A Justice League Review – Lessons Learned

TITLE: Justice League
STARRING: Ben Affleck, Henry Cavill, Amy Adams, Gal Gadot, Ezra Miller
DIRECTOR: Zack Snyder
STUDIOS: Warner Bros. Pictures, DC Films, RatPac Entertainment, Atlas Entertainment, Cruel and Unusual Films
RATED: PG-13
RUN-TIME:
 120 min
RELEASED: November 17, 2017

***WARNING: Spoilers lay ahead.***

By Rob Siebert
Editor, Fanboy Wonder

Justice League is a standard superhero popcorn flick. It’s nowhere near as dark, dreary, and generally abysmal as Batman v Superman. But it also doesn’t accomplish anything remotely special. It’s about a team of heroes coming together to fight a villain with a doomsday plan. Been there, done that. Several times, actually. So what we get comes off completely and utterly average.

After all these years, the first Justice League feature film is just average. What an awful, heartbreaking waste…

The plot is basic enough to surmise from the advertising. As the world continues to mourn the death of Superman, we’ve got a new big bad in town. Steppenwolf, a tyrant from the hellscape world of Apokalips, has returned to Earth after thousands of years with his army of Parademons in tow. He aims to conquer the world using the immense power of three “Mother Boxes.” Batman and Wonder Woman prepare to meet this invasion head on by assembling a team of super-powered heroes. The Flash, Cyborg, and Aquaman are all called to action. But in the end, they won’t be enough. For this new team to triumph, Superman must return…

Trust me, it’s a lot more exciting on paper than it is on screen.

Justice League is the culmination of the years-long comedy of errors that is the “DC Extended Universe.” Man of Steel was an adequate start, flawed as it was with it’s dreary look and overindulgent third act. It was followed by the downright dour Batman v Superman, which robbed its characters of almost any charm, heart, or likability. Suicide Squad wasted arguably pop culture’s most iconic supervillain in the Joker, but managed to be fun in a mindless hot mess sort of way. Wonder Woman was the exception that made the rule. It felt like a single vision, with purpose, heart, and passion put into it.

And so, on one the most rickety foundations in cinematic history, Justice League was built. Like Suicide Squad before it, this movie feels like a melting pot of visions, voices, and priorities clumped together to form a viable commercial product. Our director is once again Zack Snyder. But with their confidence shaken from the backlash to Batman v Superman, Warner Bros. brought in Avengers director Joss Whedon to reshape the script. Thus, we have a Joss Whedon superhero movie taking place in Zack Snyder’s grim DC Universe, under the management of a studio desperate to compete with Marvel at the box office. Hot damn! Sign me up!

One of the major missteps in Justice League is it’s choice of villain. DC Comics lore is full of baddies worthy of challenging Batman, Superman, and Wonder Woman. Darkseid is the obvious choice. But you’ve also got big cosmic villains like Brainiac, Mongul, and Despero. Professor Ivo and the Amazo android could have made for an interesting story. Hell, team Lex Luthor up with the Joker! It sure as hell beats Steppenwolf…

Yes, Steppenwolf. A second-rate, paper-thin, poorly rendered Darkseid stand-in with an army of space bugs, a silly name, and a generic doomsday plot. This is who they came up with to face the Justice League in their debut feature film. Strictly from a cynical marketing standpoint, how the hell to you pass up slapping Darkseid, Brainiac, or Lex Luthor on t-shirts and posters, and instead opt for someone called Steppenwolf?

Justice League cost a whopping $300 million to make. That’s astounding, considering our CGI-rendered Steppenwolf looks like he was done in the late ’90s. It’s not just him, either. It’s been well documented that reshoots were done with a mustached Henry Cavill. The movie’s opening sequence wasn’t even over before Mrs. Primary Ignition turned to me and asked, “What’s up with Superman’s mouth?” Certain shots in Batman’s introduction are also extremely fake looking. Makes you wonder what the hell happened to good old fashioned stunt doubles and prosthetic make up…

Superman has a certain aura of reverence in this movie. Had that been earned or established in Man of Steel or Batman v Superman, that would have been fantastic. I’ve always been a proponent of Superman being the center, or at least part of the center, of the DC Universe. He’s certainly its moral backbone. But all this mourning we see over Superman doesn’t match the controversial figure we saw in Batman v Superman. Yes, some people loved him. But he was also the subject of protests and a congressional hearing. Lois Lane, Batman, Wonder Woman, and those who knew Superman have a reason to miss him. But based on what we saw before, there’d be a large contingent of people who’d be glad Superman died.

So now that I’ve sufficiently ripped Justice League apart, what’s there to like? What did they get right? Believe it or not, all was not lost from the get go…

Unlike in Batman v. Superman, almost all of our heroes are likable. Superman knows how to smile. Wonder Woman is compassionate, but still fierce. I’ve never needed a lot of selling on Ben Affleck’s Batman. Joss Whedon’s influence in the movie is obvious when the Dark Knight gets in a quip or two. Ezra Miller plays a socially inept Flash, who provides much of the comic relief. His costume looks absolutely ridiculous. But there’s a certain charm to him. Jason Momoa’s Aquaman is surprisingly okay as a dude bro. For a team flick, it works fine. Granted it’s not the approach I would have gone with, and they’ll obviously need to deepen his character for the Aquaman solo movie. Assuming that’s still in the pipeline after all this.

