[13 January 2014]
It’s a story that has played out many times and in many different forms. A powerful alien tyrant less regard for human life than a hungry grizzly bear arrives on Earth and picks a fight with its mightiest heroes. Those heroes fight back, punches are thrown, buildings are destroyed, human life is threatened, and eventually the hero triumphs. It is a theme so common that modern audiences have become desensitized to it. In the same way news of Lindsey Lohan’s latest arrest fails to raise an eyebrow, a battle between Superman and the alien overlord, Mongul, is hardly a novel concept. However, that’s exactly the point that is conveyed in Batman/Superman #6.
Batman and Superman are two of the most powerful forces in DC Comics. They’ve been the subject of numerous epic battles and multiple blockbuster movies. The residents of the DC Universe have seen these two triumph so many times that it has become expected. So when Mongul arrives on Earth, some don’t even treat it as a threat. They treat it as a game. And that’s exactly the genius of Mongul’s plan. He wants it to be thought of as a game because to him, it is a game. He’s just the only one playing for real stakes.
The battle between Mongul, Batman, and Superman is almost secondary. Much of the story is told from the point of view of a team of virtual gamers, including Superman’s friend, Jimmy Olsen. They have been led to believe by Toymaster that they are test driving an advanced game that just happens to involve Superman and Batman fighting Mongul. But neither they, nor Toymaster for that matter, know that one of Mongul’s alien associates helped create the game using alien nanotechnology. This allows the gamers to influence Superman and Batman, something that Lex Luthor and the Joker have failed to do on more than one occasion. It creates a very difficult situation for two of the Earth’s mightiest heroes, but it also creates an interesting narrative that’s downright coy at times.
There’s a sort of superimposed satire surrounding the story. As Batman and Superman are fighting to defeat Mongul and protect innocent people, the gamers treat it as trivial. The finer details of the struggle are greeted with a yawn. They’re like those annoying commercials in a recorded TV show that everyone loves to skip. It undermines the actual struggle, taking away from the seriousness of the situation. It would be like mixing coverage of a terrorist attack with a game show and therein lies strength of the story.
Even after Jimmy Olson realizes that the game he thinks he’s playing is actually happening, Mongul and Toymaster still treat it as such. Like a showman at a demolition derby preying on peoples’ appetite for destruction, drawing in other gamers from all over the world and using their collective skills to manipulate Batman and Superman into playing his game. It’s one thing to overcome the mind control of Lex Luthor and the Joker when they’re attempting to twist their enemies into submission. At least the strings that connect to the puppet-master are still visible. In this instance, those strings extend to computer networks all over the world where gamers treat the virtual world as their own personal shooting range.
Without this perspective, it’s just another battle between Superman, Batman, and an ugly alien overlord. It would have a much different impact. Moments like Batman apparently dying might actually be shocking on some levels. But in the context of this story, it’s no different than watching Mario fall of a cliff in a level of Super Mario Brothers. That satirical trivialization of the struggle and the lives involved are what gives this story a different kind of depth. It’s not meant to be overly serious. At the same time, it has some distressing connotations.
At times, however, it’s too trivial. Putting Batman and Superman in a video game where they have to fight Mongul undermines the struggle or any personal story that the characters have. There’s plenty of insight into how Batman and Superman feel about their situation. But it basically amounts to them acting like narrators of their own story. They can’t control themselves because of the influence of Mongul’s game. There’s not much to be gained from that from a characterization standpoint. It’s almost a given that whatever happens to Batman and Superman will have as much lasting impact as a reset button on a real game console.
That doesn’t make the story any less enjoyable. Batman/Superman #6 doesn’t pretend to have a lot of drama or character growth. It’s a story built on a foundation of satire and irony. These gamers who are the source of the conflict are so desensitized to violence and danger that they don’t know that they’re putting the whole planet in danger. There’s something to be said about the attitudes of gamers when they can’t tell the difference between real violence and actual violence, but to be fair they are dealing with alien technology and they don’t know that they’re being deceived. However, that only makes them as innocent as the same people who fall for get rich quick schemes. It’s a game that really is too good to be true in the same way most money-making schemes are too good to be true.
In the end the story in Batman/Superman #6 won’t have much impact outside its entertainment value. Fans won’t be any more shocked, outraged, or disappointed than they were before this comic came out. And the breadth of this story is limited, as is the case with all satire. But it does make for a novel plot from a novel perspective. In an era where everything is a reboot, remake, or sequel, that goes a long ways towards making this story uniquely enjoyable.