[14 January 2014]
Generations of blood sports and media violence has petrified the overly conservative crowd about the effects it has had on youth. Every now and then, one of these overly conservative cronies will whine loud enough to get the attention of politicians and pundits. They’ll try to argue that violence in the media serves no purpose. They’ll come off as doomsayers that claim everyone who partakes will become overgrown crack babies who regard human life with the same disdain as they regard pixilated images of Nazis. It’s like they don’t even consider that this brand of media can actually have a positive effect.
In Batman/Superman #7, the whining and complaining of the talking heads has taken form and substance. Mongul has created a massive network of professional gamers to wage war on the scale he desires. That network has forced Batman and Superman to fight each other in a unique and sometimes off-beat way. There’s no heated rivalry or intense philosophical disagreements. They’re just at the mercy of Mongul’s gaming hive-mind and with help from Toymaster, they might as well have joysticks wired into their spines.
This battle between Superman and Batman has been novel and laced with a special brand of satire, portraying the professional gamers that unknowingly have control of the two most powerful heroes in the DC Universe as disconnected and cynical. But as the battle plays out, it takes on a very different tone. Like playing a game of poker with a known cheater, Superman and Batman understand that they can’t win if they play by the rules. But this is where one of the unstated positives of media violence and gaming can have.
Experienced gamers are a lot like movie buffs who have seen one too many horror movies use the same formula. They pick up on the subtle signs and patters that let them know when something isn’t what it seems. In a horror movie, it may be that cute, innocent-looking girl that the masked killer is chasing and can’t seem to kill. That girl usually turns out to be the sister, girlfriend, or relative of the killer. Or it could be more elaborate than that. She could be a wizard, a psychic, or half-vampire. But experienced horror movie fans will know that something is different about her. And Mongul doesn’t seem to think that the professional gamers he’s exploiting will notice that something is very wrong with this game.
Jimmy Olsen, Superman’s pal, is the first to notice. Then Superman himself picks up on it. While he may not be much of a gamer, he understands them enough to know they don’t appreciate being exploited. So in the same way child stars don’t appreciate being exploited by their parents, they get upset and lash out against the one that’s pulling the strings. And unlike the parents of child stars, the secret villains in a video game don’t have lawyers and contracts to hide behind. Superman needs only to reveal the hidden boss to the gamers and they can take it from there.
He does this by exploiting the rules of gaming itself, allowing himself to be defeated so that he can become a player himself. This allows him to become part of the hive that Mongul is trying to exploit. But exploiting Superman is like trying to scam the Mafia. It doesn’t turn out well. By turning the game against Mongul, he strips away the more satirical tone of the story and exposes some traits about gaming that will probably never be discussed on a segment on Fox News. Gamers may become desensitized by the destruction and bloodshed of certain kinds of imagery, but they’ll never be desensitized to the satisfaction of beating up on the final boss. From Mario to Mortal Kombat, it’s what many gamers live for. And Superman makes it even more of an experience in the final battle.
In the same way the story is told through the point of view of the gamers, the gamers also get to experience the battle through Superman. It’s an experience that can never be conveyed with words or pictures. By actually playing through Superman, the gamers get to be the embodiment of good that he idealizes. It’s turns the game from a spectacle to an opportunity. In any other circumstance, it would be overwhelming to be Superman. But in the context of a game, it’s not just possible. It conveys a special kind of thrill. It shows that as much as games can allow people to exercise their worst traits, it can also help them exercise their best traits. It’s a two-way street that for which only one direction gets most of the traffic. And in this case, it helps save the day almost as much as Superman and Batman.
The overarching theme of this arc has been pretty erratic. At times, it’s too erratic and difficult to follow. But taken as a whole, it is a theme that resonates in a unique way. The only thing that keeps it from resonating more is the lack of a personal touch. There is an effort to take Toymaster’s female associate and give her more of a personal role in the outcome of the story. But it seems out-of-place and underdeveloped.
Batman/Superman #7 never came off as a story where the outcome was in doubt. Like so many other stories about DC’s mightiest heroes, they find a way to defeat the powerful villains that plot against them. But it’s the unique manner in which Superman and Batman defeated Mongul that makes it satisfying. It did not follow a traditional path. It took the concept of gaming and made what could have been just another battle against an unruly space tyrant into a spectacle. It won’t overwhelm anybody with melodrama or suspense, but it is still entertaining and insightful. It reminds everybody that video games are as close to being Superman and Batman as they’re ever going to get.