As much as this movie fell short of what it could have been, there is a certain warm and fuzzy quality to seeing these characters on the big screen together. Most of them aren’t true to the essence of the iconic characters they’re based on. But at the very least it’s cool on a superficial level to see Batman is standing next to Wonder Woman. Superman is running next to the Flash! Aquaman is in Atlantis! It’s a highly tarnished version of what we should be getting. But at least we’re getting it in some form. That counts for something.

And so, four years into the DC Extended Universe, what have we learned? What has the road to Justice League taught us? More than anything, it’s this: Darkness doesn’t equate to quality. At least not to larger audiences.

Some people point to darker tales like The Dark Knight Returns and Watchmen as the pinnacle of the superhero genre. But while they pushed the boundaries of how these stories and characters could work and be seen, they weren’t simply dark for the sake of darkness. The Dark Knight Returns isn’t just about an older and grittier Batman getting to punch Superman in the face. It’s about a hero returning to face a world that’s changed in his absence. Watchmen isn’t about Rorschach beating people up. It’s a look at superheroes from a different, more grounded angle. The dark tones fit the stories and the characters, not the other way around.

We also need to remember that at the end of the day these characters are meant for children. That doesn’t mean we can’t love them as adults. We don’t need to dumb them down for kids, but we can’t keep them all for ourselves either. If DC and Warner Bros. should have learned one thing from Disney and Marvel, it wasn’t the cinematic universe element. It’s that these movies can be accessible to viewers of all ages. They can be mature without being meant for mature audiences.

The blame Justice League‘s failures, creative and otherwise, falls primarily on the studio higher-ups. But the finger also needs to be pointed at Zack Snyder. He’s got a devoted fanbase that will filet me for saying so. But if Batman v Superman didn’t convince you, the fact that the first Justice League movie didn’t outperform the third Thor movie should say it all. Snyder must be kept far away from any and all future DC films. I shudder to think what this movie would have looked like without Joss Whedon’s influence. 

Superhero movies can be thrilling, emotional, and surprisingly versatile. But at their core, they aren’t complicated. Give us a hero worth rooting for, a villain worth rooting against, and a reason for them to fight. We don’t need to see a bad guy get his neck snapped, a bomb inside a jar of piss, or a city destroyed to compensate for a lack of emotional connection with the audience. 

Lessons learned. Six years and millions of dollars too late. But lessons learned…

Follow Primary Ignition on Twitter, or at Facebook.com/PrimaryIgnition.

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A Suicide Squad In-Depth Review – Will Smith is in This Movie?

Suicide Squad, 2016 film posterTITLE: Suicide Squad
STARRING: Will Smith, Margot Robbie, Jared Leto, Viola Davis, Joel Kinnaman
DIRECTOR: David Ayer
STUDIOS: Warner Bros. Pictures, DC Entertainment, RatPac Entertainment, Atlas Entertainment
RATED: PG-13
RUN TIME: 123 min
RELEASED: August 5, 2016

By Rob Siebert
Editor, Fanboy Wonder

It’s not often you go to a movie and forget Will Smith is in it. He’s one of the biggest movie stars in the world, and is the focal point of the marketing for whatever film he’s in. But not Suicide Squad. From a publicity standpoint, this has been all Joker/Harley Quinn, and for good reason.

Based on the comic book series of the same title, Suicide Squad sees government official Amanda Waller assemble a task force of killers and criminals to send on covert missions. They serve as both agents and built-in patsies. Should they refuse an order, Waller detonates a nanite bomb in their bodies. Under the command of Colonel Rick Flag, “Task Force X” consists of Deadshot, Harley Quinn, Captain Boomerang, Killer Croc, El Diablo, and a metahuman called the Enchantress. But when the Enchantress loses control of her dual “witch” personality, Waller is forced to call in her team of villains.

So you’re Warner Bros., and you’re trying to match the success Marvel has had at the movies with their shared cinematic universe. You put out a Superman movie, then a Superman/Batman movie. Now third in line is…Suicide Squad? Not Wonder Woman, the Flash, Green Lantern, or Justice League. But Suicide Squad? In terms of DC Comics, it’s always been a second-string book at best. So why make it part of the foundation of your cinematic universe? Marvel certainly didn’t do anything like that…

Suicide Squad, 2016, team shotThat last point is one of the keys to the vast amount of interest in Suicide Squad. There’s never been a big budget movie quite like this. It’s all about supervillains doing what they do. Who doesn’t love a good villain?

And there’s no better villain in all of pop culture than the Joker. Both superhero buffs and casual moviegoers are fascinated by him. More importantly, from a business perspective the Harlequin of Hate means big box office bucks. When Jack Nicholson played the character in Batman, the movie broke records and pulled in over $411 million. Heath Ledger won an Oscar when he played the part in The Dark Knight, which again broke records with over $1 billion. Even this year’s limited release of the animated version of The Killing Joke made over $3 million.

