"Justice League": Exploring How Superman Returns (Again)
Comic Books, Film
(For an archive of Lorendiac’s Lists, click here – BC)
Imagine that you’re a superhero. Once again, you have identified the villain of the week who must be stopped, and you’ve tracked him down, fought him in a massive slugfest, and finally defeated him. Terrific! Now that you’ve got him on the ropes, what do you actually intend to do with him? Let’s look at your options, based on what other heroes in similar situations have come up with!
Please note that today I have no interest in discussing the nitpicking details of any hero-versus-villain confrontations that end in any other fashion. For instance, the villain making a clean getaway when he sees he can’t win today. Or the villain “dying” in a terrible explosion or something, in the heat of the moment, even though you (the superhero) didn’t plan it that way! Or the alternate scenarios wherein the villain defeats you, or at least manages to scare you enough that you are the one who hastily retreats after realizing you can’t possibly win this time! Or the battle that gets cut short by outside interference that gives you a whole new problem to worry about! All of those things, and other variations beyond them, have been done before and will be done again as ways to “resolve” a hero-versus-villain slugfest, but today I’m only looking at the “Best Case Scenario” where you have him completely at your mercy and must make a decision on how to use the advantage while it lasts!
01. Hand Him Over to the Cops
02. Kill Him
03. Leave Him to Die
04. Hold Him in Custody Yourself
05. Change your mind and turn him loose
06. Brainwash him
01. Hand Him Over to the Cops
“Here you are, Commissioner. One costumed psychopath — signed, sealed, and delivered!”
The classic method. After you’ve used your special abilities to subdue the miscreant, you can let the conventional justice system worry about how to keep him restrained during the trial, and imprisoned after the trial if he’s convicted, and so forth! It’s been done this way so many thousands of times that I don’t even feel the need to cite specific stories as examples. We all know that this is what Batman, Spider-Man, and many other heroes normally (though not invariably) do when they’ve just recaptured one of the usual suspects. In fact, it’s what we readers normally assume to be the case, by default, when the story actually ends right after the hero knocks the villain out cold!
Sometimes the villain has such incredible powers that regular jail cells and manacles wouldn’t be able to restrain him, but if the hero ends up turning the captive over to some special agency that does have super-duper equipment capable of nullifying the prisoner’s powers, then for all practical purposes that amounts to the same thing as turning the guy over to the cops. (As long as this agency is operating under the umbrella of a local or national government and everything is being done in a scrupulously legal fashion, of course.)
02. Kill Him
“I can’t, in good conscience, let you live to fight another day. So I’m going to break my usual rules and eliminate the problem of your existence, right here and now!”
This is what Superman did to a trio of Phantom Zone Villains at the very end of John Byrne’s run on the character in the late 1980s. (Specifically in “Superman #22.”) Of course, one justification for this was that there were no longer any cops, prosecutors, judges, prison wardens, etc., alive on the surface of the Planet Earth of the Pocket Universe in question (the Phantom Zoners having slaughtered every human being on the planet), so turning the villains over to such cops (and prison wardens, and so forth, as covered by #1 on this list) was impossible. And taking them back to the Earth of Superman’s native timeline would have been pointless, because local courts (in the USA or elsewhere) wouldn’t have any jurisdiction over events on another planet in another universe. Superman believed himself to be the only living, breathing adult resident of the Planet who was not currently in the category of “prisoners who are, by their own admission, shameless mass-murderers who intend to gleefully do more of the same, all over again, if they ever get the chance.” Ergo, he apparently elected himself as the new government (with a whopping 100 percent of the popular vote from all voting non-genocidal residents) and officially appointed himself judge, jury, and executioner, according to his own statement at the time. Then he used Green Kryptonite to wipe out all three of them.
Note: In case you wondered, I’ve heard that the official line from DC, in the Post-Infinite Crisis version of their continuity, is that all Pre-Infinite Crisis stories featuring Superman encountering anyone using the name “Zod” have now been officially erased from history. This would necessarily include the triple execution I just mentioned. I believe three other Zods were also erased by this retcon. (Yes, DC had gotten a little carried away with recycling that name, over and over . . . can you see why editors might want to clear the decks and start all over again?)
03. Leave Him to Die
“I’m not going to strike the fatal blow, but I’m sure not dumb enough to help you get out of the nasty situation you’re already in, either! If you die, that’s tough!”
This is not necessarily the same thing, morally or legally, as saying: “There are plenty of other ways I could handle this, but I’m think I’ll just kill you while I have the opportunity!” There could be a strong element of intelligent self-preservation involved.
