It’s E3 2016, and that means new video games are being announced left right and center—like a new sequel to the DC Comics brawler Injustice: Gods Among Us, which told an alternative tale of Superman gone bad. The game inspired a comic tie-in of the same name, and—against all the odds—it’s been one of DC’s best, most consistently amazing comic over the last four years.
I know, comics based on video games are usually mediocre at best; comics based on fighting games tend to be worse. Certainly when Neatherrealm Studios, the developers behind Mortal Kombat, released Injustice: Gods Among Us in 2013, there was no reason to think that the story wouldn’t be some contrived nonsense to explain how someone like Harley Quinn could punch Superman in the face and not shatter her wrist. (The answer, by the way, is a pill that grants the imbiber Kryptonian-level strength.)
But the reason for the war between DC’s greatest heroes also has turned out to be a surprisingly effective alternate-universe tale set in a future where, after The Joker tricked Superman into murdering a pregnant Lois Lane (and levelling Metropolis with a nuclear bomb), an enraged Superman kills the clown prince of crime, and decides to use his powers to bring peace to the world... regardless of the cost. The Justice League is torn apart as the heroes (as well as a few villains) decide what is most important to them, safety or freedom. Batman becomes the leader of the resistance against Superman’s regime (and, with Lex Luthor’s help, engineers the pills that give them a fighting chance against the semi-benevolent Dictator of Steel).
The events of the game take place five years after Metropolis’ destruction, but that’s where the Injustice comic begins. Originally written by Tom Taylor for the first three of the series’ “year-long” arcs before Brian Buccellato took the reigns for its back half, and with art from a veritable horde of DC artists like Kevin Maguire, Tom Derenick, Bruno Redondo (and many more) since the game launched, the digital comic has used the video game’s premise to tell one of DC’s finest Elseworlds tales.
As it comes to the end of the fifth and final year of its story, here’s how Injustice has become one of DC Comics best comics, while also being one of its best-kept secrets.
One of the joys of Injustice, even as its evolved over the years, is that its’ been able to splinter off and form its own continuity—one that utilizes DC’s vast cast and history, but isn’t beholden to it. Going in, you don’t really need to know what’s been happening in the regular comics with Batman, Wonder Woman, Superman, and their pals. If anything, like the game itself, it relies on the general background information the general public has absorbed about these characters over decades and decades of their existence, and then subverted them.
It means, as well, that Injustice has been able to be intimately character-driven with these heroes in a way their main-continuity series couldn’t be. As they were essentially blank slates, for want of a better word, not affected by continuity and incapable of impacting said continuity in turn, Taylor and Buccellato have been able to pull and push these iconic characters in some really interesting ways—bolder ways than you can expect out of a usual comic.
When it first began, Injustice was (rightly) focused tightly on Superman’s descent into evil and Batman’s burgeoning resistance movement against his former friend. But one of the true joys of the series is how, as it’s progressed year by year in the plotline, it’s drawn together every corner of the DC universe.
The events that drive the main arc are not just relegated to a core selection of heroes but affect all of Earth, and beyond it—the second year begins integrating DC’s cosmic heroes as the Lantern Corps decide Superman’s despotism is a potential threat to the universe, in the third Batman turns to Constantine and the realm of magic to try and stop Superman, and in the fourth, the Greek god of war Ares schemes to bring the entire pantheon of Olympian gods into the conflict. Their introductions expand the Injustice story and universe well beyond the scope of the original game, but it’s also just a delight to see how every aspect of DC’s vast fiction is plundered in Injustice’s own outlandish style.
Above all, it makes perfect sense for the story the series is trying to tell—“Superman gone bad” is something that doesn’t just affect the Justice League or a handful of characters beyond that. It’s a titanic event that has repercussions for almost every hero and villain, big and small, and Injustice’s willingness to place the spotlight on those repercussions, wherever they occur, has been one of its most surprisingly and enjoyable strengths.