So in that sense, one can understand why Warner Bros. would want the Joker in Suicide Squad, a film about supervillains the general public has never heard of. What better way to compensate than with the one villain everyone knows?

Sadly, audiences expecting something akin to The Dark Knight will be disappointed. The Joker gets considerably less screen time than the other characters, as the movie isn’t really about him. He’s a supporting character, a role that would undoubtedly infuriate the Clown Prince himself.

Joker, Jared LetoJared Leto’s Joker is interesting to watch, and leaves you wanting more. But his performance lacks the complexity and depth of Ledger’s, or the sheer fun of Nicholson’s. He’s a tattooed Scarface in clown makeup. But it may be unfair to even compare Leto to his predecessors, as he doesn’t get the chance to dominate the film the way they did. But Leto has the chance to evolve his Joker over multiple films. He’s had the less screen time than Nicholson and Ledger. But that’s likely going to change.

Fans of Harley Quinn (and there are many) can rest easy. Margot Robbie performs the character very well. Though let’s be honest: She’s highly sexualized. I’ve never been a fan of sexy Harley Quinn, especially when she’s with the Joker. Her love for him isn’t prominently sexual. For her own twisted reasons, she’s entirely bought in. That’s what gives her the tragic element present in so many Batman villains. Harley is in an abusive relationship. Either she doesn’t realize it or she keeps returning to it, depending on where you are in her story. I’m not sure if she’s, as one reviewer put it, “damaged dolly jerk-off material.” But it unflatteringly simplifies her.

Then again, it looks like damaged dollies make box office bucks too.

Deadshot, Suicide Squad, Will SmithDid we mention Will Smith is in this movie? And it’s better for him being there. Floyd Lawton/Deadshot acts as the film’s moral and emotional compass. Smith is more than qualified to play that role, with his trademark charm to boot. He’s almost the Han Solo of this movie, bringing a much-needed down to Earth perspective and character-driven levity to the proceedings. Without him, the movie would have been as needlessly grim as Batman v Superman.

Suicide Squad has the unenviable task of introducing us to an entire team of supervillains, filling in their backstories, and making us care about them while still keeping its plot going. It accomplishes some of this by formally introducing its main protagonists from the get-go, framed by a dinner scene with Waller. Deadshot and Harley get the most emphasis, obviously. From there, we see flashback scenes as the movie progresses. This strategy is fine, but it negatively impacts part of the movie’s climax.

Diablo, played by Jay Hernandez, isn’t a main character. He’s a fire-starter with a conscience, and makes a big sacrifice during the final battle. But we don’t learn about Diablo’s past until the second half of the film. We’re invested in him, but not nearly as much as we’d have been if we’d gotten this information sooner. Whether this is the case or not, it feels like Diablo’s backstory was shoved in to make the climax more impactful.

El Diablo, Suicide Squad movie, 2016Also, Slipknot (the supervillain, not the band) is shoehorned into this thing for 10 minutes so he can get blown up by one of Waller’s nanite bombs. This was obviously done to establish she wasn’t bluffing. But Slipknot’s purpose in the story is immediately apparent, to the point where his death is almost an eye-roller.

Suicide Squad was clearly influenced by Guardians of the Galaxy, which also got us acquainted with a team of heroes and their world. Guardians used music from the ’60s and ’70s to make its main character quickly recognizable, likable, and familiar. Suicide Squad tries the same trick with music from Credence Clearwater Revival, Eminem, and other artists that go a long way in engaging the audience. After awhile, you can plainly see what they’re doing. But there’s something to be said for keeping things fun, and letting the audience rock out to music they know and love.

Critics haven’t been kind to Suicide Squad, and that’s very much justified. The movie gradually starts to come apart in the third act, before quickly snapping back together at the end. But the movie does deliver something that was sorely lacking from its predecessors, and that the Marvel Cinematic Universe has in spades: Fun. Suicide Squad is a flawed piece of work, and is guilty of objectifying its female lead. But it’s a fun summer popcorn flick that furthers the story of the DC Extended Universe. By and large, it delivers more than Man of Steel or Batman v Superman. That should serve as a lesson to Warner Bros. going forward.

Follow Primary Ignition on Twitter @PrimaryIgnition, or at Facebook.com/PrimaryIgnition.

Best of Batman & Superman: “Super/Bat”

***Batman and Superman are friends. It’s an unlikely friendship, and one that can put them at odds. But ultimately, it’s a friendship based on mutual respect and trust. With Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice on the horizon, we’re going to hear a lot about these two fighting. “Best of Batman & Superman” will show us the opposite end of the spectrum. These are the moments that showed us why Superman and Batman are better friends than enemies.***

Superman/Batman #55, 2008TITLE: Superman/Batman #53#56 (“Super/Bat”)
AUTHORS: Michael Green, Mike Johnson
PENCILLERS: Rags Morales
PUBLISHER: DC Comics
ORIGINAL PRICE: $2.99 per issue
RELEASED: October 2008 – March 2009

By Rob Siebert
Editor, Fanboy Wonder

Batman with Superman’s powers. It’s a pretty simple concept. It’s not as though we haven’t seen stories where Batman gets super powers. And of course, Superman has lost his powers before. But while “Super/Bat” isn’t perfect, there’s some great character work on display here. Ultimately, that’s been the key to this story’s resiliency over the years. Granted, Rags Morales’ art doesn’t hurt.

