In the 1980s, Coca Cola found out the hard way that there’s no replacing a classic. Even when a new product is objectively better or completely indistinguishable from its predecessor, people will still favor the classic. It’s like a security blanket in that when it’s taken away, everybody’s first instinct is to whine about it. So it stands to reason that if New Coke caused such a massive public outcry, then a new Superman would be every bit as controversial. And unlike unhealthy sugary soft drinks, this controversy evokes more genuine passions.
DC’s Futures End event has already explored a future that’s not quite apocalyptic but not quite utopian either. Not all the circumstances of this future are clear. At some point there was a devastating war with Darkseid, but it wasn’t devastating to the extent that it turned the entire world into a Blade Runner rip-off. What is clear, however, is that Superman was one of the casualties of this war. Nobody knows what happened to him. He just disappeared like one of those celebrities that joins some shady cult and is never heard from again. Other issues have explored what happened to Superman, but Superman: Futures End #1 deals directly with carrying on his legacy.
And in terms of legacy, Superman is the Peyton Manning of Superheroes and Billy Batson has to play the role of Andrew Luck. Thanks to Lois Lane, the world now knows that the man behind the masked Superman that has been running around in this future isn’t the same Superman they once knew. And thanks to the same public that rejected New Coke, they don’t see Billy as a suitable replacement. To them, there’s no replacing Superman. He’s either Kal-El, the last son of Krypton, or he’s just a glorified cos-player.
The problem with this inane preference for style over substance is that the world still has a need for Superman’s heroics. There are still innocent people to be saved, super-villains to be thwarted, and beautiful brunettes to seduce. And Billy Batson, armed with the power of Shazam, takes it upon himself to carry on that legacy. He has Superman’s strength, durability, and physique. He can fly and save children from burning buildings, just as Superman did. He can go toe-to-toe with someone like Ibac and take him out in a way that Superman would gladly approve of. However, that still doesn’t feel sufficient and not because of bad marketing either.
It should be overwhelming for anyone attempting to carry on Superman’s legacy and not just because of public perceptions. Carrying on any lofty legacy is wrought with pressures that no amount of therapy or life coaching can make easier. But instead of Billy struggling to rise to the challenge before him, he spends more time arguing with Lois Lane. He didn’t like that she revealed the truth, even though that’s sort of her job and one of her most defining traits as a character. He found it easier to carry on Superman’s legacy when the people didn’t know why he wore a mask now and just assumed he was emulating Batman.
This alone handicaps his ability to honor that legacy because it’s built on deception. And deception isn’t really consistent with the whole truth, justice, and the American way values that Superman championed. Lois gives Billy a reason to explain himself, but his explanation is only partially satisfying at best. There’s nothing tragic or iconic about it. During the war, Shazam and Black Adam were in a fight to the death. Superman stepped in and saved him. Then he said something about this secret mission and was never heard from again. So at some point after that, Billy decided to take on Superman’s mantle. It’s only marginally dramatic at best and overly vague at worst.
This is the biggest weakness in Billy Batson’s attempt to carry on Superman’s legacy. There’s not much emotional depth to the moment where he decided to follow in the footsteps of the world’s most iconic hero. Superman just saved him in a way he’s probably saved everyone in the Justice League at some point. There’s no powerful moment where he seeks Superman’s blessing or struggles with the idea of trying to carry on such a lofty legacy. It feels like he just changes his costume, puts on a mask, and lets good old fashioned justice do the rest. That might be okay if Superman’s legacy was that of a stunt double, but not for someone that’s supposed to be a living embodiment of justice.
It also doesn’t help that the story about Superman’s disappearance remains painfully vague. It remains one of the many unanswered questions about the world of Futures End and answering it here would’ve definitely given weight to Billy’s actions, but by leaving it unanswered it only further limits the impact. It doesn’t carry the same emotions as Dick Grayson taking over for Batman. It doesn’t even carry the same emotions as Ashton Kutcher replacing Charlie Sheen on Two and a Half Men. He’s just Shazam in a different costume. If Superman had a lawyer, he would have been sued on the spot.
As weak as Billy’s efforts to carry on Superman’s legacy might be, there is some substance to the narrative. Lois Lane gives him a chance to really scrutinize his actions. He can keep pretending that he’s Superman, but he’s still Shazam. And there’s something more honest about being the hero he already is rather than trying to be the hero that somebody else was. It’s something he comes to realize in the end, but it feels a bit too late to make his efforts as a masked Superman feel meaningful.
Superman: Futures End #1 had unique set of circumstances. The concept of carrying on Superman’s legacy has plenty of potential for drama, but little is realized here. It answers few questions and falls flat in critical areas. However, it does show that Billy Batson is capable of being a mature hero. Regardless of the circumstances, Superman was able to inspire him to be that hero and inspiring others will always be Superman’s greatest power.