For instance, about eighteen years ago I bought a four-part story arc as it came out in the old “Incredible Hulk” title. It was called “Countdown”; written by Peter David. The basic plot concept was that a newly-introduced villain called “Madman” managed to poison Bruce Banner’s body with something so nasty that it continued to eat away at his metabolism from the inside even after he’d transformed into the “mean gray Hulk” body and personality. In those days, Bruce was always “puny Banner” by day and “gray Hulk” by night, with the transformations happening automatically at each sunrise and sunset whether he liked it or not.
This meant that Hulk was feeling serious pain, and getting weaker and weaker as the hours rolled past, and was apparently doomed to die if he hadn’t found some sort of cure by the time the sun came up, because at that point he’d snap back to the metabolism of Bruce Banner and the poison would probably finish him off in less than a minute (if it hadn’t already killed the Hulk form before then, which was looking like a serious possibility too!). Associated problems which had to be dealt with included:
1) Madman had created an antidote for his own poison, in case of emergencies, but he wasn’t about to share it voluntarily.
2) As I recall, the antidote had to be injected to achieve a rapid cure, but Hulk’s super-tough hide was still bulletproof and hypodermic-proof, which meant he’d have to be holding a syringe with the proper chemical, ready to inject it, at the very moment the sun came up, so that he could pump the stuff into his own vein as soon as the transformation began and before the poison in his body had time to polish off Banner’s metabolism in very short order.
Now that I’ve explained the unique circumstances, we’ll get to the part that relates directly to what to do with a temporarily-helpless supervillain. In the course of his confrontation with Madman, Hulk found it necessary to inject the villain with the same poison Hulk himself was now dying from, in order to motivate Madman to dig out the precious antidote from wherever it was hidden among all the other paraphernalia in his lab. Then Hulk took it away from the guy and injected himself at just the right moment, as he began transforming back to Bruce Banner. Once Bruce knew he was rapidly recovering, he still had to decide what to do with the man who had poisoned him.
Madman, already collapsed in a heap on the floor as the poison rushed through his veins (evidently his superpowers didn’t include the sort of accelerated healing factor that had kept Hulk going for so long), started shamelessly begging for a revitalizing shot of the antidote. He argued that Banner was the good guy in the partnership, the one with the conscience, who would never kill an enemy deliberately. (Bear with me — I don’t want to take the time right now to find the right box in my collection and dig out that issue, so I’m paraphrasing from memory, but I think that was the essence of Madman’s sales pitch.)
Bruce Banner thought it over and then put the hypodermic, apparently still containing a significant quantity of antidote, down on the floor of the lab, a good distance away from Madman, and stood up and headed for the exit, saying something like: “Your countdown has now begun.” The story ends with Madman apparently expecting Banner to reconsider this tasteless joke and come back any minute now . . . we are left to conclude that instead of that happening, Madman probably curled up and died within the next several minutes. (Although no one ever claimed to have examined the corpse, and years later a new story revealed Madman had survived. Something I didn’t even know until I started writing this piece and suddenly realized I’d better do some online research on whether Madman was ever heard from again! As near as I can tell from my research, there was a three-issue rematch with the Hulk that established Madman had survived the aftermath of “Countdown,” and then he promptly faded away into comic book limbo again and hasn’t been heard from since!)
To do Bruce Banner justice: Since, as I pointed out, he couldn’t reasonably expect to change back to Hulk any time in the next 12 hours or so before sunset, and since Madman had superhuman strength and shapeshifting powers and so forth (when in good health), as well as having demonstrated an obsession with finding a way to kill Banner/Hulk and then implementing it by poisoning him, it was painfully obvious that a cured-by-the-antidote Madman would immediately turn around and snap Bruce Banner’s neck in about ten seconds flat. (I suspected he had learned that the “slow poison” approach was more trouble than it was worth.)
So Bruce was not just deciding to “let Madman die” out of a desire for revenge — he was also deciding “not to commit suicide!” Healing the guy, under the circumstances, would amount to exactly the same thing as Bruce cutting his own throat, which he was understandably reluctant to do.
04. Hold Him in Custody Yourself
“If you want a thing done right, do it yourself! That’s why I’m going to personally keep you confined and harmless!”
Now, if perchance you somehow have official permission from relevant governments (state, federal, or whatever) to take personal responsibility for confining some of the worst hardcases, then this amounts to the same thing, legally, as “turning him over to the cops” (#1). But if you simply take it upon yourself to to incarcerate people indefinitely (as opposed to briefly restraining them until the cops can take over), without bothering to clear it with the legitimate justice system, then you’re committing a few felonies yourself! Even if you could swear with a tear in your eye that your motives were pure!
