It appears some apologies are in order.
My relationship to DC Comics in the last few years has been a bit fraught. There have been some shows I like a lot, some I like a lot less, and a certain movie I’d rather like to not mention for a while. The editorial decisions in the past five years or so on screen and page* have been at odds with the optimism, weirdness, and sense of legacy that drew me into the DC Universe, and things are only now starting to lighten up. Within this atmosphere, you may understand why the DC fighting game Injustice: Gods Among Us –with its needlessly complex character designs, grim aesthetic, and rumors that the plot centered around an eeeeevil Superman accidentally killing Lois Lane and his unborn child before becoming a dictator– seemed like a distillation of everything sour and drab about modern DC Comics (a lifelong preference for Capcom fighting games didn’t hurt either). Had I not picked up a used copy on the cheap, I probably would have gone on happily turning my nose up at this franchise and all I assumed it represents. Here’s where a hater says sorry and learns not to judge too quickly, because Injustice is a fun, and surprisingly hopeful corner of the DC Universe.
To paraphrase Lisa Simpson, as usual, the internet had the facts right but missed the point entirely. The plot does indeed begin when a poorly dressed Superman (George Newbern, reprising his role from the Bruce Timm animated universe) accidentally kills a pregnant Lois, murders a Joker who’s just set off an atomic bomb that has destroyed Metropolis, and establishes himself as supreme dictator of the Earth, assembling a team of heroes and villains to keep the planet under control. What’s missing from this synopsis is that all this is happening in a reality separate from our normal, non-murderous Superman and that the plot is very much a critique of such oppressive grimness.
With Newbern reprising his role as Superman, and Kevin Conroy and Susan Eisenberg returning as Batman and Wonder Woman respectively, the plot of Injustice has the vibe of a lost episode of the mid-2000’s Justice League show. Despite the grimy, naturalistic aesthetic, these are the classic takes on the characters, and this is their “Mirror, Mirror”*. Almost as popular as stories that deconstruct a character are those that use a major change to illustrate what’s so innately good or virtuous about a character. When Marvel placed Doctor Octopus’ consciousness in Spider-Man’s body in the controversial but excellent Superior Spider-Man, the point was to illustrate the qualities Peter Parker possesses that make him the best at doing what a spider can. DC did the same to reinforce that it’s Bruce Wayne’s vow not to take a life that makes Batman what he is when they replaced him with Azrael, the most 90s comic character to ever exist. Injustice uses the same worst-case-scenario plotting to illustrate what’s so essential about the morals and heroism of the Justice League, providing stark contrast between the fragile despot Superman of the Injustice alternative universe and the warmth and supportiveness of regular Supes. It’s reflected in the cold, distant way the alt universe heroes speak with each and the levity and occasional jokiness with which the regular batch speak to one another. These stories always end with the hero taking back their rightful place in a climactic fight, and controlling that fight amps up the drama. It’s one thing to read a story where a subservient, war-mongering Wonder Woman momentarily takes the place of our regular version, and quite another to control the virtuous Wonder Woman as she pummels her treacherous counterpart to drive the point home.
This is a type of story that isn’t seen much in superhero movies, since spending too much time with an evil or alternate version of the hero in lieu of the original is probably too much of a box office risk, but it’s one that’s well tailored to video games, and particularly fighting games. Fighting games and narrative do not historically pair together super duper well, as the bad old days of the genre relied on game manuals and ending cutscenes to tell a story that may not be the “correct” ending based on which character you choose (Street Fighter games never officially end with Blanka winning the tournament no matter how many times I beat the game as him). It’s just never really been the ideal genre for telling engaging narratives. Injustice, with its chapter-based story mode that thrusts you into the role of various character instead of choosing just one, provides a greater narrative throughline as well as a better explanation for why heroes beating the snot out of one another than the typical fighting game. This leads to troubling subtext as well –the player essentially proves to alternate reality Harley Quinn that regular reality Joker is the real deal by beating her up– but more frequently solves the issue of how to integrate an intriguing, episodic superhero tale with NetherRealm Studio’s immensely satisfying and weighty fighting. Engaging in Injustice‘s Clash mechanics –the player and their opponent wager part of their power bar and charge at each other with the one who wagered more winning the clash– feels cinematic and cool in a regular fight, but feels even cooler when it’s between Good Superman and Bad Superman and the result with prove whose ideals are stronger.
So why write all this now, three years after the game’s release? Because I hope it makes me a stronger critic. For three years I knew what this game was about. I knew it played to the worst tendencies in modern gaming and comics and that it held no value for me. And then I played through it. There’s a lot that is deeply silly about Injustice: Gods Among Us (the title is one of them): the voice acting is uneven (Stephen Amell’s Green Arrow is funny and sharp, Adam Baldwin’s Green Lantern bites), and a lot of the character design manages to be somehow incredibly goofy and unmemorable at the same time. But what I thought was a symptom of something I disliked might actually be an antidote to it. There’s so much that comes out every year and it’s hard not to form a lasting impression on things I’ve never seen or played, but looking past lazy impressions is a good critic’s job. I can’t say what this means for future releases (or even what this means for Suicide Squad which I’m reviewing next week), but at the very least there’s one more person looking forward to the release of Injustice 2, promises of stupid, impractical armor and all.
*yes, I know about Earth 3.