When I described the basic premise above, you might have cringed a little bit—on paper, it does seem ridiculously too dark for its own good, like a Zack Snyder fever dream where everyone murders everyone else and is generally sullen about it.
And it can be very dark—Superman’s ruthless grip on the world leads to horrifying atrocities time and time again as he establishes his own sense of order, and characters big and small perish for good all the time (more on that in a bit). But instead, it sort of ends up being so mercilessly grim that it punches all the way through the theoretical roof of darkness so hard it just flips all the way back to being a bit camp with it. Injustice knows that it’s setting up this depressing world state ahead of the events of the game, but it has a weird sense of fun with it.
It’s full of moments that, when described to a non-reader, just seem so completely silly you’d think it’s pastiche: for example, here’s an early moment where Superman decides to counter one of Batman’s plans to usurp his rule by just posting Batman’s secret identity to Twitter.
This actually happened! And it’s incredibly goofy! Yet, it totally works for this Superman—he’s petty, and angry, and his relationship with Batman has become so raw that he drags himself down to a level the usual Superman would never even conceive of being on. It’s that sort of level of dramatic, treading a fine line between some truly shocking moments and, for want of a better word, comical lunacy. It makes Injustice a total page-turner of a series, where you’re just waiting for the next completely wild moment to happen.
This is another thing that turns Injustice into a thrilling read. Aside from a select few characters that obviously have to last until the game’s story begins, this take on the DC universe is ruthless with its characters survivability. Big heroes and villains, iconic supporting characters and longtime stalwarts of DC’s roster fall left, right, and center in Injustice, and even with the plot-protection some characters, it makes the book feel decidedly dangerous, and you never know who the next shocking death will be.
And unlike your average superhero comic, where death is more of a temporary affliction than it is a mortal wound, death matters in the world of Injustice. It’s permanent, no matter how big or small the victim, it’s random, it can be completely out of nowhere or a gruesome climax to a bloody conflict. Many of the characters in Injustice have blood on their hands, and because we follow this story over the course of five years, we get to see something uncommon in a traditional series: superheroes (and villains) evolving and coping with loss, and accepting the frequent necessity of taking a life. These moments come up in comics all the time, but they’re fleeting—that’s the nature of comics, where everything is refreshed constantly, and there are new takes and new stories to be told. But because Injustice is a set period and a set world, it can explore those moments deeply and over the span of several years, and has done so to completely great effect.
While I’ve touted the inherent silliness of Injustice’s grimdark premise, it should also be mentioned that it can be surprisingly effective at tugging your heartstrings at times as well. It’s not always explosions and punching and general mania.
A lot of that comes from the fact that we’re seeing these familiar characters, one specific version of them, grow and change as people and as heroes over the course of five years that lends to Injustice’s surprising heart. It leads to incredibly satisfying character arcs, like the evolution of the damaged and abused Harley Quinn becoming her own person (and joining the side of the “heroes” in Batman’s rebellion) in the series “Year Two” storyline, or likewise the story of the Black Canary and her quest for vengeance in the wake of Green Arrow’s death at the hands of Superman in the same arc. Separated from regular continuity, Taylor and Buccellato have been free to tell some really heartbreaking stories that you’d never get to see in a mainstream DC comic.
One of the most famous, and perhaps the one most non-readers will be familiar with, is the moment Alfred Pennyworth confronts Superman about everything he’s done to destroy Batman in his rise to power. Alfred takes the drug that grants Kryptonian strength to bring himself to Superman’s level, and in one of the most cathartic moments in the whole series, beats the living shit out of Superman, railing at him for the years of pent-up frustration and hurt that Clark has caused to the world and to Bruce.
Sounds ludicrous, right? But it’s framed so well, and it’s written with such emotional sincerity, that it completely works. It’s a perfect moment, made all the more heartbreaking by it being Alfred laying into Superman, that has come to define how special Injustice can be as a series.