To dust off a classic example from Superman’s Pre-COIE, Earth-1 continuity:
In “Action Comics #500″ Lex Luthor created a clone of Superman. The clone had the same costume and powers, and very nearly the same memories and personality, except that Luthor managed to make one basic change in how the clone remembered things — the clone now believed that Lex Luthor, that brilliant humanitarian, often had been unfairly persecuted and misunderstood by Superman himself (and the cruel, ignorant world in general). Luthor’s plan was to imprison the regular Superman (using red solar radiation, of course) and, I believe, eventually kill him — while having the clone secretly replace the original. From now on, the clone would always give Luthor the full benefit of the doubt instead of trying to arrest him every week! Bliss! (This plan seemed to overlook the possibility of Supergirl and other high-powered superheroes eventually smelling a rat and coming after Luthor themselves, but things never progressed far enough for that to become a red-hot problem.)
For our purposes, the important thing is that at the very end of the issue, the real Superman broke out of a trap and fought the clone in a classic slugfest. Superman finally managed to gain the upper hand by exposing the clone to the radiation of Gold Kryptonite, which was already well-known for its ability to permanently remove Kryptonian powers and turn the victim into the functional equivalent of a perfectly normal human. The story ended right after that.
For any fans who read that story as it first came out, a quick two years went past before there was any follow-up on the nagging detail of “just what the heck ever happened to that clone after he lost his powers?” According to the ground rules stated by Luthor when he was beating up a captive Superman, the clone shared virtually all the memories of both identities of the original (Clark Kent and Superman), allowing for a certain distortion of his attitudes regarding all Luthor-related material.
As I pointed out earlier, when a story ends with Hero Trouncing Villain, the reader tends to assume that the villain was hauled off to a nice quiet cell, under the care of the regular justice system. Thus, many contemporary readers may have assumed (for all I know) that the same thing had happened to the depowered clone, in between the last page of “Action Comics #500″ and the first page of “Action Comics #501.” One potential problem with this would have been that the clone still had all of Superman’s memories (allowing for a strong pro-Luthor bias) and could have spilled his guts about Clark Kent’s secret identity (and all other secret identities of any heroes who’d ever shared their secrets with Clark) any time he felt like it. Eventually we learned that Superman, preferring to avoid any such disclosures, had decided to stuff the clone in a “suspended animation cabinet” in his Fortress of Solitude until further notice, on the theory that eventually he might think of some other solution to the problem.
Superman seems to have assumed, without bothering to ask anyone’s legal advice on the subject, that a clone of himself could basically be treated as the real Superman’s private property, with no pesky “civil rights” to worry about beyond any little considerations Superman might choose to give him if he felt like it (such as not killing the guy, and generously refraining from banishing him to the Phantom Zone). By the end of “Action Comics #524,” however, the clone had gotten loose and tried to steal the “Clark Kent” identity with the aid of Kryptonian technology to compensate for his lack of powers in a fight. Superman finally overcame him again, and then decided to take a different tack this time around! (We’ll get back to that later; it falls into another category on my list!)
P.S. I’ve recently realized that this was not even the first time Superman had taken it upon himself to assume that a Superman Clone had no civil rights to speak of, and certainly did not deserve to have its day in court or any of that other nonsense. Permit me to quote from a column by Bob Ingersoll:
At this year’s Chicago Convention, Craig Boldman, one time Superman writer gave me a copy of Superman # 225 (again, April 1970–apparently an infamous month for Superman stories), “The Secret of the Superman Imposter” and asked me how Superman could get away with what he did legally.
Here’s what he did. Some alien created a duplicate of Superman, which lacked Superman’s invulnerability and in which he placed a Corsican twin circuit, so that Superman felt any pain the duplicate felt. When Superman found out about it he kidnaped the duplicate and imprisoned it in the Fortress of Solitude. Eventually, the duplicate discovered that it was a duplicate, not the original. When it did, it deactivated the Corsican circuit and killed itself.
So how could Superman get away with what he did, kidnapping and false imprisonment? Easy. The duplicate killed itself. Not only did no one know about what happened, no one was left to sign a complaint, even if someone did know. And that’s how he got away with it
Hey, Craig didn’t ask whether what Superman did was against the law, he only asked how Superman got away with it. That question I answered.
So with that in mind, we can see that Martin Pasko (writer of “Action Comics #524″) was merely “respecting established continuity” for the Earth-1 Superman by showing that as far as he was concerned, he had the right to illegally confine any stray clones (of himself) who might give him any grief, any time he stumbled across another one!
