What do you do with a superhero after you’ve turned him into a bad guy? That’s the question quietly haunting the story mode of Injustice 2, the sequel to a 2013 fighting game starring DC Comics characters.
In the original, director Ed Boon (Mortal Kombat) and his studio, NetherRealm, turned comic books’ most enduring icon of Good into a full-blown supervillain. After the Joker tricked Superman into killing a pregnant Lois Lane and nuking Metropolis, the Blue Boy Scout formed a global fascist organization dedicated to stopping crime, no matter the cost. Now Injustice 2 is left to pick up the mess: When it opens, Batman is trying to restore order, while Superman rots in a jail cell and Wonder Woman and his other key allies remain in hiding. There’s a sense here of confusion, and maybe even regret, on the studio’s part: Was turning half of DC’s storied heroic legacy into authoritarian murderers really a good idea?
The question feels more timely than you’d expect. Recently, a massive controversy has erupted around a Marvel Comics comic book crossover event called Secret Empire. The books posit that Captain America is, and has always been, a sleeper agent for HYDRA, Marvel’s secret society of villainy; in service of evil, Cap takes over the world, puts enemies into prison camps, and generally does a whole bunch of really horrifying things.
Plenty of comics fans have been pretty pissed about this, and for good reason. They point out that Captain America was a hero created to embody optimism and patriotism at a time of national crisis—World War II—and that turning him into a fascist during another time of national crisis is a clumsy misuse of a symbol that matters to a lot of people. They also point out that Captain America in particular was created by Jack Kirby, a Jewish man who famously crusaded against Nazis, and that HYDRA has often had at least an implicit connection (in the recent Marvel movies and TV shows, that connection is very explicit) to National Socialism. Captain America used to punch Nazis; now he is one.
The transformation of half of DC’s heroes into fascists in Injustice is less fraught—there’s no invocation of Nazis, and all the changes are tucked away into an alternate universe story well away from the main canon of superhero comics—but it still raises some similar questions. Superheroes are generally considered to have some social value. They’re broad, idealistic articulations of things we think are important: truth; justice; the American way. Superheroes lets us imagine a world where the powerful actually protect the weak without controlling them, and in doing so inspire us to use our power in similarly noble ways. If that’s true, is it disrespectful to transform them into bad guys? Are we doing a social evil (even if, in the grand scheme of things, it’s a pretty minor one)?
Injustice 2 doesn’t ask this question. It’s not seeking considered answers to knotty problems; it’s a game about characters in silly costumes beating the snot out of each other, and it does that job beautifully. As a fighting game, it’s responsive, easy to learn with thick layers of complexity buried underneath. It’s a brilliant exercise in taking out your action figures and ramming them into each other until one of them breaks. There’s not huge room for nuance here. Most people are just going to play multiplayer anyway.
But what room there is, Injustice 2 uses in a surprising way. The story it weaves into the super-violence questions the limits of redemption. As Batman tries to put the world back together, a new bad guy emerges, and (naturally) the good guys need help from Superman and his crew to defeat the new threat. But whereas a lot of superhero fiction would use this as a chance to give the erstwhile authoritarians a fresh start, Netherrealm’s writers refuse to let them off the hook so easily. As the characters struggle with an outside evil, they struggle with each other as well, even debating their own symbolism: Supergirl, torn between loyalty to her cousin and the desire to do what’s right, wonders the point of her costume’s iconic S is if everyone fears it. The worst villains of Injustice never get a chance to escape what they’ve done.
Injustice 2 is idealistic in spite of itself, and it seems to hold out some hope that superheroes might mean something. Perhaps because of that, it seems to regret its own cynical nature—as if, deep in its premise, it might have made a terrible mistake.
There’s a moment late in the game when Batman and Superman stare each other down. Instead of escalating immediately into violence, though, the scene turns toward wistfulness. “I miss the people we used to be,” Batman says to his one-time friend.
“Me too,” says Superman.
Then he punches him in the face.