After an encounter with Silver Banshee, Superman’s powers have mysteriously been transferred to Batman. But Bruce Wayne is a very different Superman than Clark Kent. Opting to forgo eating and sleeping, Batman devotes his existence to fighting injustice. On the other hand, Clark Kent can now be the average joe he’s always pretended to be. While positives do arise from this predicament, things are going to get ugly…

Superman/Batman #53, Rags Morales, Clark Kent, Bruce WayneGreen and Johnson kick off the story much like Jeph Loeb and Ed McGuinness started the series at large. We get a splash page split down the middle, with inner monologue from both Superman and Batman, essentially shining a light on their philosophical differences. From there we jump to a museum gathering, as Bruce Wayne is loaning antique armor and weapons to the collection. Rags Morales starts this scene a little too cartoony for my taste, particularly in the above image of Bruce Wayne. Still, Morales is charmingly old school in the way he draws certain characters, particularly Clark Kent. He’s got the classic suit and hat, as if he’s straight out of the ’40s. If you’re a fan of Morales and Brad Meltzer’s Identity Crisis, there’s an aura of familiarity about this story that’s very welcoming. My only major complaint outside of this initial one is that he Morales gives Superman the “S” spit curl. I HATE the spit curl. There’s a difference between art being cartoony, and making Superman actually look like a cartoon character. The spit curl does the latter.

In issue #54, Zatanna is brought in as Clark is teaching Bruce how to use his powers. Later, Alfred and Robin (Tim Drake) find Bruce handing upside down next to some of the bats in the Batcave, meditating to focus his newly sharpened senses.

Superman/Batman #55, Rags Morales, Suoerman shotFrom there we go to a scene where Clark and Lois Lane ponder his next move. Lois eventually opens Clark’s shirt to find that even without powers, he’s still wearing his Superman uniform. Maybe that’s hokey, but I love it. There’s a pathetic quality about it that’s very fitting of a powerless Superman. But to her credit, Lois sticks by him. Even when Clark gets shot trying to stop a mugging in an alley, much like the one that resulted in the death of Bruce Wayne’s parents…

We also get a sequence where Batman brings down Bane by punching a hole through his stomach. A teary-eyed Dark Knight then floats over Earth teary-eyed over the fact that he can now save everyone. Batman is now a god, at least in his own mind.

And an increasingly violent god, at that. After the Justice League pulls Clark up to their satellite base and heal him with some magic courtesy of Zatanna, they wonder if Bruce’s new powers have effected his mind. Batman, who just happens to be waiting in the wing, then lays into Clark with a rant that hits home for both the characters and the readers.

“You don’t get it. For me it’s not hard at all. You’re always talking about not being human. About how your gifts are a curse. … Your powers aren’t a curse. They’re what I’ve always wanted. To never have to stop. To be everywhere, anytime. To save everyone. I never realized it until now. The responsibility you have. And all you want to be is normal?”

Superman/Batman #55, 2008, Rags Morales, rantThis idea that Superman should always be busy has been floated before. In a world full of so many hazards and dangers, why should an all-powerful superhero ever take a break? Personally, I don’t subscribe to that theory. I think this story refutes it as well as any ever has. One can’t always be so single-minded, even when saving lives. It leads to bad things down the road. Case in point, the very next sequence where Batman has become so detached from reason and humanity that he injures Catwoman, and severely debilitates Nightwing.

Knowing Batman has to be stopped, Alfred give Clark a modified Batsuit with the “S” symbol on it, While the Justice League take on Batman, Superman and Zatanna find Silver Banshee and learn the powers were switched by way of a magic brooch. It grants a person their heart’s desire, but does so at the expense of someone else. When exposed to the brooch, Batman was unknowingly given what he’s always wanted: The power to save everyone.

A short time later, Zatanna creates an illusion of Bruce’s parents that lures him in allows she and Superman to switch the powers back. In the final scene, Batman admits that the powers ultimately cost him his mind, and he credits Superman with thinking tactically the way he normally would. In the end, Clark admits part of him has always wanted a normal life, and Bruce admits he secretly misses the power…

Superman/Batman #56, Rags Morales, Batman, Clark KentI like to think Bruce’s mind wasn’t compromised when he had Clark’s powers. At least not to the point where he had no control over his decisions. It makes a certain amount of sense for Bruce to react the way he did, given all the awful things that have happened to him. His mission is for no one to go through what he did. So why wouldn’t he try to save everyone? That doesn’t make him a bad guy. It just makes him a guy who lost control.

“Super/Bat” is also a great illustration of why Superman is the role Clark Kent was born to play. We see here that while Batman is largely isolated, Superman is a likable guy who cares about his friends, and his friends reciprocate. Even Commissioner Gordon seems rather fond of him. He cares about people. He’s grounded, which ironically makes him deserving of the power of flight.

“Super/Bat” isn’t nearly as well known, or renowned, as The Search For Kryptonite or a lot of the others stuff to come out of that Superman/Batman title. But for my money, it’s one of the better stories starring this duo to come out in the last 10 years. From a character perspective, it’s certainly better than anything we’ve seen since the New 52 reboot.