05. Change Your Mind and Turn Him Loose
“I overpowered you, and you’ve committed many crimes — but never mind all that! Just get out of here and don’t let me see your face again!”
I’m going to offer two examples of this approach! One of them was fairly trivial; the other was horribly irresponsible because it involved letting a mass murderer walk away with a mere slap on the wrist.
First, we’ll look at the trivial case (a villain who actually benefited from a hero’s soft-heartedness several different times, according to my sources).
Shortly after Tom DeFalco took over as scripter of “The Amazing Spider-Man” in the mid-1980s, he introduced us to a newly-created cat burglar who called himself The Black Fox. The guy had no superpowers and didn’t carry lethal weapons; he was greedy but not violent. He preferred to quietly sneak in, get the swag he wanted, and sneak out. His most distinguishing feature was that he looked old enough to qualify as a senior citizen. He apparently was able to capitalize upon this fact on various occasions in order to persuade Spider-Man to let him off with a warning. I seem to vaguely recall reading one story (although I can’t pin it down to one issue of one title) in which a captured Black Fox said something to Spidey along these general lines: “I’m getting too old for this — I’ve decided I’ll never risk stealing anything again! I swear it on my mother’s grave!”
Spidey was sufficiently touched by this promise to turn him loose. Then we saw the Black Fox saying to himself (paraphrased from my imperfect memory): “Swear on my mother’s grave, I said. Mum will get such a chuckle out of this when I tell her!” Apparently the old lady was still alive and well, so the Fox figured any promise made on her nonexistent grave was not morally binding!
Note: I am told that Spidey finally (in a story I don’t think I ever saw) overcame this extreme soft-heartedness toward the Black Fox, and handed the guy over to the authorities after catching him red-handed. But that was only after having previously fallen for his sob stories on numerous occasions, I gather!
Now for the Extreme Case! Fairly early in John Byrne’s run as writer/artist on the “Fantastic Four,” back around #’s 242-244 according to some hasty online research by yours truly, Galactus was almost dead from hunger (his herald Terrax had been double-crossing him lately) and decided he could just make it to Earth and devour it to revitalize his unique metabolism. (Apparently none of the uninhabited planets in this same solar system have whatever it is that Galactus needs for a healthy diet?)
The FF, the Avengers, and some other superheroes all felt perturbed by Galactus’s dinner plans, so they teamed up to resist vigorously. I believe the fact that he was already on his last legs was the major factor in making it possible for them to finally get him on the ropes, absolutely helpless and apparently going to just fade away and die in the very near future if the heroes who had now clobbered him would simply step back and let nature take its course. Galactus had undeniably devoured inhabited worlds before, presumably massacring billions of sentient beings at a pop in some cases, and he had every intention of continuing to gobble up planets on a monthly cycle in the future (witness what he’d been about to do to Earth!). Some superheroes have been known to fight and kill vampires as a public service. The logical approach here would be to treat Galactus as the universe’s most extreme case of the same basic problem — he could only stay alive at the expense of entire planets and any inhabitants they might have; therefore the usual approach for dealing with helpless villains — “lock him up in a special cell and give him three square meals a day for the next twenty years” — just wasn’t going to cut it!
Reed Richards, however, dug in his heels and insisted that the sanctity of life required the heroes to make an extra effort to prevent Galactus from dying. Oddly enough, Captain America and other heroes ended up going along with this insane proposition. Reed didn’t have any clever plan to actually do anything to prevent Galactus from continuing to genocidally destroy billions of people on other planets in the foreseeable future, however — but apparently the lives of billions of aliens on other worlds were not nearly so sacred to him as the single life of dear old Galactus was, as long as the Big G didn’t actually devour Planet Earth! There is a nasty, bigoted double standard implied here — “The lives of my billions of fellow humans are more important than the life of Galactus, but his single life, in turn, is far more important than the lives of all the members of any other intelligent species which he will surely exterminate in times to come, if we give him the chance to go find their homeworlds”
(Note: About a year and a half later, Byrne revisited this awful plot twist by having Reed Richards put on trial for being culpable in Galactus’s subsequent destruction of the Skrull homeworld and its billions of inhabitants. The outcome of that story didn’t make much sense, either. I expect to examine it in more detail when I get around to doing my long-planned post listing all the times that Marvel and DC superheroes have been put on trial in “courts of law” (as opposed to facing a villain who likes to pretend he has legitimate authority to judge people), but right now I have other fish to fry.)
06. Brainwash Him
“I don’t want to kill you — but you’re just too darn dangerous to be left as you are, with all those powers and nasty ideas inside your head. So I’m going to make a few modifications to how your mind works, for your own good! (And mine, of course.)”
