Superman vs. The Elite: What is Justice?
Superman, the big blue boy scout, the first Superhero, has existed for close to a century and during that time has experienced numerous incarnations. There’s been Evil Superman, Cyborg Superman, Bizarro Superman, even Gay Superman and Black Superman. But the core version, the one everyone thinks of when they hear “Superman” is a good boy.
A bit boring at times, but a good boy.
Which stood in contrast to the comics world of the 90s. In the 90s, comics heroes were much, “edgier”. More willing to engage in violence, even killing enemies as compared with Superman’s strict no kill policy. When DC ran the comic “What’s Funny about Truth, Justice and The American Way” it was a response to another comic now under the DC umbrella, “The Authority”, some arguably well intentioned extremists who proactively fight for the betterment of the world, though nothing really stuck. Arguably, this is the inherent “nature” of the medium.
Superman vs. The Elite is the animated adaptation of “What’s Funny about Truth, Justice and The American Way” and in many ways it does raise some very important questions, about the nature of power, the nature of heroes and the definition of justice.
The story of Superman vs. The Elite or SVE is one of the more simpler and non-nuanced plots in movies. The old way vs. the new. In the case of SVE, Superman is a beloved mainstay of Metropolis and the greater world but problems still exist. One of the more immediate ones is Atomic Skull, a villain with nuclear powers who when confronted by Superman, takes a bit of a nihilistic view of his crimes saying it’s what he does, in contrast to Superman’s heroism. Superman handles him but then hurries off to a warzone due to the fictional nations of Bialya and Pokolistan going into a hot war. Superman is aided by the titular Elite who assist him in finishing off the bioengineered weapons that were deployed.
The audience is then introduced to the four members, the leader and voice, Manchester Black. The alcoholic magician, Hat. The lustful and symbiote powered Menagerie, who is often called Pam. And Coldcast, an energy manipulator who can both absorb and release massive amounts of energy during battle.
After the battle, Manchester, a telepath and telekinetic, wants answers and is about to interrogate the defeated troops, but is stopped by Superman. Superman is immediately suspicious of the group and their motives and tactics. He returns to Metropolis to try to investigate them and is sent out to England.
Upon meeting with the group they’re called back into action by a terrorist attack. The group coordinating with Superman excel, saving everyone, capturing the terrorists and winning a lot of support in the public eye. But conflict arises between Superman and the Elite. Manchester uses his telepathy on the captured terrorists which nearly kills them according to Superman.
The Elite, striking while the iron is hot, reveal themselves to the world and state their goal is improving the world, by any means necessary. Superman’s ideals again come into direct conflict with the group’s before he’s sent back to Earth. Him pleading that death isn’t necessary for justice falling on deaf ears.
This all comes to a head when Atomic Skull breaks out of prison and starts killing more innocent people. He’s defeated by the combined efforts of Superman and the Elite but the cries of vengeance from the people of Metropolis drown out Superman’s pleas. Manchester executes Atomic Skull. Manchester also reveals the Elite have handled the war in Bialya by killing all of the leaders. This infuriates Superman and the Elite challenge him to a fight.
Superman accepts and the following day Superman faces off with the Elite, he takes some damage from all of them, seemingly being defeated before revealing how powerful he is, decimating and depowering all of them and ending the movie with all of the Elite imprisoned.
Atomic Skull, the nature of villains
Atomic Skull is interesting in his simplicity. He’s not given a backstory, he’s not even given a real motivation in the movie. He’s fundamentally a representation of meaningless violence. The types of crime that sow antipathy in the hearts of people.
We’re never really given an understanding of who Atomic Skull is as a person. The most we see of him in prison is him complaining that his punishment is inhuman, with him being drained of his nuclear energy with a fail safe of extinguishing gas if he gets too aggressive. The moment he gets a chance to escape he immediately goes back to killing people.
By the time he’s died we’ve spent more time with his victims than those of any of the other conflicts in the movie and it’s clear he’s a bad person, irredeemable even. This brings up the question of why is it that Superman fights so hard to prevent the Elite from killing him.
Superman’s core ethos in the film is that he’s not a judge, not a jury, and not an executioner which is commendable. But on that same note, he’s one of the only people in the film who can even face Atomic Skull in a conventional manner. Skull’s existence in the film as the avatar of meaningless, senseless violence does give the Elite the perfect vector to argue for swift execution of villains, but at the same time, nothing about Skull makes sense outside of that.
Comic books are considered by many to be low-art. A villain who is seen as too simple in their desires and decisions is referred disparagingly as a comic book villain. Indeed, for all of the prestige afforded to comic movies now, comic book villains have never been known for their depth.
What this leaves the audience with is an inarguable truth. Some people have to die for others to live. That’s the core premise of The Elite’s goals and ideals. And when limited to the world of comic book villains it is more compelling than Superman’s uncomplicated, “No Kill” rule.