For more “Best of Batman & Superman,” check out Gotham Knights #27, Superman #165, Man of Steel #3, and Action Comics #654

Image 1 from comic vine.com. Image 2 from batmanytb.com. Images 3 and 4 from comicnewbies.com. 

Follow Primary Ignition on Twitter @PrimaryIgnition, or at Facebook.com/PrimaryIgnition.

Best of Batman & Superman: Action Comics #654

***Batman and Superman are friends. It’s an unlikely friendship, and one that can put them at odds. But ultimately, it’s a friendship based on mutual respect and trust. With Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice on the horizon, we’re going to hear a lot about these two fighting. “Best of Batman & Superman” will show us the opposite end of the spectrum. These are the moments that showed us why Superman and Batman are better friends than enemies.***

Action Comics #654TITLE: Action Comics #654
AUTHOR: Roger Stern
PENCILLER: Bob McLeod, Brett Breeding. Cover by Kerry Gamill.
PUBLISHER: DC Comics
ORIGINAL PRICE: $0.75
RELEASED: June 1990

By Rob Siebert
Editor, Fanboy Wonder

The Kryptonite ring. A weapon given to Batman by Superman in the event he were to ever be the victim of mind control. But it’s so much more than that, isn’t it? It’s a symbol of trust between the world’s finest heroes. It represents Superman’s faith in Batman, his understanding of his own power, and his willingness to sacrifice himself for the greater good. It also represents the necessary cynicism that makes Batman who he is. It gives him the responsibility of keeping Superman’s power in check, and guarding the Earth’s greatest guardian.

Over the years, many a creative team has made use of the Kryptonite ring. Perhaps the most notable was Jeph Loeb and Jim Lee in Batman: Hush. But it’s presence has been felt in stories like Superman/Batman: Public Enemies (also by Loeb), Infinite Crisis, and Superman and the Legion of Superheroes. Chip Kidd and Alex Ross also did a short story based around the concept for Mythology: The DC Comics Art of Alex Ross. It even survived the New 52 reboot. The concept has been resilient for so many years because it’s a good one. It makes sense.

Action Comics #654, 1990And it all began right here in Action Comics #654.

The story, “Dark Knight Over Metropolis,” was a crossover between SupermanThe Adventures of Superman, and Action Comics. So it ended up being the work of three different teams. But the story’s enduring legacy comes from its final two pages, so that’s what we’ll be looking at for the most part.

I wish I could say “Dark Knight Over Metropolis” was an amazing story. But in truth it’s mostly underwhelming. Things also get convoluted when subplots involving Integrant, Cat Grant, and the street-level hero Gangbuster are woven in. But here are the important details: At a murder scene in Gotham City, Batman discovers a mysterious radioactive ring among the victim’s possessions. Batman’s investigation leads him to Metropolis, where he teams up with Superman and learns the ring is made of Kryptonite and was created by Lex Luthor. Batman keeps his possession of the ring a secret from Superman, but turns it over to him when the case is closed.

It’s important to note that these are the post-Crisis on Infinite Earths Superman and Batman. A few years after their first meeting in The Man of Steel #3, they’re still chilly toward one another. The story makes it clear they don’t always appreciate one another’s methods. But they know one another’s identities, and obviously have a kind of professional courtesy going.

Action Comics #864, Kryptonite ring sceneThe pivotal moment in the issue happens after Bruce Wayne and Alfred have returned to Gotham. They suddenly find themselves with an uninvited guest in the Batcave. Batman descends into the cave to find Superman waiting for him. Bob McLeod and Brett Breeding give us a striking shot of Superman standing amongst some of Batman’s trophies. From a writing standpoint, it’s an interesting power play to have Superman simply show up in the Batcave because he can. Obviously he means no harm, but it’s a nice reminder that he can catch Batman off guard when he wants to.

Superman says that while many think Batman is insane, he’s come to believe Batman is simply a sane man trying to bring justice to an insane world. He talks about living in fear that one day one of his enemies may gain control over him. If that were to ever happen, there’d be only one way of stopping him. With that, he pulls out a lead box with the Kryptonite inside.

The story ends with the line that makes the entire story: “I want the means to stop me to be in the hands of a man I can trust with my life.”

At only three pages, this is a pretty modest scene, considering what’s happening. But there’s something to be said for keeping things concise. Had they known they were making history with this scene, I’m sure they would have upped the ante a little bit.

“Dark Knight Over Metropolis” is an unremarkable story that pays off with one of the great gems in the history of the Superman/Batman partnership. For that reason alone, it’s worth a read. Thankfully, DC reprinted it a few years ago in a trade of the same name.

For more of “Best of Batman & Superman,” check out Gotham Knights #27 and Superman #165.

Image 1 from superman86to99.tumblr.com. Images 2 from asylums.insanejournal.com. 

Follow Primary Ignition on Twitter @PrimaryIgnition, or at Facebook.com/PrimaryIgnition.