In the 12-part “Squadron Supreme” limited series written by Mark Gruenwald in the mid-1980s, most of the Squadron decided to start using brainwashing devices to remove the criminal and antisocial tendencies of the costumed criminals they captured. Some of these people were, in fact, soon enlisted as new members of the Squadron.
(In all fairness, I should explain that this basic approach to the problem goes back at least as far as the pulp novels of the 1930s. Doc Savage used to perform a special type of brain surgery on many of the criminals he captured, in order to remove whatever was wrong with their brains which had previously prevented them from living peaceful, law-abiding, socially responsible lives. I am told that according to the way this operation’s effects were described, it was significantly different from a prefrontal lobotomy, and much more precise in its results.)
Much more recently, the Exiles did this to a Proteus-analog (an alternate timeline’s version of the incredibly powerful mutant son of Moira MacTaggert) after he had possessed the body of their long-time teammate Morph. The idea was to make Proteus think he was Morph, so that he’d only use the powers inherent to Morph’s unique metabolism, and use them according to Morph’s usual code of conduct, instead of trying to “take over the world” or anything similar.
A few years ago, Brad Meltzer inserted some retcons about the “mindwiping” (and/or drastic personality adjustments) of various villains into the JLA’s continuity in his notorious miniseries “Identity Crisis.” He did it in such a way as to leave plenty of room for further disclosures, in addition to the handful of cases specifically “revealed” within the pages of the mini.
Although some fans didn’t seem to recognize this at the time, Meltzer certainly was not the first to write stories showing that in extreme cases the “holier-than-thou” heroes of the JLA were ready, willing, and able to wipe out some or all of the memories, and/or radically change the general personalities, of some of their captured foes. For instance, over a decade ago, Grant Morrison wrote a story arc comprising the first four issues of the “JLA” title that had just started up (collected in TPB as “JLA: New World Order”), and it ended with J’onn J’onnz telepathically brainwashing 78 captured White Martians to lock them into the shapes of members of the human race, and to make them think they actually were ordinary, clean-living, law-abiding members of the human race, instead of remembering their real origins and attitudes and the wide range of superpowers they had available. J’onn did the dirty work, but all the other Leaguers who’d participated in that case knew what he was doing and never voiced a single objection that we heard of.
Wally West (Flash) and Kyle Rayner (Green Lantern) were among the JLAers standing around twiddling their thumbs while J’onn was erasing memories and changing personalities at the end of “New World Order”; thus, it creates a real head-scratching moment for the veteran fan when, in “Identity Crisis” several years later, Wally and Kyle are both shown to be gaping in horror and disbelief at the revelation that several of the supposedly “older and wiser” veteran heroes of the Satellite Era JLA used to sometimes erase memories and change personalities in some of the villains they’d captured!
And now to provide one last example of much the same thing, only this time it’s from the “kinder, gentler” era of the Pre-COIE Superman continuity; a story that was implicitly erased from history in the big reboot in the 1980s. . . .
Remember how I talked your ear off, earlier, regarding a Superman Clone who only had two appearances, in “Action Comics #500″ and “Action Comics #524″? Here’s what I didn’t mention before! On the last page of the Superman tale in #524, we learned that Superman, after subduing the clone, had arranged for the CIA to perform plastic surgery to give the clone the face of a TV anchorman named Dan Reed who had recently been reported missing, feared dead, after a plane crash. Superman also used super-hypnotism to make the clone think he really was Dan Reed. Then the clone got to work, using the journalistic experience he “already had” from all those Clark Kent memories (now modified to make him think it was Dan Reed’s training and experience he recalled, and with all of the superhero secrets completely erased) and that was the last we ever heard from the fellow before the Post-Crisis Reboot of all Superman continuity!
Naturally Superman did not bother to ask the clone’s permission before giving him such an extreme makeover! He merely took it upon himself to reshape the clone’s mind and body in a way which Superman alone had decided would be in everyone’s best interests! (“Bill of Rights? Who needs that pesky old Bill of Rights, anyway?” I can just hear Clark muttering to himself. What a stalwart champion of Truth, Justice, and the American Way the Pre-COIE Superman was!)
The Usual Modest Disclaimer: As always when I make my first stab at addressing such a complicated subject, trying to categorize things that have happened in thousands of different stories, I strongly suspect there are other possibilities which I didn’t immediately remember. If you can think of anything that might deserve a separate entry on a later version of this list, preferably with nice solid specific examples to illustrate your point (who did what to whom, in which story?) then please speak up!
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