Reading a typical superhero story these days is like going to a movie that has already been spoiled. The ending is usually a foregone conclusion in that the villains are defeated, the heroes are triumphant, and the right guy ends up with the obligatory pretty girl. It’s a story that has played out so many times that it has come to be expected. But what if the hero didn’t succeed? What if evil won out in the end? It would be like the first Die Hard movie ending with John McClane falling 32 stories off the Nakatomi Tower and the final scene shows Hans Gruber laying on a beach top a pile of money.
This kind of resolution does not sit well with most people. There is almost a pathological need for people to see the heroes win and the villains lose to satisfy some primordial need for good to triumph over evil. Evil triumphs so many times in the real world. Former football stars get acquitted of murder, and nobody on Wall Street went to jail when the economy crashed. In the real world, good only seems to triumph when evil can’t pay for an expensive enough lawyer. But when it comes to the modern superhero mythos, it is assumed that the heroes will triumph no matter how devious the villain may be.
For that reason, some people may be disturbed by how Justice League #23 plays out. It is the final chapter in DC’s Trinity War event. On the surface, it looked like DC was trying the leech off the success Marvel captured with Avengers vs. X-men. There is a long tradition of comicbook publishers trying to one-up each other like contestants in “Dancing With The Stars” and at the beginning of the event, there were plenty of parallels. Two different teams of heroes clashed over the murder of Dr. Light and from there, Trinity War could have devolved into a typical super-powered WWE brawl, but with slightly less gaudier costumes. In the end this story took a different path and that path leads to an ending that sets it apart from any superhero brawl or Die Hard movie.
Throughout the many conflicts in Trinity War, there has been a sinister figure pulling the strings of the warring Justice Leagues. The identity of that figure has been a mystery, but in Justice League #23 this figure steps into the light and makes his presence known. He doesn’t just taunt the leagues for dancing to his tune. This figure essentially brags about how he has been following the Justice League, working behind the scenes, forming connections with his Secret Society, and setting the stage for this final battle. And while the heroes work valiantly to uncover his plot, they fail to stop him. The only thing missing was a sinister Dr. Evil style laugh to taunt all the heroes for doing exactly what he needed them to do.
And what they do is expose the truth about Pandora’s Box and the murder of Dr. Light. Even Pandora, the one whose name is attached to the box, had no idea what she was dealing with. Like it has from the beginning of Trinity War, the box corrupts everyone around it. The heroes of every league fail to stop it and they attack each other. And unlike Avengers vs. X-men there are no sides. It’s like a bar fight with superpowers wherein petty differences, rivalries, and emotions boil to the surface. It exposes these heroes as petty, insecure, anxiously, and vindictive. It’s akin to the downfall of Tiger Woods, a clean cut and upstanding role model being being exposed as having very egregious flaws.
To add insult to injury, a traitor is exposed within the Justice League of America and this traitor reveals that they were never close to solving the mystery about Dr. Light’s murder. Even with all their god-like powers and the world’s greatest detective on their side, they didn’t find out who was behind the spark that triggered this conflict until it was too late. This revelation wounds Cyborg while setting the stage for the true purpose of Pandora’s Box. Once again, it is revealed that the Justice League was never even close to figuring out its true nature. They kept treating it like magic, but it wasn’t magic. As Arthur C. Clark once articulated, magic is merely science that isn’t yet understood. And because the Justice League didn’t understand Pandora’s Box, they had no hopes of stopping it. They might as well have been trying to fly a plane by channeling ghosts.
In some respects, Pandora’s Box still stays true to its mythological origins. While it wasn’t the magical source of all evil, it did contain a very potent evil that has now been unleashed within the DC Universe. And since the three leagues were generous enough to soften each other up, this world is now ripe for the taking. There is no deus ex machina. A wizard doesn’t appear to undo everything. Nobody reveals they have a secret weapon akin to Bat Shark Repellant. And nobody from an apocalyptic future shows up to warn anybody. The most powerful heroes of the DCU fail and evil prevails.
There’s no getting around it. Trinity War is a big loss for the heroes of the DC Universe. Yet it feels like a satisfying loss in the same way that the end of the Star Wars: The Empire Strikes Back felt like a satisfying loss. Evil did triumph, but the heroes weren’t destroyed. They were just humbled. In a sense Trinity War is a how-to guide on humbling beings with god-like power. They were outsmarted, exposed, and turned against one another. Now they have a much bigger threat to deal with and nobody to blame but themselves.
Justice League #23 doesn’t just end an event. It forcibly injects humility into the DC Universe’s most powerful heroes. It may lack substance in certain areas, but there’s no denying its impact. In the end heroes and even demigods don’t always win. In the saga of Trinity War, they defeated themselves and now they have to deal with the consequences.