Best of Batman & Superman: The Man of Steel #3

***Batman and Superman are friends. It’s an unlikely friendship, and one that can put them at odds. But ultimately, it’s a friendship based on mutual respect and trust. With Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice on the horizon, we’re going to hear a lot about these two fighting. “Best of Batman & Superman” will show us the opposite end of the spectrum. These are the moments that showed us why Superman and Batman are better friends than enemies.***

The Man of Steel #3 (1986)TITLE: The Man of Steel #3
AUTHOR/PENCILLER: John Byrne
PUBLISHER: DC Comics
ORIGINAL PRICE: $0.75
PUBLISHED: November 1986

By Rob Siebert
Editor, Fanboy Wonder

The year was 1986, and it was a time for reboots, revamps, and retcons. Crisis on Infinite Earths had recently wrapped up, effectively given the entire DC Universe a clean slate. The heroes and icons we knew and loved could now be tweaked, and perhaps simplified for a new generation of fans. This era opened the door for stories like Batman: Year One, George Perez’s classic take on Wonder Woman’s origin, and even Justice League International.

And then there’s The Man of Steel, John Byrne’s revamping of Superman’s origin story. This six-issue miniseries reestablished Kal-El as the sole survivor of the planet Krypton, and redefined his relationships with core characters like Lois Lane, Lex Luthor, Lana Lang, and various other characters with the initials L.L.

It also gave us the first meeting between the post-Crisis Superman and Batman, in what I believe is one of the best Superman/Batman stories ever told.

We open the issue in Gotham City, as Batman hunts down leads on our villain, Magpie. That’s right folks, the first meeting of post-Crisis Superman and Batman wasn’t over, say, The Joker, Lex Luthor, or Brainiac. Instead, we had Magpie, a villain obsessed with shiny objects. In essence, she’s the evil equivalent of a two-year-old who wants shiny toys.

The Man of Steel #3, Batman and SupermanThe Dark Knight soon finds himself interrupted by Superman, who grabs his Batrope and attempts to take him to police headquarters. Remember, at this early point in his career Batman is considered a criminal outlaw. Batman escapes, and tells Superman he’s been preparing for an encounter with him. And here’s where suspension of disbelief comes in really handy…

Apparently, in preparation for Superman, Batman created a force field around himself, which can detect “super dense biological material,” i.e. Superman. If the force field is penetrated, a signal goes out that detonates a bomb and kills an innocent person. Naturally, the Man of Steel is shocked. With his undivided attention, Batman tells him Magpie’s story, and they end up going off to find her. But Superman insists they aren’t done.

Did you ever play pretend with the other kids on the playground, and somebody would shout: “You can’t touch me! I’ve got a force field!” This feels like the superhero comic book equivalent of that. If Byrne hadn’t stuck the landing so well with this idea, it would be laughable. Particularly by modern standards. But as we’ll see, the pay off is worth it.

Our heroes quickly dispose of Magpie’s goons, and when she releases an acid-like gas into the air, Superman inhales it all before blowing it out into space. When he returns, she has escaped. When they find her again, Superman rips her gimmicky headpiece off, only to see her break down in tears.

The Man of Steel #3, John Byrne

It’s here that Superman begins to learn about a different kind of criminal. Magpie is certainly a villain. But she’s also a victim, driven to the point of insanity by mental illness combined with a penchant for crime. She isn’t like the criminals Superman is used to facing. As such, he learns a valuable lesson about the different facets of criminality.

“Yes…I feel sorry for her, Superman,” Batman says.” But I feel more sorry for her victims.”

Superman comes to respect the need for someone like Batman in Gotham, but there’s still the matter of the bomb. The Dark Knight promptly removes a small explosive from his belt, revealing the “innocent” he placed in jeopardy was him all along. Because Superman would be able to tell if he were lying, Batman says this was the only way he could stop the Man of Steel.

While there’s a definite corn ball factor to the force field element, the ending makes it worthwhile. It perfectly illustrates Batman’s willingness to bend the rules to accomplish his goals, while at the same time adhering to the set of principles that set him aside from the criminals he fights. I’m reminded of a line from the Gotham Knight DVD Warner Bros. put out in 2008: “Im willing to put my life on the line to do what I have to. But it has to be mine, no one else’s.”

The Man of Steel #3, closing panels, John ByrneIn the end, our heroes come to share a mutual respect for each other, and the methods they use to do their respective jobs. See, isn’t that nice? No fighting. No giant Bat-Robots. No Batman spitting in Superman’s face (I’m still mad at you for that Snyder & Capullo). None of that crap. Just two heroes with differences, who come to appreciate those differences and in time actually become friends.

What’s even more interesting about this issue is its placement within the six-issue Man of Steel story. Remember, the idea here was to reintroduce Superman for the modern era. Issue #1 established up his backstory with the Kents and the genesis of Superman. Issue #2 set up his status quo with Lois Lane and The Daily Planet. And here, we’re already bringing in Batman. We haven’t even met Lex Luthor yet! You can easily call this a case of Over-Baturation. But I’d like to give Byrne the benefit of the doubt here. Much like DC did with the New 52, they had to do some world-building in the early months of the post-Crisis DCU. The dynamic between Batman and Superman is obviously very important, regardless of what continuity you’re in. I like to think this issue is a testament to that, rather than Byrne shoving Batman into a Superman story to bolster readership.

