DC’s animated original movies have a strong track record, and in 2012 they added to an impressive library with Superman vs. The Elite. In short, the movie explores the modern superhero’s dilemma: To kill or not to kill? More specifically related to Superman, perhaps we can ask: Should he be more like Christ or Gen. George S. Patton?
Is it a moral failing for superheroes to repeatedly capture super-powered villains who exist completely outside the rule of law? How much blood, if any, does Superman have on his hands due to his refusal to kill evil incarnate?
At the start of Superman vs. The Elite, a monster known as Atomic Skull kills two people on the city streets of Metropolis — infusing his victims with radioactive energy that turns them into volcanic ash or Pompeii-like sculptures. Superman asks why. The answer: they serve as Superman bait. That’s it.
Atomic Skull exists to kill, and he kills to draw out Superman.
Superman refuses to end the monster’s life, and after a battle tears up half the city Atomic Skull is sent to a holding facility. Will it restrain him for long? First comes an exchange between Superman and Professor Baxter ensues at the United Nations:
Professor Baxter: “So was this justice, Superman? Millions in property damage. Helpless bystanders killed by a repeat meta-human felon who is now enjoying three square meals a day as a guest of the state. You had the power to end Atomic Skull’s criminal career — permanently. Why didn’t you?”
Superman: “I’m not anyone’s judge and jury, professor Baxter — definitely not an executioner. My powers do not put me above the law.”
Professor Baxter: “A noble sentiment, but are you the Superman that the 21st century needs? Why not use your power to fix the world? Let me reiterate that I am playing devil’s advocate. I’m a huge fan [of yours].”
Superman: “First, I don’t believe the world is broken — because when we say ‘the world,’ we’re really talking about is people. It’s always been my belief that people, at their core, are good. The grace of mankind is everywhere. You just have to open your eyes. Humanity has a limitless potential for good. My purpose it to help people reach that potential.”
Indeed, we can talk about the nature of man all day. Are people at their core all good? It’s a tough question — it depends on how you define “good.” They certainly have the potential for either great good or great evil — but Superman dodges the initial question: “Was this justice?”
Perhaps the right answer is that in a world with Atomic Skulls roaming around, the death penalty would need to be applied much more liberally. If humanity in the DC Universe can’t get its justice system right, why should Superman have to be the one to play judge, jury and executioner? As it stands, Atomic Skull escapes soon after his apprehension and kills Professor Baxter in the middle of the street.
Manchester Black steps in and does what Superman won’t — he blows Atomic Skull’s head into a million pieces. Superman predictably flips out, but the citizens of Metropolis do not. One “woman on the street” interview sums up the mood of the city:
Citizen: “I’ve lived in Metropolis all my life. Superman has always been there for us, but so have those criminals he’s put away so many times. Maybe his way doesn’t work.”
Or maybe Metropolis’ justice system doesn’t work?
The Elite, led by Manchester Black, are a shady group of anti-heroes whose tactics go too far. They wantonly kill anyone who doesn’t fit their definition of “good,” even going so far as to slaughter the entire political leadership of two warring countries. (Oddly enough, the media in the DC Universe give The Elite a pass on the execution, essentially saying: “Well, they did end the war…”.) Regardless, Black does have a point.
Manchester Black: “You probably won’t believe this, but I used to love superheroes. But masks are for hiding. Capes are for playing. You were the first. The best. But now you’re a cliche and you don’t fit in anymore. Mad scientists, idiots in underwear, bank robbers — knock yourself out with that lot. But the real work — fixing the world — is ours.
The rules of engagement in a war zone are different than the rules of engagement for a local cop, and the vast majority of villains in comics are walking war zones. They should be dealt with like an enemy on the battlefield, particularly since they’ve erased any lines between civilian and military targets.
In many respects Superman is his very own deus ex machina, but writers would weave better tales if they didn’t always have that escape hatch at the ready. That is, unless … we see Superman as a Christ-like figure. If the writers would openly admit to giving him that role, I would be willing to accept that.
The following exchange between Lois and Clark is telling:
Lois: “Why do you have to do this? Why can’t you call someone else? …
Clark: They have to be stopped.
Lois: “I think they can beat you. I’m sorry, but they’re willing to go places you won’t — and they are so damn strong.”
Clark: “I heard a child say that he wanted to be in the elite when he grows up because it would be fun to kill bad guys. Fun to kill? People have to know that there’s another way. They have to see that someone believes in humanity strongly enough to…
Lois: “…to die for them?”
Is Superman a Christ-like hero, or is he just one heck of a superhero? If he’s just an “elite” superhero, then I will now quote Patton:
“Now I want you to remember that no bastard ever won a war by dying for his country. He won it by making the other poor dumb bastard die for his country.”
Regardless of what you think, you should give DC’s creative teams for their original animated films a thumbs up. They’re doing great work. Now, if they could only get those movies in order…