What’s extremely important as well, is that in the climax Superman shows he’s able to take away the powers of super powered individuals. This leads to an obvious point of, why didn’t he do it with Atomic Skull. The Elite extremists that they were, were still trying to be heroes throughout the film. They were happy to aid civilians in the beginning of the movie, in awe of Superman upon meeting him. By the end of the film while they’re a lot more gray, Manchester is willing to level Metropolis to defeat Superman. But this brings up the question of if he’s willing to lobotomize Manchester, poison Menagerie, and depower Coldcast and Hat. Why didn’t he do the same to the unrepentant murder that was Atomic Skull.
Superman’s ideology starts to fray when any amount of nuance is required, this is further shown with regards to war in the movie.
The War in Bialya
An ongoing conflict in the movie is the War in Bialya. Bialya is a fictional nation that has existed in DC canon for decades and most often is seen and read as a pastiche of Libya. Though in this movie the two nations are actually neighbors and said to be in the Eastern Bloc. The two sides are Bialya which claimed it was a defensive war against “Pokolistan” another fictional nation often set in central Europe.
In conflicts of this nature it is easy to fall into notions of good or evil, right and wrong, just and unjust. Binary simplifications of complex geopolitical issues. But in the case of the war shown in the movie, both sides are directly called war-mongers and it’s clear the movie is taking an equally oversimplified view that “all war is bad”.
The conflict escalates the entirety of the movie but it’s important to note that it isn’t until near the end of the movie we see Biayla engage in an offensive attack. For the majority of the movie it is Pokolistan attacking. Pokolistan is the nation that deployed bio-weapons to begin the movie. Pokolistan is the nation that deploys the terrorists who attack England. It’s Pokolistan that attempts to kill Superman. The majority of the film it’s clear that this is a one-sided conflict. That in mind it is when Biayla fights back, sending jets into the civilian city of Pokolistan, that Superman has had enough and calls on the leaders of both nations to agree to a peace deal immediately. Only they can’t because they’ve been killed by The Elite.
It is important to note, the film does show that what The Elite did was wrong and a gross overstepping of boundaries, not to mention a bit of racist orientalism by Manchester Black to really drive home the point that this is bad.
But we return to that question, what are people in this world actually supposed to do? At the UN, Bialya outright states they’re being invaded and killed in the streets by Pokolistan whose UN representative says quite dismissively “no less than they deserve” and the movie’s moral compass Superman takes a hardline, “War is Bad” position. But conflicts, especially ones of liberation and defense for example, require violence, they’re messy and bloody, but so were the systems they were fighting. It brings to mind a question of what does Superman fight for?
Would Superman have fought to stop the anti-Apartheid activists who were deemed terrorists in South Africa? Would he have stopped the nukes being dropped on Japan? The millions of bombs dropped on Korea, Vietnam and Laos?
The Elite’s position is worse undoubtedly, “both sides bad” is a thought terminating argument, but what exactly is Superman fighting for if his idea of justice still includes letting aggressive nations invade and attack smaller and less powerful ones? Or is it because he’s primarily American that he doesn’t think of it in terms of defense and offense. Only in terms of fighting is bad.
Superman, The Elite and World Police
As one of the straw political commentators says in the movie after the Elite put the world on notice, “Why would they do that? I’m American, we’re the good guys. “
Superman and The Elite compete in the movie for the role of world police. Their positions are fundamentally, who should keep the world in order and the audience is led to the conclusion from the narrative framing, that listening to and following Superman is the best option.
But a question, is it really?
Throughout the course of the movie we are shown much of what Superman does is in fact reactive. He’s cognizant of the conflict in Bialya and is even a journalist who should be up to date with the problems and positions of the war, but doesn’t interact with the nation until after the war is reignited.
The Elite on the opposite side are newer and more violent, their violence being a response to the violence they see in the world, they are a reactionary response.
A question the film doesn’t try to answer is, how could this conflict be solved in a just manner. The true justifications for the war, that is to say if Bialya isn’t just fighting a defensive war, aren’t ever stated and the orientalism of the conflict, reducing it to “another war in this part of the world” smacks of an immature understanding of the history of why there’s so much conflict in West Asia. Reducing war to a blame game where there’s no good guys is liberal indifference masquerading as political nuance.
And it leads to the question of if Superman is fighting for justice, who’s justice is he fighting for? The people dead because of his inaction? The war refugees? Superman’s justice is one of the status quo. One were if you fight too hard for change you can easily just become a villain, so lay back and let Superman handle it.
It reeks of a paternalism endemic in a lot of the political rhetoric of liberals and centrists. It’s still more palatable than the conservatives who more often than not cheerlead for harsher and crueler actions but it’s nowhere close to justice.
What do you think? Leave a comment.