The Man of Steel #1, John Byrne, 1986While rather dated by its dialogue, The Man of Steel #3 is still a vital piece of the storied history between these two icons of pop culture. And it didn’t have to resort to cheap thrills. Or worse, awful condescending dialogue from Superman like: “So, what can you do?”

Incidentally, John Byrne wasn’t done with Superman and Batman after this issue. He wrote and drew the 12-issue Superman/Batman: Generations, and its two sequels. While I can’t speak for the sequels, the original is definitely worth a read.

For more “Best of Batman & Superman,” check out our looks at Superman #165 and Batman: Gotham Knights #27

Image 1 from comicbookresources.com. Images 2 and 3 from fanboy.com. Image 4 from dvsgaming.com. 

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Best of Batman & Superman: Superman #165

***Batman and Superman are friends. It’s an unlikely friendship, and one that can put them at odds. But ultimately, it’s a friendship based on mutual respect and trust. With Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice on the horizon, we’re going to hear a lot about these two fighting. “Best of Batman & Superman” will show us the opposite end of the spectrum. These are the moments that showed us why Superman and Batman are better friends than enemies.***

Superman #165, 2000TITLE: Superman #165
AUTHOR: Jeph Loeb
PENCILLER: Joe Madureira. Cover by Ed McGuinness.
PUBLISHER: DC Comics
ORIGINAL PRICE: $2.25
RELEASED: December 2000

By Rob Siebert
Editor, Fanboy Wonder

Don’tcha hate it when your arch rival becomes President of the United States? Man, that sucks…

We all knew tough times were ahead for Superman after the 2000 presidential election. In one of their wildest stunts, which actually stuck for a few years, DC Comics opted to make Lex Luthor the President of the United States. Naturally, this was a huge blow for the Man of Steel. When he’s written well, Superman is essentially a man of the people. So what does a man of the people do when the people make a potentially catastrophic choice?

For Superman, the answer was turning to those he trusted. Not just his wife, but his friends, colleagues and confidants in the Justice League of America. Superman #123 takes place in the aftermath of Lex’s election, and sees Superman visit with each member of the League. As it’s the holiday season, he gives each one a small gift. This issue is drawn by a number of artists, each of whom pencils a particular encounter. But naturally, we’re focusing on the Superman’s time with Batman, which is drawn by Joe Madureira. The scene is only three pages long. But it’s an interesting glimpse into how the Superman/Batman dynamic works.

Superman #165, Batman, Joe MadurieraClark and Bruce had disagreed about how to handle Luthor running for president. Batman had some even more bad blood than usual with Luthor due to his involvement in the events of the recent No Man’s Land storyline. When it looked like things were turning in Luthor’s favor, Bruce wanted to dig up dirt to use against Lex, whose reputation was squeaky clean in the eyes of the public. But Superman questioned the ethical nature of such a move, and insisted they trust American voters to do the right thing.

Obviously, they didn’t.

The tension between the two is obvious when we open the issue. Batman’s cartoony scowl aside, while all the other meetings started with friendly dialogue, this one begins with silence.

Bats then asks: “Wasn’t it you who said we have to put our faith in the America people to do the right thing?”

Swallowing his pride a bit, Clark then gives Bruce a small magnifying glass (Get it? He’s a detective.), with the words: “This…is from Lois.”

Batman replies with a thank you. Then we get the line that truly makes this exchange special: “When the time is right, we’ll take Luthor down.”

Superman #165, BatmanIn the final panel, after Batman has left, Superman repeats quietly to himself: “When the time is right…”

This may seem fairly small and insignificant. But to me it illustrates the compromise that makes the partnership between these two men work. It’s that balance of optimism and cynicism. Batman wasn’t wrong to be wary the country potentially choosing Luthor. But Superman’s ethical argument wasn’t wrong either. Superheroes shouldn’t necessarily have to stoop to playing dirty. Especially when it comes to politics, which quite frankly, is dirty enough already.

Still, Luthor won, and Superman had to eat crow. But in the end, Bats still trusts Superman enough to work with him in defeating this enemy. And Superman trusts him too, despite their differences.

Clark takes Bruce’s words to heart as the issues ends on the next page (pencilled by Ed McGuinness), as we see Superman and Lois Lane beginning a brief vacation in the Bottle City of Kandor. Tough times are indeed near. But after spending so much time with his confidants, Superman chooses to take some quality time with his closest confidant of all.

Both our heroes look pretty jacked up here, which isn’t really my cup of tea. But as a style choice, it’s fine. The only thing I don’t appreciate here is the aforementioned scowl on Batman’s face, which stays with him the whole issue. That’s not to say he has to get sentimental, or even look particularly happy. But Superman’s expression changes in the scene. So why can’t Batman’s?

On it’s own, this scene stands up just fine. But it’s even better when you consider taking Luthor down is exactly what our heroes do a few years later in another Jeph Loeb story, Superman/Batman: Public Enemies. One might consider this scene a nice little prelude to that story. Luther may have gotten himself elected. But in the end, justice came calling.

