lamented the fact that comic book superheroes have stopped being heroes. The darkening of mainstream comics in the 1990s gave way to a modern comicdom where superheroes don’t have the shroud of grimness about them but still do horrific things, often being displayed as being in the right in the text.
Viewed in a metatextual sense, this can just be written off as bad writing and poor editorial decisions on the part of Marvel and DC. If we examine the actions of superheroes as though we were a part of these fictional worlds, though, there are some horrific implications. Power does indeed corrupt, and over a long period of time superheroes almost invariably do terrible, unjustifiable things. Some examples of how these gods among men have gone insane or simply turned subtly toward evil are outlined below. I’m using storylines from the 1990s and onward for all of these, and I’m not really changing the context of any of them.
Superman is often seen as incorruptible, and perhaps that’s one of the reasons why he gets off lightly here. Sure, in alternate universes he tends to suggest that he’s just one bad day from becoming a total monster (see Injustice: Gods Among Us for an example), but in universe he has little blood on his hands. However, he has shown signs of mental instability due in large part to the fact that he can’t come to grips with the fact that, despite all his power, he can’t fix everything.
In the 2011-2012 storyline Grounded, which also happens to be the last in-continuity Superman tale before the universe got rebooted due to the Flash rewriting history (see below), we see Superman on the verge of a mental breakdown. He has just come through an event that saw the planet Krypton restored only to be destroyed again, and when confronted by a complete loon who blames him for not being around to operate on her cancer-ridden husband, he loses it. The result is a year-long storyline where he walks through America trying to rediscover himself and where he takes petty, illegal, and useless actions in a vain attempt to make himself feel like he is in control of his life.
An example of Superman’s actions include burning up a gang’s drug supply and then having a child tell them to get lost while he walks away. Not only is this extremely dangerous to the kid, but Superman openly acknowledges that the drug dealers will merely set up shop elsewhere. He also has Lois Lane bury an article about a corrupt factory because it is the only employer in a small town, which flies directly in the face of his motto of Truth, Justice, and the American Way.
In the end, Superman comes out of his funk with the help of Lois Lane, but without her help there is a good possibility that he would have continued his spiral into delusion and depression, possibly snapping when he realized how ineffective he was being. As multiple alternate universes have shown, Superman is, for all his good qualities, just one very bad day away from becoming the greatest villain the world has ever seen.
Batman is a classic example of overcompensation. An ordinary man who walks among gods, he tries to be prepared for everything in order to give himself an edge. He is also severely emotionally stunted and possibly incapable of maintaining a long-term positive relationship.
Many of Batman’s psychological problems stem not from the death of his parents, but from the evil acts of his own allies. As the crossover Identity Crisis demonstrated, members of the Justice League spent a long time brainwashing supervillains, including nearly lobotomizing Dr. Light and turning Catwoman from a hardened criminal into a more heroic individual. When Batman discovered this, he was brainwashed by his friends to forget what he had seen.
From that point on, Batman became extremely paranoid and came up with numerous contingency plans designed to take down the Justice League if needed. When Ra’s al Ghul got hold of these contingency plans in the Tower of Babel storyline (loosely adapted into the animated film Justice League: Doom), Batman’s planning nearly resulted in the death of the Justice League and the destruction of language itself. Later on, another contingency of Batman’s gives life to the OMAC Project, which does result in numerous deaths.
Batman’s paranoia even includes Superman, who was not part of the brainwashing. When Superman successfully removes all the kryptonite from Earth, he gives Batman a piece to use against him should he ever go rogue. Batman returns to the Batcave, where we learn that he already has a room full of kryptonite that he hasn’t told anybody about.
Even in the post-Flashpoint DC Universe, where Batman has a family and is less paranoid, his inability to open up causes trouble. For example, he does not disclose to his family that there is a possibility that the Joker has learned their secret identities, even when they are all in direct danger.
