“World Saved, Humanity Lost” (Superman vs. The Elite)

I just finished watching Superman vs. The Elite, an animated adaptation of What’s So Funny About Truth, Justice and the American Way? Although Action Comics #775 was published in March 2001, six months before the Twin Towers fell, it’s arguably even more timely now.  At the time it was written as a repudiation of the ‘grim and gritty’ style of comics, seen in Warren Ellis, Mark Millar, and especially Frank Miller, who saw principled heroes like Superman as fools, too weak to “finish the job” and kill the bad guys.

No, eleven years later, it feels more like it’s speaking to America, as we’ve bombed and droned and surveilled and tortured, all in the name of protected “the good guys, namely us” (to quote the leader of The Elite, Manchester Black).

The Elite are a band of incredibly powerful anti-heroes who divide the world into “good guys, namely us” and bad guys, and then proceed to destroy the bad guys, with no hesitation, no remorse, and little care as to the consequences.  Their leader, Manchester Black, has psychic and telekinetic powers unrivalled in the D.C. Universe, and he sees no problem with using those powers to coerce, kill, or even torture, as long as his victims ‘deserve it.’

And the thing is, he’s at least partly right.

The movie, especially, takes time to show that the justice system doesn’t always work, that prisons aren’t escape-proof, and that former or escaped inmates can re-offend, often in horrific ways.  Manchester Black isn’t a straw man, or not entirely.  He’s got A point … but I think he’s missing The point.

Superman initially works with The Elite, but quickly realizes that their goals and ideals are incompatible with his.  The movie actually has time to show this in more detail, including scenes of a rescue mission that wasn’t in the comic, one in which they have to cooperate to save the trapped civilians. The movie also gives more time for Superman to explain his position: he doesn’t “fix” the world because he doesn’t think it’s broken.  He knows there is terrible poverty and suffering, but he believes in humanity’s potential to grow and help its own, without needing a caped dictator force them.

Although Superman tries to convince The Elite to mend their ways, Manchester Black is too egotistical, too powerful, and too sure of his own rightness to listen.  Ultimately, it comes to a head, with Superman and The Elite set to fight at dawn.  That night, Lois asks him if he can’t just let someone else handle it, call in the Justice League, or something.  Superman observes that people need to know someone believes in right and wrong, that someone believes in them, and their ability to do the right thing.

I won’t give away the ending, or any of the really emotional points of the story.  But every time I think about it, I am more impressed.  Superman, the ultimate action hero, confronts the myth of redemptive violence head-on, smashing through it like a cheap cinder-block wall.  He confronts cynicism, armchair-macho vigilantism, misanthropy (and the corresponding misogyny that so often goes with it).

And that’s something I hope to someday be able to do.  Not that my goal is to comic-book characters (though I’d jump at the chance to write Superman), but I’d love to be able to so clearly show both sides of something, tell a story with great economy and impact, and convey a message or premise I believe in, all the while telling an engaging and entertaining story.  And that’s part of the reason I keep writing.  I may not be there, but I won’t get there without practice.  Nobody’s born awesome, well, except maybe Superman.

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