The DC multiverse is full of parallel versions of Earth vibrating in cosmic harmony. In many of these universes, one key event happens differently, causing a chain reaction that results in a world very unlike the DC Universe we know and love. That’s certainly the case with the universe of Injustice: Gods Among Us. This world has become a hellish dystopia, and it’s all because of Superman’s failure. It turns out even the Man of Steel has some major blemishes on his record.
Now that Injustice has become an animated movie, let’s explore how the worst day of Superman’s life is the catalyst for one of the most fascinating alternate DC Universes of them all, with some input from the two stars of the film, Justin Hartley, who plays Superman, and Anson Mount, who plays Batman.
The Day Metropolis Died
The world of Injustice is more or less identical to the regular DCU until one fateful day Joker and Harley Quinn pay a visit to Metropolis. As Joker explains, he’s tired of losing to Batman, so he decides to make Superman’s life miserable for a change. Joker pulls his most terrible prank of all, tricking Superman into thinking he’s being attacked by Doomsday. Only after dragging his opponent into orbit does the Man of Steel realize he’s actually been fighting his wife Lois. When Lois and her unborn child die, that triggers a massive bomb that annihilates Metropolis. In one fell swoop, Superman loses it all.
Here’s where the real divergence occurs – not in the fact that Superman suffers a terrible loss, but in how he deals with that loss. In the regular DC Universe, no amount of pain could cause the Man of Steel to lose his faith in humanity. But here, Joker’s attack pushes Kal-El over the edge and causes him to do the one thing Batman never could – kill the Joker.
The (Final) Killing Joke
In its own way, Injustice is a sort of spiritual sequel to the iconic graphic novel Batman: The Killing Joke. In that story, Joker targets Commissioner Gordon in order to prove that anyone can be driven mad if given the right push.
Joker fails in The Killing Joke, though some fans still argue that the ambiguous final page shows Batman strangling his old nemesis to death. But if Joker failed to make his point in The Killing Joke, Injustice may be the story that ultimately proves him right. If he can drive someone as good and benevolent as Superman to murder his enemies in cold blood, what hope do us lowly humans have?
"That's the scary part about the Joker, and what makes Joker such a great nemesis, is that you can never really pin down the motivations of someone who's insane. Then, of course, you get in all the questions of, 'Well, is he really insane?'" Mount tells IGN. "I think that the Joker has a deep-seated ethical structure, that every now and then, we get a glimpse of. I think, obviously, Joker the movie was, was a very good instance of that. So it does make me question at times, and I think, in the better moments of the conflicts with Joker, whether or not we're dealing with a madman or we're dealing with just a really deft genius."
"I don't know if it proves him right," muses Hartley. "I think that it's something to talk about. I think that anyone can be pushed to a limit, which is I think what you saw in Injustice. It's an extreme version of it, but I think anyone can be pushed. Everybody has hot buttons and triggers. Everybody's sort of susceptible and vulnerable to that."
Injustice: DC’s Civil War?
It’s practically impossible not to make comparisons between Injustice and Marvel’s Civil War storyline. This is another case where Earth’s heroes are divided right down the middle by a philosophical debate. Here, Superman’s decision to kill Joker is the first step on a journey that leads him to become the tyrannical ruler of the entire planet.
Like many Justice League members, Superman believes the time for half-measures is over, and heroes should do everything in their power to enforce world peace by any means necessary. Batman and his team believe this is a line that can never be crossed. But when you’re just a billionaire playboy going up against the strongest man in the world, mounting a resistance is far easier said than done.
"Every character in the movie is coming at this conflict from the point of view that they are the protagonist, that they are the ones that are convinced that they have a moral and ethical stance that they're not going to back down from. And that's where you get war, besides other things, like human rights abuses, and rampant corruption," Mount says. "This is a civil conflict. It's a pure civil conflict, and I think that that's what makes Batman's stance so interesting, is that if you say, 'Batman versus Superman,' and [in] a lot of ways, I think that's probably the worst bet in Las Vegas history."
Mount continues, "Nobody wants to go up against Superman, but he has no choice. There is no compromise. That's what makes Batman such a great character, in general, is that he is a man that is laden, burdened with this ironclad moral compass that he must bear, living in a place that is almost entirely lawless. That's the crux, I think, of what makes Batman such a great hero and an interesting character to watch."
"Gosh, it's so relevant to today's society as well, isn't it?," says Hartley. "I mean, something that happens and then how you go about correcting the problem and when you step in and you have a certain side to, 'Well, this is how we're going to fix the problem. This is the way it should be. And I know what I'm talking about and everybody fall in line.' They both have good intentions, which is what you see in the political system today [and] since the beginning of time, actually."
Making Superman the Villain
Where Civil War avoids casting either Iron Man’s pro-registration faction or Captain America’s anti-registration faction as the heroes of the story, Injustice makes it clear Superman is the villain of this conflict. His road to Hell is paved with good intentions and the blood of men like Joker. But we can at least understand why he makes the choices he does. Even Batman, who’s often had to restrain himself from killing Joker in the past, understands the rage and helplessness fueling his fallen friend.
"I think he has to, in order to be a responsible team member and leader, and I don't think that it would be as good a story if Superman didn't have a point," Mount says. "But in terms of who's right, and who's wrong, I don't think I ever really wavered as a reader in my support for Batman's stance."
Despite voicing Superman, Hartley agrees that that Batman's side is ultimately the right one. But even so, Superman's viewpoint in this war is nothing if not understandable.
"I don't know which side," Hartley says. "It's funny. I think you'd have to fall on the side of Batman as far as the right way to go about … That's a tough situation. I don't know. They wrote a really good script. That's part of the beauty of it, is you can see both sides and then all these horrible things happen, but not to say that it's right, but you can wrap your brain around both sides of the issue. So I think it was just a well-written script and I'm lucky to be a part of it."
Injustice is a story about Superman transforming from the greatest hero of his age into a tyrant who rules the world with an iron fist. In the end, Batman exhausts every weapon and every countermeasure and has to resort to bringing the Justice League of the regular DC Universe in as backup.
Thanks to the help of our Superman, this twisted, unhinged Superman is finally brought to justice at the end of the first Injustice game. But even our Superman must surely wonder – is he just one bad day from making the same mistakes? Will his own failure doom an entire world?