Speaking of the Joker, Batman has focused almost the entirety of his psychological being on one thing: he does not kill. He feels that if he ever breaks that vow, he will descend into total madness. This has led him to keep the Joker alive despite a body count that is now in the thousands. He has gone so far as to give resuscitate the Joker when Nightwing beat him to death, because apparently just getting Nightwing some therapy is worse than letting a mass murderer free again. Batman’s desire to be prepared for everything, his paranoia about the superheroes he interacts with, and his obsession with keeping even the Joker alive has caused dozens, if not hundreds of deaths.
Hal Jordan possesses a ring that allows him to do anything he can imagine…within limits. These limits, put in place by the Guardians of the Universe, eventually drive Hal insane. True, it was later revealed that Hal was infected by the fear entity known as Parallax in the Emerald Twilight story, but the extent of that manipulation does not fully absolve him. All that is known is that Parallax made Hal feel fear for the first time. As a man without fear, that sensation caused him to snap.
When the Guardians refused to allow Hal to resurrect his destroyed hometown of Coast City with his ring, he went berserk and killed the entirety of the Green Lantern Corps and all but one Guardian. He then became the villain Parallax and destroyed the universe, remaking it into what he saw as an ideal world. The heroes of the DC Universe stopped Hal from completing this recreation and brought the universe back in mostly the same manner, but several people were entirely written out of history in the process.
Hal eventually regained his heroic form by sacrificing himself to reignite Earth’s dying sun and was eventually resurrected and purged of Parallax’s presence, but his questionable decision-making has still fueled numerous crises.
The Guardians themselves are not immune to the insanity caused by sudden exposure to fear. When they were made to feel free during the Sinestro Corps War, they began moving down a road which would eventually see them all go mad and try to eliminate all emotion from the universe. They stripped Hal Jordan of his ring when they realized that he had the power to kill them, yet allowed Sinestro, whose actions had led to these problems, to become a Green Lantern once again.
As a whole, Hal Jordan and the Guardians are an example of a major problem infecting the Green Lantern Corps: they are without fear, and because of that they become dangerously psychotic when exposed to fear.
Barry Allen has the power to run so fast that he can even run through time. Sometimes, he uses this to save the universe, such as when he sacrificed himself to stop the Anti-Monitor’s plot in Crisis on Infinite Earths. Other times, he accidentally destroys history.
Flashpoint is the latest universe-altering event in the DC Universe, and it was caused by Barry Allen running back in time to save his mother from being killed by the Reverse-Flash. In doing so, he does save his mother but winds up shattering the timeline, creating a dystopian world. His ultimate attempt to fix this restores the universe more or less to its previous state, but changes several things. There are some good changes, such as the fact that Barbara Gordon is now capable of walking, but there are multiple bad changes. Among these include several people who were erased from history entirely, including members of the Flash family such as Wally West. Jonathan and Martha Kent died much younger, leaving Superman with fewer human contacts. Superman’s marriage to Lois Lane was undone, which means that if he ever has a breakdown like we saw in Grounded he might not be able to recover without his emotional anchor. Unmarried, Superman eventually entered into a relationship with Wonder Woman, which caused Booster Gold to be erased from history. Other individuals, such as Cassandra Cain (Batgirl) and Stephanie Brown (Spoiler/Batgirl) have also possibly been erased from history. Even if these were not intentional results, they are serious crimes. If Hal Jordan was a murderer for erasing people from history intentionally, then Barry Allen is at the very least guilty of multiple manslaughter.
Barry’s attempt to save his mother is completely understandable. However, considering the level of power he has and the fact that he wound up breaking the world, it may have been better for his mother to die so the rest of history could be kept intact.
These are just a few examples of what seems to be an undeniable fact: given a long enough timeline, the power possessed by these masked vigilantes will result in massive deaths and serious disaster. This is just a taste at the horrendous things that heroes in the DC Universe have done. Next time around, we’ll dig into the Marvel Universe.