In a perfect world, justice isn’t a fluid concept. What’s heroic in comics today will hold up centuries from now. In that world, teams like the Justice League don’t need to agonize over too many decisions. Those tried and true standards answer all those hard questions for them. Even during the family-friendly golden age of comics, though, the imperfections of the real and fictional world keep finding their way into the story.
Between the events of DC: Rebirth #1 and Dark Knights: Metal, the Justice League undergoes plenty of upheavals, both as a team and among its individual members. Timelines get re-written, marriage proposals occur, and secrets of the DC universe reveal themselves in ways that would make any hero’s decisions much harder to render. It can get confusing, at times, but it still reflects the evolution of the Justice League and the nature of justice itself.
For many of these complications, Scott Snyder is both an architect and a catalyst. The events of Dark Knights: Metal don’t just throw in another upheaval, which the DC universe faces every other week. It requires the Justice League to regroup and reorganize themselves. A universe full of talking gorillas and homicidal clowns is chaotic enough. Even demigods, aliens, and billionaire playboys need to adapt along the way. In Justice League #1, Snyder carries the team into a new era of chaos.
From the very beginning, the scope and scale of the chaos is on a level that requires the full strength of DC’s heavy hitters. There’s no subtlety or steady build-up. The crisis is already at a level that involves Lex Luthor, Vandal Savage, and a hole in the Source Wall. The situation couldn’t be more dire without an army of Darkseid clones invading every planet in the universe.
For any one individual hero, including Superman on his best day, it’s a level of over-the-top action that’s tough to keep up with. For the Justice League, though, it works perfectly. It starts out as an elaborate, albeit generic plot by Vandal Savage involving a race of subterranean creatures called Neoanderthals. While even a simple plan by Savage usually calls for the collective firepower of the League, this conflict is only a precursor to a much greater threat.
It’s not enough to just throw powerful villains and their nefarious plots at DC’s most powerful heroes. Snyder brings in forces that don’t necessarily have a face, an identity, or an evil laugh. It’s not just a threat to law, order, and justice. It has the potential to undercut the very nature of the DC Universe itself. The Martian Manhunter calls it the Totality. It’s somewhat esoteric, but it presents the Justice League with a unique threat. Conversely, it presents someone like Lex Luthor with an opportunity.
The challenge in any era of Justice League, going back to the pre-Crisis era, is establishing a predicament that requires more than a simple team-up or crossover. Superman can team up with Batman and Wonder Woman can team up with Aquaman ever other week to take on a unique threat that may just be too tedious to handle individually. The primary difference between a casual crossover story and a full-fledged superhero team involves forging a collective identity.
Throughout the history of the DC Universe, the League assembles when there’s more than basic justice at stake. Whether it involves infinite Earths or a full-scale invasion from Apokolips, there’s a point where heroes can’t just be heroes. They have to come together to keep the world, the universe, and every notion of justice intact. Snyder channels some of that Crisis spirit, but stops short of breaking the timeline again.
In the case of Justice League #1, it’s not the threat posed by Vandal Savage that’s the main catalyst. It’s the hole in the Source Wall that pushes the League into a difficult spot. That hole, another byproduct of Dark Knights: Metal no less, creates something the Martian Manhunter calls the Totality. It’s somewhat esoteric, but it still carries that ominous aura that reflects DC’s commitment to never-ending world-building.
Parts of the Totality reference other aspects of DC lore, but the underlying concept is simple. The fundamental nature of the DC universe is changing and Lex Luthor knows about it. As such, he and others like him are sure to exploit it. Justice, once again, isn’t a perfectly consistent concept that always reverts back to a particular form like Superman’s iconic red underwear. Given enough time and stress, larger forces will disrupt it.
That theme and its implications are nicely documented through the powerful mind of the Martian Manhunter, who acts as a messenger to the rest of the League. They’re not really in a position to do much about the Totality, which for a team as powerful as the Justice League is really telling. They’re basically left to brace themselves while Lex Luthor and Vandal Savage get ready to make the most of it.
It’s here where the strengths and weaknesses of Justice League #1 really show. In terms of strength, it builds seamlessly from recent upheavals in the DC universe. Even for those not familiar with events like Dark Knights: Metal, the narrative never comes off as too sudden or contrived. As for weaknesses, though, the overall nature of the Totality falls flat and that keeps the story from having a major impact.
Even with a basis in the Source Wall, the Totality comes off as this impersonal chaos that isn’t contingent on Lex Luthor’s plans or Darkseid’s ruthlessness. It just feels like one big disruption within the overall DC universe, one meant to undermine the Justice League’s efforts in a way they can’t stop. Too much time is spent just trying to make sense of it, which renders the battle against Vandal Savage as somewhat of an afterthought. Seeing as how that battle literally broke the surface of the Earth, that almost seems unjust.
Justice League #1 does more than enough to carry the League into a new era. Snyder’s usage of high-level threats and evolving challenges give the story an appropriate scope. It doesn’t entirely fit together just yet, but the pieces are there and Snyder gives himself plenty to work with. The nature of justice and the DC universe may change in accord with every Crisis-level event, but so long as the spirit of the team remains intact, justice still finds a way to prevail.