For more “Best of Batman & Superman,” check out our look at Gotham Knights #27.

Images from author’s collection.

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Best of Batman & Superman: Gotham Knights #27

***Batman and Superman are friends. It’s an unlikely friendship, and one that can put them at odds. But ultimately, it’s a friendship based on mutual respect and trust. With Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice on the horizon, we’re going to hear a lot about these two fighting. “Best of Batman & Superman” will show us the opposite end of the spectrum. These are the moments that showed us why Superman and Batman are better friends than enemies.***

Batman: Gotham Knights #27 (2002)TITLE: Batman: Gotham Knights #27
AUTHOR: Devin Grayson
PENCILLER: Roger Robinson. Cover by Brian Bolland.
PUBLISHER: DC Comics
ORIGINAL PRICE: $2.50
RELEASED: March 20, 2002

By Rob Siebert
Editor, Fanboy Wonder

Gotham Knights was a third-string Batman title that ran for 75 issues between 2000 and 2006. But the stories it presented were often far from third-string. You won’t find a better example than issue #27, which brought Batman and Superman together under less-than-ideal circumstances.

This issue was part of the Bruce Wayne: Fugitive crossover, which saw Bruce become the prime suspect in the murder of his girlfriend, Vesper Fairchild. Vesper, a journalist, had discovered that Bruce Wayne was Batman, and was debating whether to expose his secret when she was murdered in Wayne Manor. The evidence pointed to Bruce as the culprit. Readers were even left to question whether he had actually done the deed. Believing his Bruce Wayne identity had become a liability, Batman opted to leave him behind, and become The Dark Knight full time. This didn’t sit well with his surrogate family, and even culminated in confrontation with Nightwing. But Batman’s mind was unchanged. Bruce Wayne was gone.

Enter Superman.

Batman: Gotham Knights #27, image 2According to Greg Rucka, one of the writers behind the Fugitive storyline at large, the idea behind the crossover was to get Bruce to see just how far into the darkness he had gone. Recent events such as the Earthquake that destroyed much of Gotham (see No Man’s Land), the shooting and retirement of Jim Gordon (see Officer Down), and now the death of Vesper Fairchild, had made him more emotionally reclusive than ever. At this point, there was no room for happiness in Bruce’s world. He’d become almost unreachable.

Part of what makes the Batman/Superman friendship work is the balance in ideals. When they’re portrayed best (in my opinion), here’s an inherent bleakness and cynicism to the Dark Knight Detective that’s balanced by the compassion and optimism of the Man of Steel. You’ll rarely find that on display more prominently than in this issue, as Clark reaches out to Bruce to try and pull him back from the abyss.

We get a nice illustration of that balance pretty early here, as Superman has to physically stop Batman from pummeling a street crook. He also reveals a handful of bullets, indicating he’s been watching Batman’s back for a bit.

Then it gets good. Clark tells Bruce that he knows he didn’t murder Vesper. That’s a fantastic illustration of the trust that exists between the two of them. Yes, Superman is an optimist (or at least he was at that point). But even he couldn’t ignore the evidence, which pointed to Bruce as the killer. But he still knew Bruce well enough to understand he couldn’t have done it. That’s so perfect. In contrast, if this story were done now, I get the impression our heroes would have spent most of the issue hitting each other.

Batman: Gotham Knights #27, image 3Without the question of guilt, Clark asks Bruce why he isn’t trying to clear his name or protect his real identity. After some action, Batman responds: “This is my ‘real identity.'”

Superman accepts that response, but gives him a nice little monologue before he leaves.

“It is your true nature to cover up your grief and hide any shame or fear you might feel behind your mask. And it’s in your true nature to refuse help, and to work through your own doubts. So having offered my assistance and expressed my concern, I can leave now, saying what I always say before I go: I’m here if you need me and I trust you…Bruce.”

BOOM. That. Right there. A little too talky and psychoanalytical for an actual conversation? Maybe. But I don’t care. That’s friendship right there, ladies and gentlemen. Clark didn’t push Bruce to go one way or the other. He simply offered his concern and opinion, then said “I’m here if you need me.” There were no punches thrown, no arguments or scathing remarks. As much as any book has ever done, this issue made the friendship between Clark and Bruce seem real.

Batman: Gotham Knights #27, Batman, Superman, Roger RobinsonOur artistic team does a nice job of making Superman look out of place in Gotham, as he should. Penciller Roger Robinson, inker John Floyd, and colorist Gloria Vasquez make sure his bright red colors stand out among the blacks, deep blues and darker violets. Robinson gives our heroes a dynamic look for this relatively quiet issue. But given how iconic they both are, it works.

It’s also worth noting that this issue’s “B story” sees Alfred debate whether or not to read Bruce’s private journal. Considering what we’re getting from our heroes in this issue, it’s obviously dwarfed by comparison. But the art looks damn fine.

Even in a medium famous for its BAMs, SMACKs, and KAPOWs, a fight isn’t always the answer. Sometimes you just need to put the characters together, and they almost write themselves. But I guess that’s not a good recipe for an action blockbuster to start your cinematic universe.

Images 1 and 3 courtesy of Roger Robinson’s Facebook. Image 2 from author’s collection.

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